In August, Christianity Today partnered with Deidox Films to debut The Ordinance, a documentary exploring churches’ efforts to fight predatory payday lenders. Many church leaders recognize the shameful practices of these lenders and seek to meet the needs of their church members while also fighting for justice on a legislative level. On the other side of the same coin, however, are churches attempting to fight poverty and prevent the situations that lead people to accept these loans.
In recent years, several Christian organizations have developed programs providing microloans, savings groups, and economic education in international contexts. But how much do we know about empowering our own communities? With racial and economic tensions exacerbated in recent years, the local church has a key role to play in bringing about reconciliation. Organizations like The Chalmers Center, whose founders wrote the bestselling When Helping Hurts, have recognized the vast needs in the United States and are now working to equip churches to meet economic and spiritual needs in their communities.
“As Chalmers worked to empower grassroots churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to help the poor help themselves, we became acutely aware of the same need to address poverty holistically in our own nation,” said John Mark Bowers, the Curriculum Specialist at The Chalmers Center. “After publishing When Helping Hurts, we heard from even more churches that were hungry for tools to help them walk alongside people across economic lines right here in the United States. Thus, the birth of an IDAs [Individual Development Accounts] pilot—out of which came Faith & Finances, and later, Work Life.”
Bowers has worked to create the curricular tools many churches use to train and walk with struggling people in their communities. He also developed training for church-based facilitators to effectively implement these tools, with the goal that these people will be the face of the work. “Chalmers’ goal is for low-income people to never really hear much about us,” Bowers said. “We want them to see the local church as the hands and feet of Christ.”
Championing the Cause of Financial Peace
In 2012, New City East Lake—a PCA church in the low-income East Lake neighborhood of Chattanooga, Tennessee—held their first series of Faith & Finances classes. Each week throughout the 12-week course, attendees shared a meal with church volunteers and then dove into teaching on money management skills and principles of biblical stewardship. Each person in the program had a “champion” there to encourage their efforts, as well as church members who volunteered to take the class alongside each student so they could work together on budgets, questions, and connecting outside of class.
At the end of the course, the church started an IDA program to serve three graduates. The three applicants had set specific savings goals during the class, and the church agreed to match their savings up to $100 per month for two years toward their goals. During those two years, program facilitators met monthly with the graduates to discuss their budgets and financial issues.
Bethany Lane, a member of New City East Lake, was asked to be on a team with a graduate named Amber*, who was using the IDA to save enough money to finish her degree. Her team worked to teach Amber about credit, fees, and loans. She pulled her credit score and did her taxes for the first time. “It was fun to meet monthly and see her understanding and her confidence grow,” Lane said. “She’ll graduate this year, and we’re going to have the biggest block party ever.”