When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is a fantastic resource for ministers and lay leaders who are both beginners and experienced veterans of community and mission work. The theologically conservative writers begin with a strong case for evangelicals to engage in community work. For moderates, this can be a helpful resource for communicating with conservatives on justice issues. The authors distinguish between old models of charity-based work versus new methods of promoting leadership and empowerment in poor communities through asset-based community development (ABCD). This holistic method of approach allows for a thoroughly coherent and helpful guidebook that people of all theological backgrounds should be inspired to use.
The authors start with a biblical basis for justice. In short, Jesus declared that the kingdom is both now on earth and in heaven. If Jesus is Lord, we should take his commands and lessons on the treatment of the poor seriously. Because the Church is supposed to follow the mission of Christ on earth, engaging our communities should be central to our narrative. Many times, the Church is sidetracked with personal piety issues (much like the Pharisees) and are distracted from its real mission. Fikkert, the main writer, quotes Scripture after Scripture on the poor and oppressed, and uses wealth and poverty statistics to bolster his point:
“Economic historians have found that for most of human history there was little economic growth and relatively low economic inequality…by the year 1820…the average income per person in the richest countries was only about four times higher than the average income per person in the poorest countries. Then the Industrial Revolution hit, causing unprecedented economic growth in a handful of countries but leaving the rest of the world behind…while the average American lives on more than ninety dollars per day, approximately one billion people live on less than one dollar per day and 2.6 billion—40% of the world’s population—live on less than two dollars per day. If God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments were to have a concern for the poor during eras of relative economic equality, what are we to conclude about God’s desire for the North American church today? (page 42)"He cites the divide in the church between liberals and conservatives in the early 20th century for why evangelicals focused more on salvation than justice, and criticizes some government methods that have actually kept people in poverty. He condemns the old system of welfare for punishing those trying to work and affirms welfare reform.
Most practically, Fikkert tell stories about his own personal failings and long path toward realizing the best methods of community engagement. Fikkert talks about the difference between asset-based and needs-based approaches. The needs-based approach can enforce negative cultural assumptions that people who are both white and economically advantaged should be in charge. White, affluent outsiders tend to approach a situation by stating what a community, family, or person doesn’t have and what they need to obtain. This approach fails to encourage empowerment and leadership development. The asset-based approach starts by finding out what assets and skills a community has and builds on this information. He states that you should "not do things for people that they can do for themselves (pg 115).” Many times, a neighborhood can organize to find solutions that outsiders try to find for them.
He encourages churches to work with microfinance professionals who lend money, time, and business training to poor individuals to help them start businesses. He also encourages the “Business as Mission” model where small business can be used for ministry (see CBF’s work with Ben Newell and Delta Jewels, a mission where women earn their own college tuition while learning business skills). He gives less ambitious suggestions as well, including helping with job training and financial education.
Fikkert affirms the need to give immediately in crisis situations. For instance, when Hurricane Katrina hit, people needed rescue, medical care, debris clean-up, and more. Years later, he shares the example of a mission team that visits and paints houses while the owners sit back and watch. This approach reinforces the idea that outsiders are the only ones who can help, when the reality is that organizers could use empowerment to encourage leadership from within that community. Outsiders in these situations should plug-in only as secondary helpers to internal community leaders.
Fikkert’s approach is innovative and one that more churches and mission leaders should be willing to engage and discuss. Fikkert questions whether some missions work is really effective in the long run or only makes us feel good for getting something done quickly. His ideas of people-development over task-oriented missions have the potential for long-range, effective, and sustainable ministry. I urge you to read this book and have a discussion with your friends and church members!
Find out more about “When Helping Hurts” and related materials at this website: http://www.whenhelpinghurts.org/