When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts

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 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, in many cases 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!!