By Kevin Squires | Senior Director of Church Partnerships
I like to think. I like to think a lot. In fact, I often analyze things so much that I get lost in the process and forget what the purpose was in the first place. Honestly though, I have to admit that I find joy in the process. I find joy in having a wandering mind… crossing my fingers and placing hope in Tolkien’s belief that, “Not all those who wander are lost.” But, being born with a wandering mind, I have always had difficulty turning it off. You’ve no doubt heard the metaphor, “The wheel is spinning but the mouse is dead;” unfortunately for me, the steroid pumping, 5-hour energy drinking, energizer mouse never dies. Rather, he keeps spinning the wheel, constantly trying to journey from the village of good to the land of great.
So, that’s how my mind works. Combine that with my calling and career in global orphan care, and it’s probably clear to see why someone like me was drawn to Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s earth-shattering book When Helping Hurts, an analytical book on discovering effective ways to alleviate poverty. As soon as the book hit the shelf in 2009, the landscape of modern missions began to change. Conversations changed. Postures changed. Terminology changed. Help changed. The book revealed the painful truth about alleviating poverty and how the past several decades of “helping” the poor may in fact have created unhealthy, long-term dependency in many impoverished areas across the world. Combining thorough research from the front lines of missions with solid, Biblical theology, the authors challenged churches, missionaries, governments, and non-profits to stop and evaluate how they “help.” They forced us to humbly and honestly ask ourselves… Are we making a difference in the long term? Are we helping or hurting? And perhaps most importantly, how can we best apply the Gospel to a broken world?
The aftermath of the book caused many people to take a step back from the way we had ministered through the years. I, myself, spent countless hours in prayer, humbly confessing ways I had messed up. How many handouts had I scattered across the dozens of countries where I had served? How many international churches had I unintentionally tread-on in my pursuit to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth? How many times had I returned from the mission field, raising my glass and waving my banner that the mission had been accomplished, knowing full and well that the people I had served were still hungry, still thirsty, still homeless, and still oblivious about the loving arms of God?
After my confession, I remember scraping myself off the floor, wiping the tears off my face, and vowing to alter the way I approached missions. I used When Helping Hurts to teach Sunday school classes, train mission teams, and even took part in a book study as the organization I work with examined ways we could change how we served the poor. Things were changing, and with it, my internal guilt was transforming into newfound confidence.
But then, it happened. I began noticing within myself, and others in the field of missions, an emergent attitude about the nature of “helping.” Although the book had clearly kickstarted conversations that had led to a gradual incline in terms of awareness to poverty issues, it was becoming apparent to me that something was brewing that was causing a steady decline in terms of actions to alleviate poverty. As I traveled from conference to conference and church to church trying to engage Christians to act, I began sensing a humble-driven fear in the American church that borderlined paralysis. People began mistakenly using the book as a checklist, and if models of care and methods of poverty alleviation didn’t meet the exact standards of the book, many Christians simply wouldn’t act. Could it be that the fear of creating dependency and unsustainable methods is leading to an American church unwilling to move at all? Could it be that our desire not to hurt everyone is paralyzing our desire to help anyone?
No doubt you’ve heard the popular metaphor… “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” The expression, first recorded in 1512 by German writer Thomas Murner, implies that an entire idea or practice doesn’t need to be rejected or discontinued if part of it is good and effective. Clearly When Helping Hurts did an excellent job identifying the murky water of the metaphoric bathtub of poverty; however, I’m beginning to wonder what many of the readers have done with the baby.
Over the past several years, I have spoken with many mission pastors, mission executives, and congregational lay leaders who are beginning to hesitate on getting active in missions because they simply don’t know how to help without hurting. More than anything, they seem to feel a sense of overwhelming conviction from their past intentions that is leading them to think that any form of help they could give would only create more problems. Little do they know, the fear of creating negative effects is leading to an equally disastrous result of apathy and inaction. Unfortunately, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. are becoming ever-increasingly true in that, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
So, how do we change this fearful reaction of the American church? How can we change the climate and culture of the American church from always thinking about when helping hurts and start thinking about when helping helps?
