Don’t check your brains at the door: 6 tips for effective community development

Those of you who grew up in church in the 90s might remember this book: Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door.  The basic idea is that Christianity and reason aren’t mutually exclusive.  I think the same idea applies to philanthropy.  With so much poverty in the world, how can we afford not to use our brains when deciding what community and economic development strategies to pursue?  Especially in resource-limited nonprofits, wasting resources on strategies that don’t help – or worse, hurt! – those they’re trying to help is painfully inefficient.  (I hate inefficiency.)

Here are 6 ideas from Toxic Charity that will help development organizations and individuals to be smarter with our resources.  In other words, follow these tips if you want to contribute to strategies that work (as well as possible given the complexities of poverty)!*

1)   Determine the real need. 

Is the need we’re addressing a chronic need or a crisis?  If it’s a crisis, by all means give whatever relief is needed (e.g. food, medical care, shelter).  Once a crisis is averted, however, individuals and communities need help returning to their pre-crisis conditions (i.e. rehabilitation; e.g. job training, alcohol and drug treatment, counseling) versus more relief.  If it’s a chronic need we’re addressing, determine which is appropriate: rehabilitation or development (i.e. improving a community for the long-haul; e.g. education, medical care, government infrastructure, job creation, etc.).

For example, in many communities in the US, “[poor] nutrition is certainly a problem,… but not starvation… And when we respond to a chronic need [poor nutrition] as though it were a crisis [starvation], we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment.”  (TC, Chapter 4)

If there’s hunger but no fear of starvation, a food co-op where members pay into a food-buying collective might be a good option.  These co-ops affirm the dignity of the members and allow the group to buy ten times more food as a collective entity (here’s a great video that explains the model:  If jobs are needed to afford food, food distribution coupled with a job readiness or placement program might address that need more directly.  However, if someone is facing a one-time crisis (e.g. a sudden loss of job, injury, illness), free relief could still be the best option at that time.

2)   Be respectful.

Respect is essential in determining the real need.  Listen to those you’re trying to help – not as an external savior, but as a co-collaborator.  Acknowledge their struggles, affirm their worth, and discover what ideas they have and what they have to offer.  Then join in alongside them!

“Made in the image of God, we are created with intrinsic worth… But those who have been devalued by society are unusually sensitive to the signals they receive from the dominant culture.  Those in service work have the responsibility to listen to what those in need are saying and… also to what is not being said.”  (TC, Chapter 9)

Personal interaction is obviously a good way to develop compassion and understanding, but books can be great as well!  Poor Economics gives an insightful and well-researched perspective on the complex economic environments of the poor, both domestically and internationally – here’s a quick summary.  This article also gives similar insights on a more personal level.

3)   Consider the environment.

“Teaching a man to fish is an individual matter; but gaining control of the lake is a community issue.” (TC, Chapter 7)

What use is it to know how to fish if you only have access to a polluted lake?  Or no lake?  Or if someone else controls access to the lake?

Development can’t be done in isolation.  Just as you can’t create a business strategy in a vacuum, you can’t create a development strategy without taking external factors into consideration.

  • What could affect our work here?
  • Will corrupt officials impede aid delivery or free markets?
  • What crops are the weather/climate/soil suitable for?
  • What’s the market – who would be interested in buying?
  • Are there cultural barriers to entry?
  • Are community members resistant to “outsiders”?
  • Is there racial/cultural/religious strife?
  • What are their current sources of income?
  • Do community members work together or stay isolated?

For more on corruption and poverty, check out Economic Gangsters – interesting read!  For more on the interplay of human interaction/game theory and poverty, check out Games in Economic Development (by one of my professors!).

4)   Assess available resources.

