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Book Review "When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself" by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

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Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself, New Edition ed. (Chicago, IL.: Moody Publishers, 2009)

- reviewed by Karl Dahlfred

Can you help the poor by just giving more money?  Lots of people and churches have tried that route and been burned in the process.  In “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor... and Yourself” authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert have provided a helpful guide for churches and individual Christians to think about the best ways to love the poor in ways that help both parties.

About the Authors

Some of the best books are those that combine the academic and theoretical with the practical.  For that reason, I really appreciate what authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkett have accomplished in this book.  They write intelligently and clearly but not from an ivory tower.  Corbett has worked for many years with “a major Christian relief and development agency, serving in roles ranging from grassroots community developer, to country director, to serving on the global management team.”  Fikkett, on the other hand, is a researcher and professor at Covenant College.  Together, they work with the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, “a research and training initiative that seeks to equip churches around the world to minister to the economic and spiritual needs of low-income people.” (Kindle Locations 420-425)

Goal and Contents of the Book

The authors state up front that this book is not comprehensive but merely an introduction to the topic.  Their stated goal is to recommend “appropriate ways for a North American congregation—and its missionaries—to participate in poverty alleviation at home and abroad, taking into account the God-ordained mission of the church and the typical church's organizational capacity.” (Kindle Locations 250-252)

The book breaks down into three parts, moving from the theoretical to the applied. 

In “Part 1 : Foundational Concepts for Helping Without Hurting”, the authors talk about the reason Jesus came to earth, namely to bring about healing and reconciliation, both spiritual and physical.  Of course, that will not happen completely this side of glory but the church is to represent Jesus in this world by doing what he did, which includes caring for physical needs.  The mission of the church is a topic of dispute these days and I will give some thoughts on this later in the review.  

In “Part 2: General Principles for Helping Without Hurting,”  the authors lay out the differences between relief, rehabilitation, and development, illustrated by many practical stories and case studies. A key thought that drives this section is this: “One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make -by far- is applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.” (Kindle Locations 1610-1611)  Too often, people try to help the poor with a handout whereas what they really need is someone to walk alongside them to think through how to use the assets they already have to better their own situation.  Outside help should always enable them to become independent, and not cause greater dependence.  

In “Part 3: Practical Strategies for Helping Without Hurting,” the authors apply the previous principles and theory to short-term missions (ch. 7), to churches helping the poor in their own local area (ch. 8), and to churches finding ways to help the poor in other parts of the world through micro-finance and business as missions (ch. 9).  As a long-term missionary who interacts with lots of short-term teams, I found chapter 7 to be particularly helpful in explaining why well-intentioned short-term teams are many times counter-productive to those they go to serve, and not even that beneficial for those who go.  However, the authors’ goal is not to dump on short-term missions.  After giving a critical assessment of short-term missions, they offer positive, practical recommendations for how short-term missions can be done well.  In brief, you can’t save the world or fix global poverty during a two week trip, but you can support long-term development that is happening on the ground.

A Good Starting Point

The reason I read this book is because I don’t know much about working with the poor, much less helping them.  I’ve given to beggars sometimes, and lent money to several people (I did not get it back).  I have saved up recyclables for the bottle collectors in my Thai neighborhood, and sometimes hired them to do yard work.  So, I have learned from experience that handouts are not always helpful, and that giving work is better than giving money.  But beyond that, I wasn’t sure what to do.

After reading “When Helping Hurts,”  I am still not entirely sure what helping the poor should look like in my life. But I have learned some basic principles to guide my thinking.  I have a better idea of what not to do, and why not to do it, and also a better idea of the kind of thing that should be done.  I feel like I now know just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to actually do anything effective in a long-term-meaningful-development sort of way. 

