Weekly Edgework #83 - January 30, 2006

Voluntary Poverty

If there is one aspect of contemporary ministry that needs emphasis today it is voluntary poverty…Wherever the Church is vital, it is poor…Wherever the church renews itself it embraces voluntary poverty as a spontaneous response to the situation in this world, a response that expresses criticism of the growing wealth of the few and solidarity with the growing misery of the many. (Clowning in Rome, by Henri J. M. Nouwen, p. 54)

For the past few decades I have frequently heard the lament that the church needs renewal. Various movements have been launched in an attempt to re-ignite passion, commitment and mission in the context of our church communities. And here and there one sees an apparent flare-up of renewal, only to witness the flame die down almost as soon as it has arisen. On the other hand, I have begun to witness what I think is authentic renewal and invariably one of its components is voluntary poverty. It is not always apparent which comes first – voluntary poverty or renewal. This is one of those “chicken and egg” dilemmas. But whether cause or result, it seems to me that voluntary poverty is the one consistently present element wherever authentic renewal is happening in the contemporary church.

I see voluntary poverty on at least three fronts – always holding hands with authentic renewal. The first is what I would call a poverty of the soul. The present generation is sick and tired of pretense and posturing that have so often accompanied church life in the modern era. A young woman recently remarked that she could tell within five minutes whether a visiting speaker was for real or not. She commented sadly that so often there is a phoniness about them. Of course if that were told the speaker it would come as a complete surprise. But that is precisely the point. Public servants with roots in modernity have often not yet come to grips with the reality that today’s younger generation can see through the polished image they present in public.

The text of what the present generation reads goes something like this: I have been called to serve God in public, so God expects me to be an example to those I lead. That means I must always appear to be strong, have any and all answers to questions in my back pocket, never reveal any doubts and always claim to be walking in victory. And the response is simply, “ Poppycock!” They can see through such nonsense. What they are looking for is integrity that shuns such posturing. They want to see voluntary poverty of the soul. That is, persons who readily admit their weaknesses, talk openly about the shadow sides of their lives including their struggles, and demonstrate that they are on a journey leading them to a place they can only see “through a glass darkly.” Wherever I encounter such persons I see the seeds of renewal bursting through the ground.

A second front on which I see renewal happening is where there is present what I call a poverty of desire. I know how important it can be to have dreams and desires about what one wants to be and do in life. Without them we rob ourselves of anticipation, a healthy engagement of life and hope for change. It is really sad to watch people who have stopped dreaming. Their lives are usually made up mostly of drudgery and boredom. So why would I recommend poverty of desire as a component of authentic renewal?

One of the final throes of the modern era had to do with encouraging self-actualization. It sounded positive enough. What is wrong with desiring to become all you can be – to be who you really are? On one level it is perfectly logical and healthy. The problem with the movement that arose along the way, however, was that self-actualization frequently ended up turning into a profound self-centeredness. The only way to redeem self-actualization and to turn it into a tool for renewal is to fully commit the true self you are discovering to the higher goal of service in the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ call to seek first his kingdom (Matthew 6:33) is as relevant today as it ever was. Wherever I see this singularity or “poverty” of desire I see renewal taking shape.

A third front where I see renewal happening is where there is a joyful embrace of a voluntary poverty of goods. The final wave of the church in the modern era created mega-churches that now dot the suburbs of our cities. With buildings reminiscent of shopping malls, growth strategies built on marketing techniques learned from capitalist gurus, and budgets that grant every imaginable amenity to its members, these churches have appealed to baby boomers. Boomers with cash and looking for a model of church that allows them to use that cash on themselves. The central message of many of these churches is to prove Jesus wrong when he said that you cannot serve both God and money. Unwary and gullible members are being told that they can have their cake and eat it too.

But I see a new generation emerging that is much more prepared than their parents were to downgrade their lifestyles voluntarily for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Actually releasing one’s grip on the need for an excessive amount of stuff is not a downgrade at all, but an upgrade. Many people I know are experiencing a new kind of freedom by embracing voluntary poverty. They are living on less and liking it more. Things and securities begin to take second place as they give themselves whole-heartedly to a lifestyle that promotes global justice. Voluntary poverty of goods means different things to different people. But one common thread is an acknowledgement that the societal myth promising happiness in the wake of a greater accumulation of goods is a lie. The other is an authentic renewal of faith.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich…as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality. As it is written, “He who gathered much had nothing over and he who gathered little had no lack.” (2 Corinthians 8:9-15)