04 Inspiring Involvement

Inspiring Involvement


A Look at the Catalysts for—and the
Barriers to—Poverty Engagement

The data in this report has shown how Americans with a vibrant commitment to Christianity and an active church life are often front-and-center in anti-poverty work. They are propelled by a conviction that they can, and should, make a difference—and they often do.

Considering the vast evidence of the hard work of governments, nonprofits, ministries and individuals addressing material poverty around the world, many experts reason that the pattern of progress will continue, culminating in the eventual end of global poverty, perhaps even within our lifetime.54 The American Church, which includes a segment of eager volunteers and donors and is driven by a scriptural directive to care for the poor, then emerges as a natural leader in this mission.

What’s stopping us?

Perceived Barriers

As earlier chapters detailed, practicing Christians’ sense of personal responsibility for poverty is increasing, as well as their optimism that ending extreme poverty may be a realistic goal. Correspondingly, practicing Christians in 2017 are slow to name reasons or excuses that may make people hesitant to get involved concerning poverty.

Among the top barriers identified, however, a theme emerges—one of caution or cynicism. Roughly one-third struggles to trust governments in countries that need aid (35%), choose a non-profit that inspires confidence (35%), find a place to start (33%), spend resources on foreign concerns rather than U.S. problems (32%) or simply to believe that what they do could make a meaningful difference (32%).

Given the high chance that pastors encounter—or potentially misunderstand—a variety of motivations and experiences in the communities they lead, they are more likely than practicing Christians to select almost any reason for the absence of action on poverty. Pastors primarily point to a lack of trust in the governments of poor countries (71%) or to the idea that domestic problems should be solved first before focusing internationally (65%). Many ministers propose (or project) that it all may be a little too overwhelming: A majority thinks people do not know where to start (60%), do not know which organizations to trust (55%), do not believe global poverty is solvable (55%) or are apathetic about the issue (51%). More than one in three pastors (35%) goes so far as to pin inactivity regarding poverty on selfishness. A quarter of pastors (26%) agrees (with an equal proportion of practicing Christians) that people are hesitant to trust non-profits.

This report has repeatedly recorded some of respondents’ wariness about, or at least confusion regarding, the Church’s intersection with what may be seen as political ground. The tension surfaces again here, with nearly a third of pastors (31%) assuming that individuals refrain from action on poverty because it may be lumped in with “liberal causes.”

Pastors in churches that do not donate to anti-poverty efforts are more likely to assume their congregants don’t act because they’re hoping to address spiritual needs first and foremost (57% vs. 34% of pastors in churches that do donate for poverty). It’s possible, though, that these pastors could be reflecting their own reasons for refraining from financial investment in working against poverty.


Millennials are often dismissed as the “slacktivist” generation, but Barna’s extensive study of this group shows that they crave relationships and a sense of purpose. This is key to their discipleship and involvement in churches. On the issue of poverty, they are ready to be put to work, to be connected with other supporters and to be of use online and in person.

How does your church allow all generations—young and old—to work together in addressing poverty, celebrating their unique strengths without belittling one or the other?

Patterns in Previous Engagement

The main reasons people say they have gotten involved in a cause in the past are primarily emotional: They believed they could make a difference (62%) or they saw or heard a moving story (45%). More than a third of adults remembers being driven by an overwhelming sense of purpose (38%) or a relationship with someone who was already involved in the cause (34%). Direct requests for involvement seem to be less convincing—few say that they joined a cause because they were explicitly challenged (20%) or asked (9%) to. However, such pleas may be more effective within the context of church attendance and faith commitment. Three in 10 practicing Christians (30%) took up a cause because their church “cast a vision” for it.

The motivations for selecting a specific organization to support are also often made on an emotional, heart-centered level. A special, personal interest is the most important factor (40% “very” + 46% “somewhat), followed by a desire to address an immediate need or emergency (32% “very” + 53% “somewhat”). People are less likely to be aware of (or admit to) making these decisions based on factors like social pressure or convenience, though certainly even their understanding of personal values or urgent crises are formed in these contexts.

Q&A with Mark Bowers

A Holistic View of Poverty

Throughout his tenure at the Chalmers Center, Mark has overseen the research, development and pilot-test of their U.S. and international development curriculum. He also developed training of trainers(TOT) processes to equip facilitators and partners to use non-formal microfinance, financial education and jobs readiness tools in their communities. Mark earned a BA in Psychology and an MA in Intercultural Studies while teaching at Quy Nhon University of Pedagogy in Vietnam. Outside of work, Mark loves creating travel adventures with his wife, Tannia, and their new baby boy, Elías.

Hope for the World

Many factors might influence whether people decide to help someone else, including the urgency, approachability, morality or probability of an issue. But feelings are unavoidable in the formula of poverty engagement. Activists, fundraisers, marketers and ministers may wonder, what are the most galvanizing emotions?



Forty-five percent of U.S. adults would donate more for global poverty if they knew the specific impact of their donation. Organizations and ministries working toward poverty reduction should set the tone in celebrating successes.
As your church develops a long-term, holistic strategy in caring for the world’s poor, make “progress reports” part of that routine. Transparency about donations and their impact boosts trust and optimism—both of which are connected to increased engagement.

Among the respondents in this survey, hope— both in poverty’s potential end and one’s ability to take part in that—is connected to robust concern for and work against poverty. It’d be naïve to assume optimism is universally helpful; for example, other research shows that optimistic people are more likely to back out when circumstances are unfavorable, just as they are more likely to take action when circumstances are favorable.55 People who are happy are also more likely than people who are sad to apply stereotypes to individuals.56 However, a good mood also makes people more helpful toward others57—and sometimes kicks off a cycle of feeling good about being helpful, and being helpful because it feels good.58

Quite simply, Barna observes that people who are hopeful that they can make a difference are those more willing to try. A majority of U.S. adults (57%)— 11 percentage points more than in 2011—says that knowing it is possible to end extreme global poverty would make them do significantly more to help bring that about. Among practicing Christians, the percentage climbs to 62 percent.

It’s possible that the internet could be a contributing factor here. Social media gives Americans a front-row seat, so to speak, to global concerns, natural disasters and systemic injustices. Being online also fosters solidarity and connection in the midst of them. This has become increasingly true in the years since the last time these questions were posed to respondents. It’s difficult for more fortunate or privileged individuals today to claim ignorance of global problems—or of their responsibility or potential to affect them. While there may be good reasons to bemoan the distraction and cynicism that our digital world may bring, it does engender a sense of accountability.

Technological advancements also make it easier to have access to information about the specific effect of monetary gifts. For most people, any evidence of one’s financial impact would encourage them to give more. This is very true of Millennials (62%, compared to 32% of older generations), an age group that places a high value on information and transparency. This “show your work” approach could be particularly helpful in retaining a majority of non-white Americans (57%) as donors (compared to 38% of white Americans).

Overall, most U.S. adults and Christians, if they have some assurance that they could have an impact, would be willing to play their part in combating poverty and its ills—another testament to the animating effect of optimism and confidence.

Q&A with Emi Hernandez

Paying It Forward

Since graduating from Compassion International’s Leadership Development Program about 18 years ago, Emi has gotten her degree in accounting and started her family. Currently, she splits her time between training Japanese professionals in business English, bookkeeping for a non-profit organization and running a ministry for children in a local slum community, which she founded with her husband in 2014.

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05 Conclusion

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