How Do we Help Those Who Won't Help Themselves?

Those of you who know me personally or have followed this blog for any length of time will know that I read a lot of books. A while back I read a book entitled, ‘Toxic Charity:How the Church Hurts Those They Help (and How to Reverse It)’. I will enclose a short review here, although this is not the main point of this article.

The book has 10 chapters and is written by Robert L Lupton, the founder of FCS Urban Ministries. His aim is to help Christian churches to think more carefully about the kind of ‘help’ they are giving to the poor and oppressed, particularly in the Two Thirds World. According to Lupton, ‘good intentions‘ whilst admirable are, often, dangerous and counter productive to those we are seeking to help if we have not thought through the implications seriously beforehand. According to Lupton, instead of encouraging dependency we should be looking at ways in which our giving and/or helping can produce more independency.

This is a really helpful book for those of us working in areas where ‘toxic charity’ is a real concern. I recommend that you buy a copy, digest it slowly and make your own conclusions. Consider the following quote:

For disadvantaged people to flourish into their full, God-given potential, they must leave behind dependencies that impede their growth. Initiatives that thwart their development, though rightly motivated, must be restructured to reinforce self-sufficiency if they are to become agents of lasting and positive change.

At Niddrie we are constantly assessing and reassessing all of our ministries and outreaches. We have tried (and failed) with several local initiatives in order to help those struggling financially. We are currently still in the early days of developing our ‘back to work’ discipleship strategy which has seen 3 of our interns into full-time employment within the last couple of years. We are regularly trying to think of initiatives that focus on developing a work ethic for our new believers in order that they (1) do not continue in idleness and (2) recognise that God has saved them for some specific ‘work of service’ (either vocational or in the workplace). Although these ideas are sound, we face do face some serious stumbling blocks. According to Lupton (speaking about microloans):

Experienced microlending organisations have identified three essential elements for successful microloans: The borrower must have: (1) an ingrained work ethic, (2) a demonstrated entrepreneurial instinct, and (3) a stable support system. Like legs on a three-legged stool, all three must undergird the borrower or the transaction will not stand.

There are still vestiges of this ethic here in Niddrie. Many locals would have worked hard, sometimes with 2 or 3 jobs to boost their income. Sadly, the advent of the welfare state and the huge upsurge in the drug culture (prescribed and otherwise) have left us with a (hardcore) subculture with no work ethic, no drive and no family support system. People have no motivation to work hard whatsoever because, ultimately, they know the state will bail them out as it has done for generations. Generally, people are happy ‘getting by’ with their Giros and subsidising their income with a the odd bit of work here and there (cash in hand you understand).

Niddrie is not Africa or some other Two Thirds World nation where many people (it would appear) have a more entrepreneurial spirit. Many people in these nations will work hard doing almost anything in an effort to provide for their families and they think nothing of working 18 hour days (there are also many who are lazy bums too!). Of course, the advantage in many of these countries (and I saw it first hand in Brasil) is that people aren’t subject to the same tight governmental regulations and financial restraints when it comes to business start-ups and entrepreneurial endeavours. But, still, ask the average Niddron who comes into our cafe what their dream is and they will look at you blankly. As for a stable support system, forget it. The abused child of yesteryear dragged up by an alcoholic dad and a Valium loving mother is now a ‘parent‘ himself (I use that term purposely as we are seeing an increasing number of ‘mothers’ going awol here). It is tragic. How do we even begin to put into practice some of our ‘community stimulus’  ideas when individualism and familial breakdown is pretty much the standard on our scheme for so many of those who need our help and support? The answer is at once obvious, yet appears to many, at first glance, to be trite and far too simplistic. I will state it nonetheless.

We must continue to preach the only, true saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ more loudly and clearly, praying for deep, personal spiritual revival and renewal in the minds and hearts of our listeners.

There it is. Read it again. We must preach Christ and Him crucified. We must never present Him as a self-help option or as someone who has come to make their life better or to give them another handout. He came to call all of us to ‘deny self and pick up our cross daily.’ He is calling all of us to a life of ongoing repentance. I truly believe that only a move of God’s Holy Spirit in a person’s life is going to motivate them toward a life of constructive independency. Before that happens they need to be born again. No spiritual renewal = no physical and communal renewal. Fact. Now, many of my dearest and most respected friends will argue that the main job of the church is to proclaim the gospel and leave the rest of this stuff up to the state or other outside agencies. I wholeheartedly agree.

The issue comes in dealing with the new believer who has spent the last 30 years of his life in a drug induced daze, sponging off the state and living at home with his girlfriend and 3 children. Oh, and not to mention the other 4 children he has to 3 other women on the scheme. He now becomes our ‘problem’ as we work out what biblical discipleship looks like for him. How do we encourage him to begin to make a positive contribution to society instead of just taking all of the time? How can we disentangle him from a benefits system that actually leaves him financially better off unemployed?

At NCC we have seen first hand that the only way a person can be stimulated to move away from the benefits system and into the workplace is through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Not only does he save lost souls but He is the great motivator when it comes to the complete turnaround of lives. That’s why we have seen long-term drug addicts get their first job(s) for decades. And the support system they need but don;t get at home? The local church. The local body of believers that encourages them, rebukes them, corrects them and helps keep them motivated. Our love and discipleship does not stop because they have moved into the workplace. At Niddrie, we are looking for people to move to independency almost from the moment they come to faith. In the early days we encourage people to volunteer in the community cafe and to help with the maintenance of the building as a first step on the ladder. Those who are after a free ride soon get fed up and leave but those who really want to move on with their lives stay and work hard. The next step is often a voluntary job in the community one day a week. They are baby steps but they are steps int he right direction. It is about the only system we have in place at the moment to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is a long-term objective but we are beginning to see the early signs of fruit.

As yet, we haven’t come up with a 100% successful, workable strategy. I suspect we will muddle along, make mistakes and come out the other end all the wiser. Any and all suggestions are seriously welcomed. I do know that however we structure things here we need to (1) Keep the gospel the main thing, (2) keep the local church as the centre of all we are doing, (3) see all projects as a means for gospel proclamation and/or ongoing discipleship, (4) ensure that all income generated is reinvested into the community, and (5) is timetabled to ensure future, indigenous leadership.

Pray for us as we think things through. I will write further on these issues.

Posted by Mez McConnell

Mez McConnell, is the Senior Pastor of Niddrie Community Church (Edinburgh, Scotland) and the founder and Ministry Director of 20schemes. He has been involved in full time pastoral ministry, both church planting and revitalisation since 1999.

  1. Thanks Mez. This is helpful. I’m looking forward to seeing you at T4G in April!

    Reply

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