The poor tend to be more religious.
This was a key finding from a 2009 study by Tomas Rees on the relationship between poverty and religiousness.
He found that personal insecurity (due to stressful situations, such as poverty) was an important determinant of religiosity.
A 2010 Gallup survey revealed similar findings.
I find the faith of the poor both intriguing and challenging. Intriguing because I wonder why the poor would turn to God and Christ? Challenging because they want to know the reality of God made possible in Christ, not a message or a theological proposition.
I would have imagined that they would be angry at God and blame him for their circumstances – for their poverty and the injustices they face.
Why would they ask God (or anyone for that matter) for forgiveness, when it would seem that they have been the ones who have been sinned against.
From my perspective, it seemed that God has betrayed and failed them.
In a recent project, we asked the poor why they chose to follow Christ. We interviewed 41 individuals who are either slum dwellers in Bangalore, India, or destitute Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
All of them had been clearly identified as followers of Christ by Christian workers in the area, attested by the changes in their lives, their hunger for the Bible and prayer, their turning away from the god or gods and idols they had worshiped, and their desire and passion to only worship Christ. Some had even been baptized.
When asked how they became followers of Christ and why they chose to worship only him, most (over 80 percent) spoke about a supernatural encounter with God who had answered prayer, healed them, provided for their daily needs, done miracles in their lives or spoken to them in a dream or vision.
This is not the prosperity gospel, as none of those interviewed spoke about wanting to become rich through their access to God.
What they were seeking was a God who cared for them in their desperation and destitution, which enabled them to live their daily lives with some semblance of dignity.
Their understanding and awareness of sin and the need for forgiveness came later as they grew in their faith.
Strangely, none of them spoke about liberation, revolution or trying to change the unjust social and political systems that trapped them in poverty.
Why was I surprised by this?
Ed Rommen, who had been a missionary in Europe and then became an Orthodox priest upon his return home to the U.S., writes that too often we have focused on getting the content of the gospel right – of it being contextualized so that people can understand.
Evangelism is too focused on information – ensuring the relevance of the message of the gospel in different cultures – and very little on the reality and accessibility of the person of Christ.
“So, whatever it is, contextualization involves mediation, not only of information about God, but the facilitation of a personal encounter with the saving, forgiving, all present, Lord of life, Jesus Christ,” he explains.
For Rommen, the gospel is not merely a message, but a person. Evangelism has to be more than a verbal presentation of the gospel. It also involves providing space for people to encounter Christ.
Jesus’ encounter with a blind beggar in Luke 18:36-38 is one example. The beggar was not asking for mercy and forgiveness from sin, but mercy from the all-powerful God to deliver him from the crushing bondage of blindness and the resulting curse of poverty.
It is not that the poor don’t need forgiveness. It is only as they encounter and experience the living God that they begin to understand grace and the need for forgiveness.
I am realizing that the poor seek a God who is real to them, who would hear them and care for them. Encountering such a God is good news to them.
The pastor of my church spoke on Good Friday this year about the tearing of the curtain in the Temple separating the Holy of Holies. This opened the way for us to approach God and unleashed God, who had been hidden in the Holy of Holies, into the world.
His life-giving presence raised many faithful believers from the dead. The incredible power of his presence shook the very foundations of the earth through an earthquake.
God was now present in the world in a way he hadn’t been since the Fall. The reality of God who is present, who is with us – is absolutely foundational in the biblical narrative. It is this accessible and compassionate God that the poor seek.
As I listened to the poor, and read and reread the interviews, I was reminded of Psalm 72:12-13: “For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help, the afflicted also, and him who has no helper. He will have compassion on the poor and needy, and the lives of the needy he will save.”
Rupen Das is global field staff with Canadian Baptist Ministries based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is also research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Canada. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Compassion and the Mission of God, and is used with permission.
Rupen Das is research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto and the national director of the Canadian Bible Society. He is author of several books, including “Compassion and the Mission of God.”