And what exactly is the extent of my biblical responsibility to care for the poor?  That may sound like a minimalist type of question, like the Pharisee who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” but I don’t think I am called to full-time community development.  I am called to do vocational ministry as a missionary, namely teaching, preaching, pastoral care, etc.  I want to take up my biblical responsibility to care for the poor but that looks different for different people.  I appreciate the fact that the authors did not say things like “Every church must have an organized church-run mercy ministry” or “All Christians must do such-and-such specific thing otherwise you don’t care about the poor.”  On the other hand, I am left to work out the implications of the book on my own, and with those in my church.  So, as a starting point, this is a great book for thinking about the pertinent issues but I would need to do more reading, and depend on other people to work out the practical work out what to do with what I’ve read.  To facilitate this, the authors include questions at the beginning and end of each chapter to help groups think through the application of what they’ve been reading.

What is the Mission of the Church?

Among American evangelicals, and especially in Reformed circles, there is currently a debate about the mission of the church.  At the risk of giving an overly simplified summary of the debate, the question is framed like this: Is the mission of the church, as a formal organized institution, limited to preaching the Word, administering the Sacraments, and caring for the congregation of local believers, thus leaving decisions about schooling, politics, and caring for the poor to the consciouses of individual Christians?  Or is the church, as an institution, obligated to be involved in all areas of life, including arts, culture, social and political issues, and thus redeem the culture by pick up the cultural mandate that Adam dropped in the Garden of Eden?  Authors Corbett and Fikkert answer the question like this:

“What is the task of the church? We are to embody Jesus Christ by doing what He did and what He continues to do through us: declare—using both words and deeds—that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords who is bringing in a kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace. And the church needs to do this where Jesus did it, among the blind, the lame, the sick and outcast, and the poor.” (Kindle Locations 661-663)

I hear and appreciate the authors’ assertion that the church needs to be involved in caring for the poor.  But is there a difference between the responsibility of the church as an institution and the responsibility of individual Christians?  Biblically, there can be no doubt that a church should care for the poor in its own midst (Acts 6, 1 Tim. 5).  But does that responsibility extend to the surrounding neighborhood?  To the next town over? the whole city? the other side of the world?  How much can one person, or one church, really do?  That question is never clearly addressed in the book.  At the same time, I was glad to read that the authors’ don’t seek to impose any one particular model of helping the poor on all churches.  They write:

“Hence, while the church must care for the poor, the Bible gives Christians some freedom in deciding the extent and manner in which the local church should do this, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes, the local church might feel it is wise to own and operate a ministry to the poor under the direct oversight of its leadership. In other situations, the local church might feel that it would be wiser to minister indirectly by starting or supporting a parachurch ministry or simply by encouraging individuals to reach out to the poor. Wisdom must be used to determine the best course of action in each situation. However, whenever God's people choose to minister outside of the direct oversight of the local church, they should always be seeking to partner with the local church, which has God-given authority over people's spiritual lives.” (Kindle Locations 729-734)

Although it was probably beyond the scope of the book, I wish the authors would have spent more time discussing the mission of the church in relation the church as an institution and as individuals.  I appreciate the distinction that David Van Drunen makes between the church and individual Christians in “Living in God’s Two Kingdoms,” and it would have been good to see that distinction made by authors of “When Helping Hurts.”

As a book about helping the poor, Corbett and Fikkett have done a fantastic job. But to help myself think more clearly about the task of the church, I will need to do some additional reading.

Concluding Thoughts

Ever since I learned about “When Helping Hurts” more than a year ago, it has been on my “to-read” list.  I am so glad that I finally got around to it, because it is such a great introduction to the subject of helping the poor from a holistic perspective.  The authors spend most of their time discussing the alleviation of material poverty but very frequently emphasize the fact that the goal is not just to make people wealthier and more self-sufficient, but to see them reconciled to God and to those around them.  Poverty alleviation and economic development should not be done without the proclamation of the biblical Gospel, otherwise the end result will be self-sufficient secular people who have learned to depend on themselves instead of God.

For Further Reading

"Short Term Missions, Short Term Impact?"

"Living In God's Two Kingdoms" by David VanDrunen

"What is the Mission of the Church" by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert

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