“If you are a North American Christian, the reality of our society’s vast wealth presents you with an enormous responsibility, for throughout the Scriptures God’s people are commanded to show compassion to the poor. In fact, doing so is simply part of our job description as followers of Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:31–46).”
So opens the second paragraph of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor, a new book by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College.
With this book, Fikkert and Corbett hope to reshape mercy ministry. They want to alter church practices and—more than that—revise our thinking and theology. Rich and poor alike, the authors tell us, suffer from the effects of the Fall, and both require the gospel of grace to bring Christ’s reconciliation. Until the wealthy embrace their own brokenness, Fikkert and Corbett claim, they are likely to do harm, to the poor and to themselves.
We asked the authors to elaborate on what they hope to accomplish with this book.
Let’s start with the basics: What motivated you to invest the time and effort in a project of this magnitude?
Brian: While North American evangelicals are not doing nearly enough to address poverty either at home or abroad, it has been great to see the renewed interest in social action in the past two decades. Unfortunately, a lot of what is being done by our churches and parachurch ministries is out of touch with best theory and practices. More importantly, much of it is simply inconsistent with biblical teaching concerning the nature of poverty and the human condition. I hope that God will use this book in some small way to help the church do better in embodying Jesus Christ to a broken world.
Steve: We wanted to speak into the growing movement within the church of helping hurting people. There is a lot of good motivation in the body of Christ, but too many practices are built on a limited understanding of poverty’s causes as well as good principles and practices of poverty alleviation. Our zeal needs to be more deeply informed so that our efforts don’t make people poorer. To be frank, there are some harmful mission and ministry myths that need to be confronted. Doing so will not only help poor people, but also could redirect the money being spent on “helping” that doesn’t make enough difference.
After people have read the book, what do you want them to know, generally, that they don’t know now?
Brian: I want people to have a biblical framework for thinking about the nature of poverty and its alleviation. If a doctor misdiagnoses the patient’s illness, he will prescribe the wrong medication. The patient will not get better and might even get worse. The same is true about our efforts to minister to the poor. The “medicine” we prescribe reflects our understanding of the underlying problem. If we have misdiagnosed the problem of poverty we can do harm to poor people, and surprisingly, to ourselves. I hope this book will help people examine their diagnosis of the causes of poverty and reconsider the medicine they are prescribing. Where are they in tune with Scripture and where do they need to make some adjustments? In the process, I also hope the book will help readers learn some fundamental things about themselves.
Steve: We want people to learn a number of things: that poverty has multiple dimensions; it is not primarily about “providing”; helping can hurt; something is not always better than nothing; short-term help which feels good to the giver can often be harmful to the receiver; and start with what people have and build from there.
And how do you want readers to feel? What kind of emotional change do you hope to see?
Brian: Until people are fundamentally broken, their poverty alleviation efforts are likely to do harm to the poor and to themselves. It is when we embrace the fact that both poor people and ourselves are in need of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ that we can actually have some hope of being part of the answer. And of course, as we understand more fully the reality and comprehensive nature of the gospel, we will be more eager to see this gospel made manifest in the lives of poor people all around the world. The feelings that come to mind include: sorrow, humility, brokenness, hope, healing, anticipation, urgency, and passion.
Steve: Amen. Other emotions that I would add are willingness to change and patience with oneself and others.
What do you hope people will do as a result of reading your book?
Brian: That the authors and readers will repent of our arrogance, pride, and indifference. And then that they will seek to do both more to help the poor and find ways to do it better. We want to see churches and parachurch ministries reexamine what they are already doing and ask if there are ways they could adjust their approach. And we hope that churches and parachurch ministries will consider new interventions that they might use to be part of restoring people to being all that God created them to be.
Steve: I want readers to recognize that God has been at work in the lives of individuals and communities, so there is much to build on. Listen first. Forgo the ministry-in-a-box mentality and realize that while there are many good things that have been learned, local context really matters. As Brian said, reexamine current practices in light of some things they encounter in our book. Be encouraged that good things can be done by individuals, small and large churches, and ministries, and thus move forward.
Let’s get a little more specific. What would you like to see pastors do? Laypeople?
Brian: It is simply imperative that pastors show more leadership in this area via their preaching and teaching as well as their actions. We need pastors who preach the kingdom of God and its implications for all of life. The kingdom of God was Jesus’ central message (Luke 4:43), but you’d never know it from listening to most sermons or from speaking to the average Christian. We need preaching and teaching that give us a kingdom vision and a kingdom modus operandi. The goals of the kingdom, the priorities of the kingdom, and the tools of the kingdom are simply antithetical to popular culture, a culture which we have allowed to infuse our churches, schools, families, and hearts.
This teaching needs to be complemented with a reexamination of our entire church culture. Does our church reflect the vision, values, and tools of the kingdom of God or of the world? This has enormous implications for the geographic location of our churches, our style of worship, the design of our ministries, our budgets and spending priorities, etc. Our book doesn’t get into all of these difficult issues, but we hope the book will get our pastors and elders to start thinking about these issues.
Laypersons need to grasp the message and lifestyle of the kingdom and take it into all of life, including amongst the “weak, foolish, lowly, and the despised” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).
Steve: A pastor’s life can be so tough. I agree with Brian about the need to embrace and flesh out a kingdom focus. I do want them to be encouraged that their churches, small and large, can contribute in great ways. An important principle in community development is to start small and succeed. Every church can help by starting to do some things and even stopping doing some things in terms of helping poor and broken people.
If your wildest prayers are answered, what difference will the book make?
Brian: Jesus came preaching the good news of the kingdom of God in word and in deed to the poor. The church is the body, bride, and fullness of Jesus Christ. When people encounter the church, they are supposed to encounter Jesus Christ. It is my hope that as a result of this book, the church will be more of what it is called to be. That in America’s inner cities, in rural Appalachia, in the slums of Mexico City, and in the countryside of Uganda, poor people will look at the local church in their community and say, “That church over there is King Jesus, the One who is fixing me and my community so that one day there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain because He is making everything new. I love Him because He first loved me.”
Steve: My prayer is that people will know that Jesus is Lord and sent by the Father because of the love and unity of His people (John 17). So any way that this book contributes to the fruit of His Spirit being made more manifest in us so that we stand together in love as a testimony of who He is, then … wow.
For more information please visit www.whenhelpinghurts.org.