“[Need] does not constitute a call… Focus your efforts in one or two areas that have a compelling interest to you, [and] that maximize your giftedness.  Defining (narrowing) your involvement allows you to concentrate your best energies strategically while establishing… boundaries…  Your marriage and family life will thank you.  And your community will ultimately appreciate the presence of a healthy family and an effective neighbor.” (TC, Chapter 9)

You might have a passion for food, but you wouldn’t start a restaurant if you can’t cook.  Instead, you could review restaurants, interview chefs, or start a food blog of your favorite dishes.  If you still want to start a restaurant, you’ll probably want to find a chef and then get advice from other restaurateurs!  Similarly, you might have a passion for education, but why start a tutoring program if you have no experience in education?  Instead, maybe consider pursuing another approach that will use your gifts while still helping the community.  If you’re still passionate about education, actively recruit experienced staff, volunteers, or board members and allow them to help guide strategy development!

For churches: “A church full of businesspeople might be uniquely equipped to create successful businesses in a developing country.  A church full of educators could turn around an underperforming school in their community, even the entire system.”  (TC, Chapter 5)  A church of engineers could offer tech support for nonprofits and low-income neighborhoods or teach a computer course at a local school.  A church of doctors could do medical missions or host a neighborhood clinic (Doctors for Change, Doctors without Borders, Samaritan’s Purse).  (I know some people want to do something different in their non-work time – more on this in my next post.)

Also see what resources the community has.

  • Who are the leaders?
  • What individual skills or material resources could help others in the neighborhood?
  • What makes residents proud of their community?

“When we focus on what is wrong, we miss what is right.  And our strategies for helping are driven by combating problems rather than strengthening potential.” (TC, Chapter 10)

5)   Make smart investments.

“Successful entrepreneurs… are concerned with return on investment.  They want to see measurable impact and lasting results.” (TC, Chapter 7)

Yes, return on investment can be harder to calculate in philanthropic work, but an organization still needs to determine which programs will have the greatest possibility of achieving intended goals.  Here are some questions to ask when deciding what programs to invest in:

  • Will these programs effect long-term change?
  • Will they foster dependency?
  • Are they good in the short-term but bad in the long-term?
  • Are students just memorizing testing strategies or really learning?
  • Are short-term trips costing or benefiting the organization? **

Just as business investors check in periodically to see how their investments are doing, nonprofit programs need to be evaluated regularly to see if they’re still achieving their intended results.  It’s not enough to invest in a good cause – we must invest wisely.  We can’t get lazy because it’s a good cause – if anything, we must be more rigorous in our evaluations.  Someone’s life could depend on it!

(For individuals deciding which organizations to partner with, taking short-term “insight” trips could be beneficial to see how the organizations work.  If you can’t take a trip, offer to serve on the board or volunteer for a domestic service project.  Just do your research so you can make a smart investment!)

6)   Stay disciplined.

As we’ve seen, effective community development requires research, evaluation, and continual flexibility and adjustment.  The best strategy is often not the easiest strategy!

“Enabling the poor to create their own solutions is obviously a much slower process than fixing problems for them – painfully slow for high-capacity friends with resources who would effect a quick ‘cure’.” (TC, Chapter 8)

Successful community development collaboration is complicated.  Not only do nonprofits need to plan, communicate, implement, and evaluate excellently to succeed (much like for-profit businesses do!), but staff members, community residents, donors, and volunteers all bring different cultures, values, expectations, and agendas to a (hopefully) shared vision.  Coordinating all of this requires discipline, dedication, teamwork, and wisdom.

Given all of this complexity, please please don’t check your brains at the door!  Share more ideas in the Comments section below!


* If an organization you’re interested in doesn’t seem to be following these tips, don’t write them off right away.  Have a discussion (or two or three…) with the leaders about their mission and strategies.  Maybe there’s something going on behind the scenes you’re not aware of.  Or maybe you can help point them in the right direction.  Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts would be great reads!