First, it starts in how we understand the Gospel. Mark Twain said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that scare me, but the parts I do understand.” And one thing I understand is that when the Spirit leads, I follow… no matter how scary that may be. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus didn’t stop to explain if the Samaritan’s relief efforts would create a level of unhealthy dependency for the battered Jewish man. The Samaritan just helped. The fear of creating dependency was also missing in Matthew 25 when we were called to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. As a matter of fact, the one that ignored those things, for whatever reason, was the one who Christ cursed and said, “Depart from me!”
Make one thing certain, the disciples and early church leaders understood the wonderful effects of when helping helps. They understood that apathy, fear, and inaction had no place in Kingdom living. Matter of fact, the revolutionary Spirit-empowered church of Acts was built and continued to grow from the blood, sweat, and tears of when helping helps… when loving helps… when grace helps. In The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark spotlights the “helping culture” of the early church…
“Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violence and ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”
Second, it starts with how we understand helping, or servanthood. Duane Elmer, author of Cross-cultural Servanthood, defines serving as “the ability to relate to people in such a way that their dignity as human beings is affirmed, leaving them more empowered and equipped to live God-glorifying lives.” The beauty of his words drastically differ from the problems that Corbett and Fikkert show in the early days of the American mission movement, where serving and helping focused on the intent of the helper rather than the outcome for those being helped. John Perkins states, “Acts of charity can be dangerous because givers can feel good about actions that actually accomplish very little, or even create unhealthy dependency. Overcoming an attitude of charity is a difficult task because it requires givers to demand more of themselves than good will.”
It took me years to understand that my primary calling in life is not to serve people; rather, it’s to follow and imitate Christ. In doing that, I’m constantly learning three things about myself: Who am I, How Can I Best Serve Others, and How Can I Best Be Served. In viewing those three lessons through an American church lens, the first two make sense, but the third often doesn’t seem to fit… unless you look into the life of Christ. Christ was the greatest servant ever, but He also taught us lessons on how to BE served. In Matthew 26, we see the humility of Christ in receiving Mary’s offering of an expensive ointment (costing a year’s wages). Even though the disciples tried to stop her, Christ made it clear that the heart of servanthood rests in a relationship that’s reciprocal.
Finally, it starts with who has the Lordship over your help. We often think that we are in control of our service… how we help, who we help, why we help. Have you ever thought to take a step back and ask God to take control over those things? Have you ever wondered what missions would look like if God had Lordship over it, rather than you? Although the issues of dependency and sustainability are complex in the world of missions, does God even blink at their complexity? What would your actions look like if the Spirit guided your steps?
Maybe it would look something like this…
A few years ago, a man sat in a restaurant eating a sandwich. Glancing out the window, he spotted a homeless woman panhandling for money. Typically, he ignores things like this, but today was different. The Spirit of God would not allow him to look away… not this time. The man felt led to walk outside and give the woman $20, an act he had always vehemently been against. Shocked, the woman accepted, and the man returned to his table to eat. Minutes later, the woman approached the table, looking a little cleaner. With tears down her face, she explained that she was a college student simply doing research on homeless people. She asked the man if she could use this story in her class presentation. He said yes. To gain more information, she simply asked, “Why did you help me?” He smiled and began to share the Gospel. Weeks later, he received an email from the woman, explaining how her presentation brought tears to every cheek in the room and how the Gospel penetrated the hearts of many in the class.
You see… the man never stopped to consider if he was creating dependency. He never stopped to analyze the best way to help, or if his help would actually hurt. He simply stopped and listened to the voice that lives in all of those who call upon the name of the Lord. It had become apparent that the situation was less about him and more about Him. At that point, he gave up the Lordship of how, who, and why he should help and simply followed the Spirit’s lead. And in the end, God clearly cultivated his willingness to help, and then used it to expand His kingdom.
It took me a few times of reading When Helping Hurts before I was able to find the simple truth behind the book. The goal I see in the book isn’t to avoid hurting, it’s to reform helping. For me, part of that reformation has been realizing that the same Power that conquered the grave lives in me. That same Power not only built the Church, but has continued to sustain it and turn it into the driving force it is in over 200 countries today. So… what’s that Power leading you to do?