I recently came across an article in Christianity Today praising the 2009 book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.
The theme of the book is that most efforts by churches and other do-gooders to help poverty not only fail but make things worse.
When we give away free clothes, we unintentionally bankrupt the local clothing stores. When we send missionaries, we might be undermining the work of existing Christian churches in the community — dividing the Kingdom and destroying the indigenous church.
Sometimes we spend $30,000 to remodel a house that could have been remodeled by local labor for $3,000 — by people who need the money to support their families with dignity. Worse yet, sometimes the house is owned by a landlord who increases the rent because of the church’s hard work. Of course, had someone bothered to ask …
Several critical points to reflect on:
* Christianity is, at its core, about relationship between man and God. Many helping efforts do nothing toward fixing this relationship and so aren’t really Christian at all. Worse yet, because no relationship with God is established, the deepest poverty and greatest needs aren’t met.
* Christianity is also about restoring relationships among people — but we Westerners are often content to send money or goods without bothering to find out what the real needs are — as though we are so wise that we don’t even need to ask. So how can we be in Christian relationship with our impoverished brothers and sisters if we don’t care enough to ask?
* We often see benevolence and missions as being about us. We want to feel good about what we do. We want our children to see real poverty. The measure of a short-term mission trip is what did we get out of it. But if the goal is to benefit ourselves and our children, then that’s who we love — and even the pagans love themselves and their own children. It’s much harder to love the poor enough to actually focus the program on whether the poor are helped. (It’s unspeakably selfish to run these programs for our benefit.)
Fortunately, the authors recommend some approaches that can actually work — “work” in the sense of actually helping the people we claim to be helping.
From my own experience, watch out for —
* Mission programs where the mission report is all about what we learned and how we were helped.
* Mission programs that move from place to place each year. Vacations often change locations each year. Love does not.
* Mission programs that don’t survive the departure of a minister. I mean, if we really care about the people being served, then we won’t change mission points just because a new minister has been hired.
* Any mission program that’s about “building relationships” among our own people. That’s never a good motivation for spending the Lord’s time and money and people. When we serve others, we’ll build relationships because we worked alongside each other on something we are passionate about. It’ll happen. If it’s the stated goal, then it’s sheer self-indulgence.
Indeed, one reason our teens leave the church when they graduate is that our teen ministers worked hard on building relationships among the teens — but not with the people the church was ministering to or with the adults. The goal was to teach the teens lessons rather than to serve those in need. The needy were merely props in an object lesson. We used them — which is not love. And so the teens learned the lesson well: they should be concerned with the persons who most matter: the teens.
Do you see the difference? Any mission program that’s about being good or learning lessons or building relationships are self-indulgent and an abuse of God’s resources.
When we get it right, these sorts of things happen:
* When the staff loses interest in a mission point, the members continue the ministry on their own because they love the people being served too much to abandon them because of a hiring decision.
* Adults continue to participate even when their kids have grown up and left town — because they love they people they are serving.
* Teens and college students are welcomed into the program but only if they are willing to work. We love these people too much to expect them to put up with volunteers who won’t actually help do ministry.
* Planning programs involve the people who are to be served. Indeed, it’s unthinkable to plan a week-long service program without being on the phone with the local, indigenous leaders.
* The team cares enough to prepare for and train for the mission.
* The team thinks long-term. It’s not about whether we left enough time on Friday to hit the beach. Rather, our goal is to make changes that are visible 10 or 20 years from now. Conversions to Jesus do this. Elimination of spiritual poverty can do this. Painting a house for a stranger who remains a stranger does not do this.
* Jesus is taught. The entire project is done in the name of Jesus in prayerful expectation that the Kingdom will grow — even if it’s not an explicitly evangelistic mission. Somehow or other, everyone on the team knows that the ultimate end is to bring glory to God both here and there.
PS — One last pet peeve. If we actually love the people being served by our missionaries, why do we support missionaries who teach a legalistic gospel we wouldn’t allow to be taught to our own children? That’s not love. I’m not sure what it is — but it’s astonishingly common.
This is the 21st Century. How did your church learn grace without bothering to share the lessons with the churches you support around the world? Why send money to support missionaries who spend their time “converting” the saved and dividing the Lord’s Kingdom? Tactics and attitudes that many of us rejected decades ago as wrong are still considered acceptable in many mission fields. It’s irresponsible. The solution is repentance.