** The president of a struggling seminary in Cuba allowed volunteers from American churches to come each year to do manual labor that they weren’t equipped for.  Despite the necessary labor-intensive pre-trip coordination (and post-trip fixing of shoddy workmanship!), she continued to allow churches to “help” because of her fear that they would cut off their ministry support otherwise.  “Oh, what she could have done with the nearly $30,000 this group was spending on this trip!  Still, the church’s forthcoming, smaller donation for the true needs of the seminary was essential to their continuing work…

Anyone with a business background (or even street smarts) would agree that the amount spent on service trips is extravagant when compared to the monetary value of the actual work done.  But when people with business backgrounds enter service work, they repeatedly fail to bring with them their common sense and business acumen, defaulting to traditional charity models.  They would not put up with this kind of return on investment in their professional lives.” (TC, Chapter 2)


Charity can hurt (and man, I’m a mooch!)

 “Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.”

– Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity

I’ve experienced some of this in my own life…

1)   Don’t get me wrong – I have an amazing life: wonderful friends and family, a beautiful house, access to food, plenty of clothes..  BUT I also have no incentive to work: I have ALL of this without needing to lift a finger.

2)   I’m also embarrassed that I don’t work.  When asked what I do, I often avoid eye contact and mumble, “uh.. nothing”.  I’m grateful that people care and want to help, but it’s embarrassing that I can’t land any of the jobs I’m applying for.

3)   I (sometimes) feel guiltily indebted to Andy: basically the entire time we’ve been married, he’s worked a full-time job while I’ve done just random things here and there.  I know I need to step up and contribute… don’t want him to regret his decisions to support (or marry) me! 😉

So how does this relate to charity, you ask?


1)   Destroys initiative.

Chapter 2: Juan Ulloa, Opportunity International’s Nicaragua Director, laments that American church partners “’destroy the initiative of [his] people’” and turn them into beggars: why work when donors continually provide free clothing, books, and manual labor?

2)   Emasculates. 

Chapter 3: After moving into an urban neighborhood, Lupton saw firsthand what happens when well-meaning donors bring over Christmas presents: “a father is emasculated in his own house in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his family… [and] children get the message that the ‘good stuff’ comes from rich people out there and it is free.”

3)   Hurts the giver.

Chapter 4: Lupton says it well: “No one wants to support irresponsibility.  Or create dependency.  Or feel used.  Unless the victim of misfortune exerts honest effort to regain self-reliance, the relationship between helper and helpee will tend to deteriorate.  At some point accountability is required.”


I know my situation is a little different (and poverty is so much more complicated than these 3 simple points), but charity – even when done with the best of intentions and out of love – can destroy incentive, emasculate, and hurt the helper/helpee relationship.  Hopefully these examples will help spark ideas for more effective development strategies (e.g. rethinking aid incentive structures, training and empowering, ensuring recipient accountability).

Please leave any other ideas in the Comments section below!



A lot of these ideas are from Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton and are very similar to those in When Helping Hurts (a book I’ve posted on before: here and here).  More to come in future posts!

Without Ownership, Sustainability Is a Mirage by Mike Egboh

(I just read Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton, and this article shares a lot of the same points – similar to When Helping Hurts also.  Hopefully I’ll have a post up soon with more about Toxic Charity!)

Without ownership, sustainability is a mirage

By Mike Egboh on 16 January 2014

Sustainability. We hear and use that word frequently in international development, and most of the time the word is abused. But what does it really mean?

As a Nigerian leading the Partnership for Transforming Health Systems 2, a six-year project funded by the the U.K. Department for International Development to strengthen Nigeria’s health system, I can tell you based on decades of development program implementation in Sub-Saharan Africa — and Nigeria in particular — what it means to me. I have lived it.

Grant recipients in developing countries must first understand the rationale behind the grant, the benefits to them and their role in its implementation before they will embrace it. Unless the people of a nation truly buy into the project and are passionate about its goals, it will not last. Until they own it, they cannot sustain it. Ownership precedes sustainability.

Here are three lessons I’ve learned that can help to ensure a project is sustainable:

1. Make people part of the solution

At the inception of the PATHS 2 program in 2008, Nigeria had about 2 percent of the world’s population, but contributed 10 percent of the world’s maternal deaths. To reverse this trend, the project has been supporting the government of Nigeria at the national, state and local government level, working in five states of Kano, Kaduna, Jigawa, Enugu and Lagos to improve the health of women and children, especially in rural areas.

