How Do We Talk About Poverty With Students?


By Ross Carper 

foggy beach with young boyOne of the best things about youth ministry is the fact that every student I interact with is in a different place. Every student. I’m a Junior High Pastor, so they’re all 7th and 8th graders; but this season of life means I’m dealing with a vast range of developmental stages—from 7th grade boys who still play with action figures to 8th grade girls who act like they’re 23.

But there’s something else aside from brain chemistry and puberty and abstract thinking capabilities. There’s the nurture factor—the physical, emotional, and spiritual landscape in which each student has been raised. They’ve all had different amounts and types of exposure to the Christian faith—at home, at church (or lack of church), in conversations, friendships, and in media of all types. And the same is true for how each student thinks about poverty.

Over the past few years, as we’ve engaged in 30 Hour Famine and other local service projects and regional mission trips, we’ve felt the need to pay close attention to how we talk about poverty, and particularly about people who are affected by it. As staff, volunteers, and students, our community has needed to develop and maintain a shared vocabulary and mindset.

In my setting, many of our students are from materially affluent homes. The last thing I want is for our justice-oriented work to perpetuate harmful stereotypes or foster a savior complex within these students. If those we serve become an afterthought to us—just the “less fortunate” we help to make ourselves feel great, then we’ve dehumanized humans, which happens to be the root of injustice. Yikes.

We’ve tried hard to model something different through the ways we talk—not in an overbearing, “PC-police“ way, but by proactively framing the work we do with empathy and humility, and by gently correcting students who (often unintentionally) use demeaning language. It’s crucial to add this layer of teaching to promote dignity, empowerment, and the equality that comes from all humans being made in the image of God.

I have a favorite resource that has shaped our church’s language and thinking on poverty. The Chalmers Center’s book When Helping Hurts is quite helpful, and their website offers content that has often helped me prepare to speak to students.

As we attempt to shape disciples who love God and love others, we need to teach deeply about both our view of God and our view of others.