Some topics intimidate preachers. And that's actually a good thing. When preachers realize they're handling a difficult issue, they know to be careful, aware of the hazards on every side. The problem comes when someone launches confidently into a sermon without realizing the complexities of their topic. That's like boldly flying your spaceship into an asteroid field, blissfully unaware that your odds of survival are only 3,720 to 1.
In the last few weeks, I've heard several people do this with sermons on poverty. It's as though we think poverty is a relatively simple topic, something that you can handle in a single, 30-minute sermon. Just offer some thoughts on the importance of hard work, make sure you point out that we're supposed to be nice to poor people, and you're good to go. After a clever introduction, several amusing anecdotes, and some interesting asides, you should be able to handle the issue of poverty in the twenty minutes you have left.
At that point, you're not just flying through an asteroid field, but you're doing it at the fastest possible speed. Don't be surprised when you get crushed into oblivion.
Here are four reasons that preachers should include poverty on their list of topics to handle with extreme caution. I'm not suggesting that we avoid the topic, quite the opposite. I think we should preach on poverty regularly. After all, God has a lot to say about the subject. But it's far from a simple topic.
1. The Scope of the Biblical Material on Poverty
The Bible contains hundreds of verses on poverty (some have suggested as many as 2,000). That makes it one of the most prominent topics in the entire Bible.
Can you imagine preaching on what the Bible has to say about the human person? It starts in Genesis 1, doesn't end until Revelation 22, and nearly everything in between has something to say on it. What sane preacher would launch into a sermon on humanity without being aware of how huge and complex the biblical material on that subject actually is?
Yet we do it with poverty all the time.
Let's appreciate how much the Bible has to say about poverty. Reading, even carefully exegeting, a handful of verses on the subject isn't going to cut it. In many ways, the Bible's perspective on poverty also runs from Genesis to Revelation. Adequate preaching on the topic should take that scope into account.
2. The Diversity of the Biblical Material on Poverty
It wouldn't be that bad if all the verses said pretty much the same thing. But they don't. Instead, we get verses like "blessed are the poor" (Luke 6:20) and other verses that say God rewards those who fear him with riches (e.g. Prov 22:4). And I've heard sermons that ignore both perspectives: either making poverty sound like the height of spirituality and equating wealth with greed and sin, or naively associating poverty with laziness and identifying wealth with blessing. Both approaches neglect some aspect of the biblical perspective on the subject.
To be clear, I'm not saying that the Bible contradicts itself on poverty. It's just that the biblical material is far more complex and nuanced than what I hear presented in many sermons. A good sermon should not bury the Bible's diversity in an attempt to make the material more palatable. A good sermons wrestles with the difficulties of its subject matter, respecting its hearers enough to help them navigate the biblical world in all its complexity. (For more on this, see "If You Can't Explain Something Simply, Maybe It Isn't Simple.")
3. The Complexity of Understanding Poverty
Preaching on poverty gets even more difficult when we look at poverty in the world around us. What does it mean to be "poor"? Does a family in America who only makes $30K per year qualify as poor, or do you have to be living on the streets begging for your next meal, or barely surviving in African on less than $1 a day? Are there poor people in your church, possibly sitting right next to you, or are the poor on the street corners, in shelters, and in other countries? Just identifying the "poor" can be a challenging task.
And what causes poverty? Is poverty primarily the result of the bad decisions that individuals make, and thus something that can largely be alleviated through individual training/instruction? Or does poverty mostly stem from harmful social structures, making our response to poverty more about social and economic reform? Obviously it's a little of both (and more).
I could continue. People write entire books on the nature of poverty and the correct responses to it. Yet many sermons present poverty as something relatively simple and straightforward.
4. The Painful Personal Experience of Poverty
I'm pretty sure that you wouldn't preach on sexual abuse without being incredibly sensitive to the possibility (almost certainty) that someone in your audience has suffered through that painful reality. So you would preach with great sensitivity. If anything, you'd err on the side of being overly cautious, willing to take a little extra time lest you stomp indelicately on someone's unquestionably painful experience.
But we do it all the time with poverty. Even though every church has at least some people wrestling with financial difficulties, almost certainly at least a few living below the poverty line, I routinely hear sermons that manifest surprisingly little tact on this difficult subject. We'd never callously blame an abuse victim for their own abuse, but we routinely fault poor people for their own poverty. Is it possible that they're at fault? Sure. But it's also quite likely that other factors, many beyond their control, were at work as well. Let's demonstrate a little sensitivity when talking about a subject that is often one of the most painful and difficult aspects of many people's lives.
Interestingly, I've heard far more tact recently in sermons on the importance of work. Most pastors are well aware of how many people in their churches are unemployed or underemployed. And they appreciate how painful it is to lose your job and not be able to find a new one. So, when they present the Bible's perspective that God created us for meaningful work, they're careful to address the topic delicately because of the painful reality of unemployment. I'd love to hear that same sensitivity when addressing poverty. But since most of the sermons I've heard on poverty recently were preached at largely middle-class churches, there seems to be less awareness of poverty as a personal problem, one faced by people sitting right in front of you, and thus less nuance and sensitivity in the presentation.
Again, I hope that none of this makes us shy away from preaching on such an important issue. If poverty is one of the Bible's main topics, we can and must address it regularly from the pulpit. But let's do so with full awareness of how difficult the task is. It may be more daunting that way, but then preaching should always be a daunting task.
Marc Cortez is Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general. You can read more from him at marccortez.com.