Jigawa, Kaduna and Kano are three states in Northwest Nigeria with high rates of maternal mortality — as high as 1,100 deaths per 100,000 live births. One of the major contributors to maternal deaths is poor access to facilities. Traveling to a health facility can involve long distances, bad roads and high costs, contributing to women dying in childbirth before ever reaching help.

To improve access to facilities, save women’s lives and make the community part of the solution, we’ve established an initiative in collaboration with the State Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Development called the Emergency Transport Scheme. We partnered with Nigeria’s powerful and well-organized transport union to turn taxi drivers into volunteer ambulance drivers who use their own cars to get pregnant women to the hospital or clinic during obstetric emergencies. Under this program, the union drivers get training on safe driving and understanding the danger signs in pregnancy. Drivers who volunteer for this program get special privileges in their day jobs, such as being promoted to the front of taxi ranks. Since the program began in 2012, the ETS has helped more than 2,274 women receive timely medical help.

In addition, PATHS 2 has facilitated an Emergency Maternal Fund in more than 50 communities in Kaduna. This draws upon donations from community members. Very poor members of the community can borrow from it and repay later without interest to help cover the costs of caring for maternal and child health emergencies.

Without programs like these that enable communities to see their roles clearly, get involved and become active participants, sustainability is a mere illusion.

2. Listen to the community

In Nigeria, we’ve found that getting people involved at the grassroots level — and really listening and responding to their concerns, their fears and their hopes — can have a positive impact on the lives of people who need help the most.

One of PATHS 2’s key efforts has been refurbishing health facilities in an effort to get expectant mothers to use them. Many pregnant women were giving birth at home using traditional birth attendants, which increased risk of death or injury both to themselves and their baby. So it was important to understand why women were using this riskier option, instead of making our own assumptions.

What we found is that many of these facilities had fallen into disrepair, people did not feel welcomed by health care providers, and staff morale was low. Thanks to the creation of Facility Health Committees, made up of local citizens, the health centers are more accountable — and have stronger links — to the communities they serve. Today, the health centers are clean and modern. Patients say they feel welcomed. Staff, who are better trained, are able to provide around-the-clock care in emergencies. At the same time, we recognized the need to accommodate local customs, so traditional birth attendants are being trained to identify when a pregnant woman is in danger and refer them to a facility.

These activities help ensure that people have a voice in the outcome, making it more likely they will carry on with the work long after we are gone.

3. Look to the youth

Like many countries, Nigeria faced a serious problem when it came to getting trained doctors to serve in rural areas. As of 2012, there were about 18 skilled professionals (doctors, nurses, midwives) per 10,000 people, compared to the World Health Organization’s recommended ratio of almost 23 skilled health workers for every 10,000 people.

Very often, rural health facilities cannot attract doctors because of their remote locations, and because the local government authorities cannot pay for their services.

So we turned to Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps, which runs a compulsory year-long program of national service for young people after graduation from a university or polytechnic school. We signed an agreement to send health professionals to our project sites. Some of those medical graduates who are doctors, nurses and pharmacists are now selectively posted to provide basic emergency obstetric care in rural health facilities that are supported by the PATHS 2 project. This means that the lives of mothers and children are being saved and more patients are seeking care at rural health facilities.

Involving the youth in solving a nation’s toughest challenges is a critical component of making a project sustainable.

We know that good health is essential if our families and our nation are to thrive, develop and prosper. But I also know from working on development projects throughout my career that the best intentions can fall short if we don’t involve the community and listen to their concerns and input. They must be part of the solution. Until you own it, you cannot sustain it.


Abdulkadir leads a group of health volunteers in Nigeria, where the U.K. Department for International Development uses an innovative community-based approach to help women safely deliver their babies. Involving people at the grassroots level helps ensure that a project becomes sustainable. 

