When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself

WhenHelpingHurtsI 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.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself

  1. Ellen Williams says:

    I liked your thoughts. The criticisms from the book at the beginning, not so much. “When we give away free clothes we’re bankrupting local clothing stores?! Really?

  2. American folly is not limited to missionaries and short-term missions, etc. “The Ugly American” should be required reading for anyone wanting to go on any mission trip (even those trips that never leave the country or the county).


  3. Gary says:

    Jay, thanks for sharing this book. It has a lot of good points from what you’ve shared. I knew of congregations in the last decade which were sending mission teams to Mexico primarily, it seemed, to give the poor cement floors to replace their dirt floors. Considering what these groups spent to go there those were some expensive dirt floors. Also, given how many poor Mexicans have come here to do manual labor it seemed to me that it would have been better to use local labor at a much lower price compared to the travel costs of the mission team. The counter argument is that it is a life-changing experience especially for youth to go to poorer countries and have such experiences. They will likely be more mission minded and compassionate the rest of their lives. So perhaps such trips are investments in the future of the American church with any good that is done for the locals bring secondary.

    You are right about questionable or harmful practices and theology being continued in some mission fields long after American churches had rejected them. Sometimes missions are an opportunity for Americans to create the Church of Christ as they think it should ideally be after that particular vision of the church has been decisively rejected in the States.

  4. Keith says:

    In regard to the comments about traditional church of Christ teaching being the most common in mission points, what’s wrong with taking a “conservative” rather than “progressive” approach in missions if it produces more fruit? Otherwise we’re saying that you have to preach Jesus my way or not at all.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    I said,

    “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.”

    The problem is that a “legalistic gospel” is not really the gospel at all. Consider,

    (Gal 5:2-6 ESV) Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

    The only gospel that is the true gospel is “only faith working through love.” Supposed justification through law — or anything other than faith in Jesus — damns.

    Paul’s point is that you can’t take the true gospel and add to it and still have the gospel. In Galatia, Judaizing teachers insisted on adding circumcision as a condition of salvation. And they were, as a result, teaching a gospel that damns. They didn’t deny faith in Jesus but the sufficiency of faith in Jesus. They divided the church over non-gospel matters.

    (Gal 5:15 ESV) 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

    In the 20th Century, the Churches of Christ often required adherence to a very long list of “salvation issues” or “tests of fellowship” to save. Get any pet doctrinal issue wrong, and you’d be damned. Hence, you had to have the right position on MDR, church organization, church worship, use of the church treasury, etc. etc. or else be damned to hell.

    And it’s the “else be damned to hell” part that takes the gospel and makes it into “another gospel” that damns. Jesus is no longer enough. Indeed, faith in Jesus becomes just one of hundreds of doctrinal points on which agreement must be had to earn one’s way into heaven.

    That’s the “legalistic gospel,” and it’s all too familiar for those of us who grew up in it. The truly scary part are passages such as —

    (Gal 1:6-9 ESV) I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

    Now, we need to be clear that merely disagreeing over MDR, the church treasury, etc. is not “another gospel.” Where the line is crossed is when we insist that you must agree with me on the use of the church treasury or else be damned. When we do that, we add the church treasury doctrine to what is required to be saved, destroy grace, declare faith in Jesus insufficient, and find ourselves doing the very thing condemned by Paul in Galatians as damning.

    And yet I know of churches that know this, understand this, and support foreign preachers and missionaries who teach the Galatian heresy. They divide churches. They create chaos in the mission field, reshifting the focus from converting the lost to converting evangelicals from one denomination to another, preaching the saving power of a cappella music rather than Jesus on the cross.

    Such “missionaries” often seem to be highly effective because they report large numbers of “converts.” But they often are preaching to Christians about this or that pet doctrine. When the Christians accept the missionaries’ view of worship, church treasury, or whatever, they are declared “saved” even though they were already saved. Rather than converting the lost, we’re very often converting Christians into our kind of Christians. They are indeed saying “you have to preach Jesus my way or not at all.”

    We have no business subsidizing missionaries who want to rebuild the legalism and divisiveness of the 20th Century Churches of Christ in foreign lands.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Gary wrote,

    The counter argument is that it is a life-changing experience especially for youth to go to poorer countries and have such experiences.

    Yes and no.

    Recent studies reported in Christianity Today a few years ago show little correlation between short-term mission trips and commitment to foreign missions and evangelism as adults. But I think the stats aren’t the whole story. It’s more a matter of the lesson taught by the short-term mission trip.

    When a congregation is committed to a mission point, builds relationships, and truly loves the people they serve, then there are valuable lessons for the teens to learn — including the lesson that adult Christians care about missions, love foreign brothers and sisters sacrificially, and travel to truly serve others.

    But when the trip is focused on our teens, and the adults travel for the sake of being chaperones and cooks for the teens, and the teen minister plans everything in terms of what’s best for his teens, then the teens learn that church is all about themselves. And teaching teens that they are the center of the universe is not life-changing.

    So I do think these trips can be life changing for our own people — but ironically enough, only when that’s not why we’re doing them.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Thanks for the recommendation. It’s a classic study.

  8. Dustin says:

    Larry James’ book, The Wealth of the Poor: How Valuing Every Neighbor Restores Hope in Our Cities, is also a great study for working with the poor.

  9. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Thanks. I’m not familiar with this book. The Wealth of the Poor: How Valuing Every Neighbor Restores Hope in Our Cities But I know Larry. Didn’t know he’d written a book on his work. Definitely adding to my Wish List.

  10. John F says:

    Part of what makes short term mission meaningful for all is the VERY going itself to encourage those who are “in country”; we show that we care enough to come and show by “being there” that we value their commitment. I am well aware of the many possible “economic” rationalizations; but when I was “embraced” by the widower of one whom I had relationship for over a decade, and shared in his sorrow, I knew I had done some good for him (also verified effectiveness of a James 1:27 program). Sometimes the testimony of “We care, we came, we love” has value beyond the dollars spent.

  11. R.J. says:

    I agree that short-term missions should be about those we help and not merely about ourselves. But I don’t see anything wrong with feeling good about what we do(if we truly helped others).

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