Is Our Helping Really Hurting?

5153rk8u36l-_aa115_This is an extremely provocative book and I absolutely loved it. Although written for a North American cultural mindset, it is certainly applicable across much of Europe. The byline is, ‘How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor..and yourself’.

We live in a culture where the concept of a ‘missions trip’ is now almost the ‘done thing’ in Christian circles. It’s become a sort of tradition to send our children on at least one of these kinds of trips before they enter into the ‘workplace’. The issue, and this book deals with it in-depth, is that much of what passes for ‘short term’ missioning’ actually does more harm than good in many cases.

The book is chock full of up to date scenarios and discussion questions aimed to provoke thinking along a broad range of issues. There is a great chapter on understanding poverty from a biblical perspective, including some really helpful insights into how our own presuppositions regarding this issue motivate our approach to dealing with them.

For instance, if we believe poverty is caused by a lack of knowledge then we will seek to look for educational cures. If we believe it is oppression by the rich then we will seek to work for social justice. If we think poverty is caused by the personal sins of the poor then we will work hard at evangelisation and discipleship. Finally, if we think it boils down to finances then we will seek to make material resources available to the poor.

This chapter is one of the strongest in the book. Being poor is not just about a lack of finances but about the brokenness of our society in relational terms. The Bible reminds us that God created humanity for relationship with (1) God Himself (2) with self (3) with others (3) and (4) with creation. Obviously, the fall has impinged on all of these areas. Because of the multi-faceted nature of humanity, the book argues that we need to have a multi-faceted approach to alleviating poverty.

Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, self, with others, and with the rest of creation.

Often churches just want to throw large sums of money at problems and, trust me, often this is proper. But, in many cases, this is not the answer and leaves us with huge issues of paternalism. The book reminds us forcefully not to do things for the poor that they can do themselves. Pp115ff offer some valuable insights into the forms of paternalistic traps that we can find ourselves easily falling into.

Perhaps some of the biggest criticisms in the book are aimed at the multi-billion dollar Short Term Mission industry in America and the Western world. According to the evidence (or lack of it) most STM experiences do not benefit the people they are intended to. Even those who go on them generally fall back into old patterns of life and thought within months of their return from a trip. In other words, there is very little to see for the huge sums of money being spent. Very often, the 30k needed to fund an average overseas missions trip could be better spent on the ground by local practitioners, but this is far too radical a step for many!

This book, in my humble opinion, should be required reading by every church leader and STM agency seeking to help and/or send people to work in areas of ‘deprivation’ (however you define it). AT NCC we do work closely with a couple of American churches who send us mission teams on a yearly basis. But we have developed a true partnership and they come to us based on our requirements and knowledge of the local needs. They fit into the ethos of our church. Yes, a degree of babysitting is involved but we take the position that whilst they are with us they can learn and so we offer opportunities to be taught by some of our leaders. This enables them to realise that poor does not mean stupid and that mission in God’s kingdom is a two way street. In my experience, people more often than not leave us having learned more than they have taught.

These men have written other books which I am in the process of reading and digesting. There will be more to come, but, for now, this book is a must buy!!

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  1. Mama of 6

    We have been missionaries for 33 years and this book has so much truth in it, especialy about “missions trips.” We have been “forcerd” to host several of these teen groups in the past and it really opened our eyes. I could say more, but read the book and also read the book Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton.

  2. Joey Espinosa

    Totally agree that this should be required reading for every church leader. I read this last summer (along with Toxic Charity), and wrote about it at least 3 times on my blog.

    As an in-the-USA missionary, I’ve seen so many of the principles hold true. Too often, western mission trips foster paternalism and long-term dependence. And I for one have told at least a few groups “NO” when they’ve offered to come help in the area I work. If they are not aiming to build a long-term relationship with people in this community, there is no point in them coming.

    However, let’s not completely write off STM’s. I have seen them (In my life and in the lives of others) be catalysts for change. We just need to make sure that those STM’s are done well.

  3. Katie

    Definitely interested in reading this book. I have been on both sides of the ministry coin, in that I have been a part of the STM teams and hosted them as well. Therefore, I pray carefully about mission opportunities outside my immediate area of ministry. Healthy mission service, whether short term or long term should always come from a place of obedience and humility in listening to the Spirit. I liked the comment made in the above interview by the author about misconstruing the selfish nature of our giving into a selfless act. Always hope that I act with love but also caution in helping others, only to guard myself from acting in pride and self adulation. Will have to read this soon.

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