Photo by: Lindsay Mgbor / DfID / CC BY-NC-SA


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Mike Egboh

Mike Egboh is national program manager for the Abt Associates-led Partnership for Transforming Health Systems 2 in Nigeria. A Harvard MBA graduate, Egboh has over 30 years of experience supporting the health system in his native Nigeria.

i hate seeing panhandlers (and the complexity of poverty)

Confession: I hate seeing panhandlers.  All these conflicting thoughts immediately start flooding through my mind when I see them: “I want to help… I don’t want them to waste my money… I shouldn’t be judging them… They look healthy enough to get a job…  I’d rather use my money to help the poor on a larger scale…”  (that last thought doesn’t sound quite like that when I’m sitting there in my car, but you get the idea :P)  It’s even worse when they try to do something in exchange for money – e.g. squeegeeing my windshield (it was cleaner BEFORE you touched it!!), ushering me into a spot on the street (I found it before you came running up, stop trying to take credit!!)…
Then I end up getting frustrated at myself, at them… and when I finally get away I feel relieved, guilty for feeling relieved, and guilty for not helping out.
Argh, I hate seeing panhandlers.  But not because of them… because of me.
I hate my inaction.  I hate my judgmentalism.  I hate that I can’t singlehandedly wipe out poverty (I know, I know..  didn’t you read the post about my god-complex? :P)
Maybe in part to assuage my guilt, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do to actually “help the poor on a larger scale” (did I just quote myself in my own blog?  Yes, yes I did).  The annoying thing is that it’s really complicated.  (Disclaimer: I’m simplifying things big-time in the next couple of statements.)
  • Food banks, welfare, and Medicaid help with hunger, unemployment, and medical expenses… but they can also cause dependency. [1]
  • Holiday gift drives and school supply drives provide what could not have been purchased otherwise… but they can also disempower those they’re trying to help. [2]
Just a couple examples, but you get the point.  Obviously, each of these initiatives has pros and an appropriate time and place.  But it’s important to look at both sides – especially if what we’re doing could be causing more harm than good! [3]
One of the most important distinctions to make is whether those we are trying to help need relief, rehabilitation, or development.  Relief is immediate care in response to an urgent emergency or crisis.  Rehabilitation “begins as soon as the bleeding stops” and helps to restore people to their pre-crisis conditions.  Development is in it for the long haul, helping communities pursue ongoing change and improvement.  Doing the wrong thing in a given situation might help in the short-term but ultimately hurt in the long-term.  
Here are a few things to consider when determining what’s most appropriate (from When Helping Hurts, chapter 4):
1) Is it really a crisis?  If you fail to provide immediate help, will there really be serious, negative consequences?  If not, relief is not appropriate.
2) To what degree was the individual personally responsible for the situation?  If there was some personal responsibility involved, ensure the appropriate lessons are being learned.
3) Can the person help himself?  If so, a pure handout undermines the person’s capacity to be a steward of his own resources and abilities.
4) Has this person already been receiving relief from you or others?  If she’s been receiving “emergency” relief from multiple sources, the most loving thing to do might be to withhold further relief, explain why, and offer to walk alongside her in finding a long-term solution.
(I specifically refer to churches in the next section, but it could apply to any group that wants to help.)
The really cool thing about churches is that they can address problems on all ends of this spectrum.  First, we know that churches are called to help (check out my last post).  Second, you’re in a space where you’ll probably be for some time, so you have the unique potential to walk with a person from relief to rehab and all the way through development.  Third, you’re probably surrounded by nonprofits who know how to help – and they need volunteers!  A nonprofit often has the tools to do just relief or just rehab, but a church can “adopt” a community or specific set of individuals and then work with multiple organizations to ensure that help is provided in the right way at the right time.
I’m gonna end with the same quote from my last post:
“There are some 340,000 Christian churches in the United States and about 155 million regular churchgoers.  Let those numbers sink in for just a minute.  Think of the possibilities…  Ponder the potential to change the world if all these churchgoers ‘activated’ and ramped up their commitment to love their neighbors to a new, even higher level.” (The Hole in Our Gospel, chapter 22)
Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could all work together to “help the poor on a larger scale”? 🙂
P.S.  Oh, so what about panhandlers?  These guys say it better than I ever could:
[2] “[After] several years, Pastor Johnson noticed that he was struggling to find enough volunteers to deliver the gifts to the hosing project.  At the congregational meeting, he asked the members why their enthusiasm was waning, but it was difficult to get a clear answer.  Finally, one member spoke up: ‘Pastor, we are tired of trying to help these people out.  We have been bringing them things for several years now, but their situation never improves.  They just sit there in the same situation year in and year out.  Have you ever noticed that there are no men in the apartments when we deliver the toys?  The residents are all unwed mothers who just keep having babies in order to collect bigger and bigger welfare checks.  They don’t deserve our help.’   In reality, there was a different reason that there were few men in the apartments when the toys were delivered.  Oftentimes, when the fathers of the children heard the Christmas carols outside their front doors and saw the presents for their kids through the peepholes, they were embarrassed and ran out the back doors of their apartments.  For a host of reasons, low-income African-American males sometimes struggle to find and keep jobs.  This often contributes to a deep sense of shame and inadequacy, both of which make it even more difficult to apply for jobs.  The last thing these fathers needed was a group of middle-to-upper-class Caucasians providing Christmas presents for their children, presents that they themselves could not afford to buy.  In trying to alleviate material poverty through the giving of these presents, [the church] increased these fathers’ poverty of being.  Ironically, this likely made the fathers even less able to apply for a job, thereby exacerbating the very material poverty that [the church] was trying to solve!  In addition to hurting the residents of the housing project, the [church members] hurt themselves.  At first the members developed a subtle sense of pride that they were helping the project residents through their acts of kindness.  Later, when they observed the residents’ failure to improve their situations, the members’ disdain for them increased.  What is often called ‘compassion fatigue’ then set in as the members became less willing to help the low-income residents…  Furthermore, the poverty of community increased for everyone involved, as the gulf between the church members and the housing project residents actually increased as a result of this project. (When Helping Hurts, chapter 2)

