Leading by Example, for the Sake of the Impoverished

I know sacrifice. I sold my house and nearly everything I own to follow God’s call on my life. I saw that it wasn’t enough to simply spread a message; I had to live it.

Through pain and trial, Jesus taught me how to follow him—and continues to do so.

But the world doesn’t work like an iPhone; it’s not instantly gratifying. Rather than receiving the instant gratification of people joining our movement, I saw many people distance themselves. My choices either made them uncomfortable, or in giving up my former job—which gave me influence and the ability to make the publishing dreams of others come true—I no longer had something they desired.

This situation revealed to me a larger issue about our culture—apathy.

Our generation likes the idea of alleviating poverty far more than the actual act of alleviating poverty. We’re comfortable liking and sharing posts on Facebook, but ask us to take real action and little to nothing will happen. Likewise, we like to talk about the need to bring the gospel to the unreached far more than we are willing to do the work. 

It’s inconvenient to make sacrifices. It’s far from being instantly gratifying. It’s an act of faith.

What Following Jesus Really Means

We need a solution to the apathy of our generation. We need to teach people what following Jesus really means—and demonstrate it by example. Writing to his young apprentice Timothy, Paul puts it this way:

“The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:5–7 ESV).

In America, we have a more educated generation than ever before. But from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t seem that we’re teaching people to lead by example. At the college and university level, we are really good at teaching people to think critically and to critique. But it’s easy to critique; it’s hard to create. There is a time and place for critique—for discussion of the law, using Paul’s analogy. But we need to be better at teaching people to take action, getting them to do the work.

You could sit all day and nitpick about a model for alleviating poverty or how we should (and should not) be doing missions—and these are important discussions. But meanwhile, there are people out there dying, physically and spiritually. The world isn’t changed by mere theory; it’s changed by theory in action.

In our top universities, we have Christians pursuing noble training and occupations—lawyers, doctors, executives, scholars, and teachers. While these indeed are noble and important pursuits, many will quickly lose sight of the real purpose of life as a Christian. Consumerism will consume them. They will be wrapped into businesses and striving after promotions; they will become consumed with possessions and money, if they haven’t already.

We have Christians learning to be teachers of the law—with knowledge of the core ideas of the Bible taught by campus ministries and churches. But most people are living without true understanding. This understanding can only be gained through self-sacrifice. It can only be gained through doing what Jesus has called us to do—to give of ourselves for the impoverished, marginalized, and outsider; and dedicate our lives to bringing the freedom of the gospel to those who have not heard it.

How We Can Reverse the Apathy Trend

It’s going to be difficult to reverse the trend of the Facebook generation of Christians—who seem interested in alleviating poverty and spreading the gospel, but are largely apathetic. Here are a few ideas.

We can start by exposing people to the truth of what’s going on around the world—that there are plenty of resources to go around but that we’re not getting those resources to the impoverished. We can then show people how God can use their skills to not just fiscally assist in these areas but to also transform lives, with their own two hands.

Jesus’ Economy, for example, has an entirely remote all-volunteer team. We have volunteers around the nation who are part of our staff—they are plugging directly into the work of alleviating poverty from right behind their computer. They are working on partnerships, content, and technology projects. They are putting their hard skills to work helping alleviate poverty and spread the gospel.

We can also expose people to the fact that there are over 3,000 people groups without missionaries. It’s estimated that 99.7% of the church’s resources—its missional activities and financial support—are dedicated to areas where the church is already present. Only 0.3% of resources are dedicated to where the church is not present. Let that number sink in.

To deal with this, we need to be thinking about how we can work together to pool our resources—to empower the work of the global church.

I’ve been to one of these places, in Bihar, India. In Bihar, there are over 101 Million people who have never heard the name of Jesus. There is a completely unreached people group. 

In Bihar, I met a man who had lived his entire life as a gang leader. An indigenous church planter had a chance encounter with him and shared about the freedom and love of Jesus. The man was intrigued because his life felt so dark and empty—and local religion couldn’t offer any hope for what he was feeling and experiencing. Before long, he decided to believe in Jesus and it changed his entire life. He went out into a field and buried his gun and knife. He then dedicated his life to co-laboring for Jesus—working manual labor and spreading the word about Jesus whenever possible. This reminds me of Isaiah 2:4:

“God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (ESV).

This is the power and liberty of the gospel that is going forth around the world—but this effort needs more advocacy and funding.

In Bihar, Jesus’ Economy has four indigenous church planters reaching those who have never heard Jesus’ name before. Simple decisions by normal people funded this effort. Online people started birthday campaigns to raise support for church planters, and dedicated events to the cause of church planting. In these simple, yet innovative actions, they have moved past apathy and into action. These ideas are about embodying the values of the Bible, while embracing technology. People are overcoming apathy for the sake of the poor and unreached. 

And this is just the start of the potential of what could be happening in our world. Imagine what could occur if we embodied Paul’s teachings to Timothy. Near the end of 1 Timothy, Paul says:

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. … Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have .... Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:11–16 ESV).

Paul instructs Timothy to continue to embrace his gifts. He tells him to devote himself to the work of the gospel and to do so with self-discipline. Paul calls Timothy to bring the saving work of Jesus to others, despite all obstacles. And Paul can say these words because he has led by example.

Moving Past Apathy Will be a Christian Movement

But the type of change I’m envisioning is almost like a reformation. It means a complete shift of Christian culture in the U.S. It will be a long-long race. And we—each of us who have heard this message—have to run it first. We have to lead by example.

Reflecting back upon his many efforts to spread the gospel and alleviate poverty, an older Paul says to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6 NIV).

Paul is not just stating the reality of his life; he is calling Timothy to run the same race. He has shown Timothy in word and deed how to run the race; stated that he has done so; and is now asking Timothy to do the same.

We should never ask someone to do something, or to live a message, that we are not at least trying to live ourselves. And ideally, we should already be living it ourselves. We need to say, “I’ll go first.” And then invite people to run alongside with us. 

This is part of why I have made the moves I have in my own life—to show that it is possible to be a missionary while having a full-time job. And then to further show, with the recent moves in my life, that it is possible to self-finance the work God has called you to. And furthermore, that it is possible to follow God’s call—no matter how difficult it may be. It just takes the right partnerships and sacrifice.

The book of James talks at length about how faith without works is dead. We cannot simply critique and talk—because that’s not faith. Christianity is not about mere intellectual ascent; it’s about action. Faith without works is dead.

We need faith that is put directly into action. We need faith that is about doing the difficult. We need faith that is inspiring.


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John Barry
John Barry


CEO, President, and Founder of Jesus' Economy. John is the author/coauthor of 12 books and General Editor of Faithlife Study Bible and Lexham Bible Dictionary.