The most helpful book I've ever read on issues of poverty and missions to the poorest parts of the world is "When Helping Hurts" by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. The group we are working with in Chad makes it required reading for those who come here. Knowing that – it saved us countless hours of interviews about their mission philosophy.
I read the book for the first time in 2010 and re-read it on the flight to Chad. I would summarize the book this way:
- Have you ever done anything to help poor people? … Have you ever done anything to hurt poor people? Most of us
would probably answer no to this question, but the reality is that we may have done considerable harm to poor people in the very process of trying to help them. The federal government made this mistake for decades. Well-intentioned welfare programs penalized work and created dependence.
- Unfortunately, many Christian ministries do the same thing. When we focus on symptoms rather than on the underlying disease, we are often hurting the very people we are trying to help.
- The Bible clearly calls on us to care for the poor. The New Testament's emphasis is to take care of those in the church first, but certainly God has a heart for all who suffer – so we often feel like we are doing "good" if we give money to someone who asks. When actually – that could be more hurtful than anything. We read 1 John 3:17 "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?" So sometimes – it just feels better to do "something" (a way to express our pity) – when actually that "something" could be causing greater harm. We want to "give to the poor" but perhaps just giving to the loudest and most frequent asker isn't the best poverty policy – for you (as an individual) or for a church.
Here is the conclusion to the introduction of the book that summarizes it well:
We write this book with a great deal of excitement… and two convictions:
1) North American Christians are simply not doing enough. We are the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth. Period. Yet, most of us live as though there is nothing terribly wrong in the world. We attend our kids' soccer games, pursue our careers, and take beach vacations while 40 percent of the world's inhabitant struggle just to eat every day. And in our own backyards, the homeless, those residing in ghettos, and the wave of immigrants live in a world outside the economic and social mainstream of North America. We do not necessarily need to feel guilty about our wealth. But we do need to get up every morning with a deep sense that something is terribly wrong with the world and yearn and strive to do something about it. There is simply not enough yearning and striving going on.
2) We believe that when North American Christians do attempt to alleviate poverty, the methods used often do considerable harm to both the materially poor and the materially non-poor. Our concern is not just that these methods are wasting human, spiritual, financial, and organizational resources but that these methods are actually exacerbating the very problems they are trying to solve.
So – as we spend the few days in Chad – we constantly are thinking about how we can help those with the greatest need without hurting them and without making them dependent on American money, and making them (or us) believe that if their bellies are filled – they have all they need. The reality is – their greatest need is Christ. So how can we help them physically in a way that points them to all the real solutions to their real needs? That is our mission here and with Advent Conspiracy.