What if Christians were more like Jesus?

(main sources: When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert, The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns, and the book of Matthew in the Bible)

Let’s start with a quote from When Helping Hurts:

“When people look at the church, they should see the very embodiment of Jesus!” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.40)

Sadly, the following is what people actually see:

In 2006, Barna researchers found that only 16 percent of “individuals who had no strong religious convictions themselves… had a good impression of Christianity. Worse, only 3 percent [had] a favorable impression of ‘evangelicals,’ with 49 percent saying they [had] a bad impression! One interviewee put it this way: ‘Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe’… The data also suggests that [Christians] have become defined by those things we are against rather than those we are for. We’re seen to be against homosexuality and gay marriage, against pornography and sexual promiscuity, against alcohol and drug use, abortion, divorce, Islam, evolution… even against those who believe that global warming is a threat.'” (Stearns, p.227, 229)

I wonder what survey respondents in Jesus’ day would say about him

Actually, the Jewish religious leaders who wanted to kill him were probably more likely to be viewed the way Christians are today. They were the ones who strictly adhered to the Jewish laws concerning the Sabbath, tithing, fasting, etc. Jesus, on the other hand, was criticized for healing on the Sabbath, not making his disciples fast, and hanging out with prostitutes and tax-collecting swindlers. True, he probably did want to convert everyone. (I mean, if Christians really believe in the necessity of faith in Jesus, it would be hypocritical not to share about it.) But for Jesus, the thousands of people listening to him each day were there of their own volition and actually wanted to hear him speak.

Maybe Christians would be better received if we lived and communicated more like Jesus did:

“When we committed ourselves to following Christ, we also committed to living our lives in such a way that a watching world would catch a glimpse of God’s character – His love, justice, and mercy – through our words, actions, and behavior.” (Stearns, p.3)

Let’s break this down.

