Is the Local Church the Key to Ending Poverty?

Updated 9:40AM, Tuesday October 23rd, 2012 by Sam Hailes, Be the first to comment! seperator

He may have been feeling under the weather but Tearfund’s Chief Executive Matthew Frost was on fine form during our interview.

Matthew Frost

(c) Brodie Robertson

Speaking just before his slot on stage at the National Day of Prayer at Wembley Stadium, the father of four began by talking about Tearfund’s focus on local churches.

“We’re showing a film today about two brothers Tom and Jimmy. When they were 12 they lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. One of the boys says ‘we thought we’d die’. In Africa when you lose your family there’s nothing. There’s no safety net. The local church cared enough to take them in, love them and care for them and empower them.

“Through the work of the local church, which we encourage, it totally transformed the life of these two boys. They built a home for themselves and their younger brother. They’ve saved enough money for education and medication. They’ve got a home, all because their local church cared enough and decided it was their role to make Jesus visible to these two boys.”

Uncompromising & confident

Tearfund are in a unique position. They’re very well known both inside and outside of the Christian community. Does this present challenges in the way they communicate their message?

“No! There is not!” Matthew says with great passion as he slams his first on the table. “One of the things I love about this event is we come together in humility but we also come together confident in the gospel. What this country and this world needs is Christian organisations that put Christ uncompromisingly at the centre of everything we do. I mean why wouldn’t we?!

What this country and this world needs is Christian organisations that put Christ uncompromisingly at the centre of everything we do. 

“I think we’re pretty crummy at communicating that to a skeptical world frequently. What we need to do is confidently show what we’re doing. Our logo has a cross on the front for that reason. We need to be unapologetic. I believe in the power of prayer to transform lives and God is at work in the world through the redeeming work of Christ on the cross.”

Tearfund’s outlook is fascinating. The philosophy is not just that Christians should love their neighbor, but that Christian action is vital in seeing poverty made history.

Why don't you use the local church? 

Many development charities have talked about helping communities help themselves. While aid obviously has its uses, many believe the key to ending poverty lies in sustainable growth on a local level. It’s something Matthew says Tearfund “believe passionately in”. But he’s critical of some sections of the secular world.

“So much of what we see out there pays lips service to that agenda but doesn’t really do it. The challenge is how do you turn on that innate capacity. It’s quite difficult to do that apart from the gospel.

"Secular organisations are trying to set this up because of course you have to in order to create a legitimate voice and mobilising force at community level. But there already is one! There are nine million churches on the planet; why don’t you use the local church? It’s not perfect, it’s got all sorts of problems, but it’s still the most trusted public institution across Africa.

“The challenge is the secular world is overcoming a lot of inbuilt prejudice of a dualistic worldview that believes the church does spiritual stuff and has all of these prejudices and hang ups about faith. But people in Africa have hang ups about people coming without faith!

“There’s two challenges to the secular world. Firstly they don’t have the mystery ingredient of the gospel and the example and teaching of Jesus to follow. They also don’t have the power of the Holy Spirit. Generally what most non Christian organisations do is they set up new community organisations that have all the values of justice, compassion and mercy that in theory represent the voice of the whole community.”

Ending poverty

Children praying in Sierra Leone

(c) Richard Hanson, Tearfund

Talking to Matthew, I’m quickly drawn to his vision. Using local churches to end poverty works on many levels. It’s local, community driven and requires considerably less money than other models.

But can poverty ever be made history?

“In terms of seeing the millennium development goals and halving stupid poverty by 2015 I think that’s definitely possible. The world’s population can be fed. We know the world produces twice as much than what’s necessary so it’s perfectly possible.

“If what you mean is the kind of poverty that Jesus was referring to when he says ‘you will always have the poor among us’, then, well he said it! The point is we’ll always be in a world where people are poor in some respects but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing everything we can to see lives transformed.

“We’re commanded to love but it does mean that before the second coming of Christ we will always have brokenness and broken relationships in our world. I do believe we can make big steps toward overcoming physical poverty and we should be leading into that. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor in word and deed and the power of the spirit and we should expect transformation to come out of mission.”

As Christmas approaches, many charities will be tugging on the public’s heartstrings by displaying pictures of children in poverty and asking for money. But Matthew is determined that all charities, including his own, stop representing people as “objects of pity”.

“There’s a lot of evidence out there that’s quite depressing and says the more you put a picture of a starving child out there, the more likely people are to give you lots of money on the spot. For many years across the organisations who are part of the Disaster Emergency Comittee there’s been a real desire to not put starving children in front of people and to paint these people as people of dignity who need our support.

People are made in the image of God. We always try and see people as God sees them.

"People are made in the image of God. We always try and see people as God sees them. In these current economic times there are some organisations drifting back into that simplistic presentation of people that denigrates their own human worth that we would abhor but it’s happening because it generates money.”

Would not such organisations argue it’s for the greater good? We may not like seeing such images on our television screens and in newspapers, but without it, such people would not get help.

“Yes, they would say that but I would argue it’s reinforcing a frame that eventually will come home to roost and people will become more and more skeptical and say ‘why is this still going on?’ and eventually say ‘I’m going to stop giving.’”

Mobilising local churches to fight poverty where they are doesn't start in Africa, but here in the UK. Matthew has nothing but praise for organisations such as Christians Against Poverty who are open about their faith and keen to reach out on a local level. Matthew's vision is simple but profound: If every church on the planet could be mobilised to fight poverty where they are at, poverty really could be made history.

To find out more about Tearfund's vision, read Future and a Hope.




Sam writes news, features and reviews exclusively for The job involves meeting influential and interesting Christians from across the country and beyond. Most importantly, he never talks about himself in the third person.

This article was written and published by Sam Hailes for


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