Book Review

Learning how to serve the impoverished

John Barry on the holistic poverty work of "Jesus’ Economy"

Jul 19, 2019

John Barry’s Jesus' Economy is a recent release discussing the need for Christians to be involved in holistic poverty alleviation efforts. Barry makes the argument that Christians should be active not only in helping to meet the spiritual needs of people through gospel sharing, but also in working to meet their physical needs and empowering them to be self-sufficient. Barry is the CEO of a Christian nonprofit after which the book is named. Jesus’ Economy was an inspirational, thought-provoking read and included practical tips for Christians seeking to address poverty. Though there were some significant weaknesses to the book, it is clear that Barry’s desire is to be gospel-centered in his approach to poverty alleviation. 

Strengths 

Barry’s contribution to this discussion is truly stirring and intriguing. His experience working with people facing many forms of poverty provided readers with some very moving anecdotes. He has spent a fair amount of time working in impoverished areas both in the United States, such as with homeless shelters, and abroad, specifically in impoverished areas of India. His biblical literacy is well utilized to get people thinking about how Jesus related to the impoverished and how that should inform us today. With this, he clearly strives to keep his approach gospel-centered, modeled after the ministry of Jesus and concerned about the whole person. 

A tendency among some Christian social justice proponents is to lose the message of the gospel and the need for spiritual salvation in humanitarian efforts, but Barry is faithful to fight against that pull. He also offers wisdom from research and experience as to how to effectively help the poor, such as through his knowledge of microloans and their effectiveness, especially emphasizing the need for the creation of jobs. Part four of the book, in particular, includes excellent advice for individual Christians on topics including but not limited to evaluating nonprofits to support and interacting well with the homeless community. These are some clear strengths of Jesus’ Economy.

Weaknesses

One weakness of this book is Barry’s oversimplification of some very complicated issues. There is room for graciousness here in recognizing that he was taking on a broad topic that could really be (and has been) broken up in more narrowly focused books. However, if the aim here was (as it seems) to give a wide overview and a handbook-style guide to the issues of poverty, then more care should have been given to addressing the more difficult and controversial subtopics. 

Two examples are the author’s handling of the topic of capitalism and that of spiritual gifts. These are significant auxiliary topics that come up when discussing approaches to physical poverty alleviation. At points, Barry discusses Western ideas of business and capitalism in ways that come across as critical, but not constructive. For example, he points out that it is the "preference on business trips to set up meetings with the wealthy instead of the impoverished," (Barry 74).

Regarding spiritual gifts, Barry makes bold continuationist statements without making much of an argument for such a view, implying that miraculous healings are an essential part of ministry among the poor. Whether or not such a concept is true, the tone of the text could leave some readers who are either cessationists or simply undecided in their view feeling belittled or confused.

Another weakness of this book was the initial argument for why Christians should be involved in physical poverty alleviation efforts. As someone who agrees that this should be the case, I was eager to hear a well-formulated argument from Scripture, the author’s experience, and reason, yet I was left wanting more. I was inspired, but not convinced. 

Instead of being persuaded or even just affirmed in my view, there was language used that could make one uncomfortable. The author makes statements that the good news of the gospel is “full spiritual and physical renewal,” (7). He speaks of empowering people to “realize their dreams” and Christians “bringing” the Kingdom of God (10, 32). This language is potentially dangerous. It carries some social-gospel and perhaps prosperity-gospel tones that it seems the author does not intend. The context of such statements is within explaining why physical and spiritual poverty ought to be addressed in tandem, but it’s not enough. Readers are left with some phrases that could be troubling to the more theologically minded, and misleading to those who are less so. 

Overall, Barry’s work is a fair contribution to the discussion of poverty alleviation among Christians. His work with Jesus’ Economy sounds worthy of support, and his advice to Christians seeking to serve discerningly the impoverished is generally helpful. Barry’s passion for the cause of the gospel is clear, and we certainly need more voices like his in these conversations. Yet, the shortcomings of this book leave me hesitant to recommend it without some of these several important caveats. 

Laura Campbell

Laura Campbell is a master’s student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of Emmaus Church in Kansas City, Missouri, along with her husband, Collin. Her ultimate desire is to know Jesus deeply and to share him with others,... Read More