1. What if we communicated God’s character with only our words?

:: Mississippi in the 1960s ::

“Racial tensions were high as the federal government sought to end segregation… Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi…. terrorized African Americans throughout the region. Bowers was suspected of plotting at least nine murders of African Americans and civil rights workers, seventy-five bombings of African-American churches, and numerous beatings and physical assaults…

“While Reverend [Charles] Marsh preached personal piety and the hope of heaven, African Americans were being lynched… What would King Jesus do in this situation? Would He simply evangelize the African Americans, saying, ‘I have heard your cries for help, but your earthly plight is of no concern to me. Believe in Me, and I will transport your soul to heaven someday. In the meantime, abstain from alcohol, drugs, and sexual impurity”? Is this how Jesus responded to the blind beggar who pleaded for mercy [and so many others who asked for healing]?” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.35-37)

No WAY..

As James said in the Bible, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17).

What has happened to the church?

:: The Great Reversal ::

“The idea that the church should be on the front lines of ministry to the poor is not a new concept in the North American context. As numerous scholars have noted, prior to the twentieth century, evangelical Christians played a large role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. However, this all changed at the start of the twentieth century as evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Evangelicals interpreted the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900-1930 era as the ‘Great Reversal’ in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.43-44)

Of course, in response to the Great Reversal, we shouldn’t just shift to dealing solely with social problems without teaching truth.

2. What if we communicated God’s character with only actions?

:: Bolivia ::

“A Christian relief and development agency attempted to improve crop yields for poor farmers in Bolivia’s Alto Plano. Although successful in increasing output, the impact on the farmers’ incomes was far less than hoped because of the farmers’ deep reverence for Pachamama, the mother earth goddess who presides over planting and harvesting. Seeking Pachamama’s favor, farmers purchased llama fetuses, a symbol of life and abundance, to bury in their fields before planting. At the time of the harvest, the farmers held a festival to thank Pachamama. The larger the harvest, the larger the celebration was. In fact, a large percentage of the farmers’ income was being spent on the fetuses and on the harvest festival, thereby contributing to the farmers’ material poverty. (Corbett & Fikkert, p.80)

:: Rwanda ::

“Converts need to be trained in a biblical worldview that understands the implications of Christ’s lordship for all of life… Failure to include this “all of life” element in the gospel has been devastating in the Majority World. There is perhaps no better example of this than Rwanda. Despite the fact that 80 percent of Rwandans claimed to be Christians, a bloody civil war erupted in 1994 in which the Hutu majority conducted a brutal genocide against the Tutsi minority and Hutu moderates. Over a three-month period, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered, the vast majority of them Tutsis. How could this happen?… For most Rwandans, Christianity was ‘little more than a superficial, privatized veneer on a secular lifestyle characterized by animistic values and longstanding tribal hatred and warfare… The church was silent on such critical life-and-death issues as the dignity and worth of each person made in the image of God.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.45-46)

Bolivians and Rwandans have years of rich culture and history that have consciously and subconsciously contributed to their belief systems, just as years of culture and history have influenced our North American understanding of the gospel (sometimes resulting in beliefs that may not be completely Biblical, as evidenced by the Great Reversal).  Culture and history should definitely be taken into consideration when trying to figure out how to communicate and understand the truth of who Jesus is most fully (i.e. contextualization), but great care should be taken in determining what the unadulterated truth of the gospel actually is.

That being said, clearly communicating truth is essential and universal. As Corbett & Fikkert explain, “[teaching] the values of a ‘Protestant work ethic’ without teaching about the Creator of those values and about the transforming power of Jesus Christ is like giving out penicillin without ever explaining the source of the penicillin’s power.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.91-92). Yes, Jesus healed and hung out with people – but that’s not all he did. He also preached a ton of truth about who he was and his role in the fulfillment of Jewish law – and that was absolutely necessary for people to understand the whole idea of the kingdom of heaven.

Let’s go one step further.

In When Helping Hurts, Corbett & Fikkert write that “the coexistence of agonizing poverty and unprecedented wealth… is an affront to the gospel… [What] is at stake is not just the well-being of poor people – as important as that is – but [also] the very authenticity of the church’s witness” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.16)

We’ve already seen that the church’s witness is pretty bad right now, and it’s not doing us or God any good if we as Christians – people who are supposed to be Christ’s ambassadors of love, justice, and mercy – are not doing anything about this coexistence of poverty and incredible wealth.

“There are some 340,000 Christian churches in the United States and about 155 million regular churchgoers. Let those numbers sink in for just a minute. Think of the possibilities. Think of the resources. Ponder the potential to change the world if all of these churchgoers ‘activated’ and ramped up their commitment to love their neighbors to a new, even higher level.” (Stearns, p.237)

More on this next time… 🙂

the danger of the god-complex

[What I’ve learned from the book When Helping Hurts (Part 1 of ?)]

Blogs seem to require a certain amount of self-disclosure..  So here’s mine: I was fired from my first job.  Not laid off.  Not let go during a company-wide workforce reduction.  I was just fired.  Blame it on the immaturity of youth, the college lifestyle I was still living, or my irrationally powerful FOMO [1] that makes even the thought of falling asleep before anyone else unbearable because I might be missing out on something… Whatever the reason(s), I could NOT get myself to wake up and get to work on time.  (hm.. not much has changed, huh?..)

But in all seriousness, getting fired was an incredibly humbling experience.  I’d been told for years that I was smart, talented, capable…  how in the world did I get fired??  Talk about a blow to my ego.

I could be homeless…

No joke – one thought that kept plaguing me during that time was how easy it would be to become homeless.  If I hadn’t had such a supportive safety net of friends and family willing to help me out (and even periodically pay my credit card bills – thanks SO much, meimers!!), I don’t know what would have happened.  Would I have been willing to push pride aside and get a job that was “beneath” me and my education level in order to pay my bills?  Would I have been willing to forgo fun and friends to work whatever hours necessary to feed and house myself?  Sadly, I’m not sure I would have based on my immaturity and FOMO levels at the time :/

…but I had safety nets.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), I never had to experience the consequences of my poor life decisions.  I had friends and family who were supportive, still thought I was smart and capable, and continued to encourage me despite my lapses in maturity/judgment/discipline/etc…

I’m pretty sure I’d be in a very different place now if not for those safety nets… 

It’s interesting how we end up in situations that have nothing to do with how inherently awesome (or not) we are.  I can’t take any credit for the fact that my parents studied hard, took a huge risk in moving to the US by themselves, and worked for years to make a good life for us…  And yet I’ve definitely benefited.

The problem is I DO take credit for it.  There’s at least a part of me that thinks I’m somehow “better” because I grew up in a nice house in a nice neighborhood with well-educated, successful parents.  On its own, this thought may not be a bad thing.  No one really gets hurt if I think I’m awesome…  until I decide I want to help others.

Wait, what?…  Just hear me out.

If I think I’m better than the materially less fortunate, what happens when I want to help?  “How can I help you?”  On the surface, it’s an innocent – perhaps even loving – question.  Dig a little deeper, and you can sense a bit of a god-complex.  I live in a nice place, I’ve got it (mostly) together financially… so I’M in a position to help YOU.

If you’ve somehow been able to follow my line of thinking, you know it’s not necessarily true.

The person I want to help was born into a situation she had no control over.  She might be smart and capable, but maybe a temporary lapse in judgment without the safety nets I had has put her in a bad situation.  

If I only focus on her bad situation and how she needs help, I could totally miss out.  SHE might have some insights into something I’M going through.  There’s an even better chance that she has valuable insights into how to help her own community – after all, she lives there!

Let’s work together.

That’s why I love the recent movement towards collaboration in alleviating poverty. [2] Organizations are realizing the benefit of working WITH communities to determine the best strategies for empowerment and transformation.  Instead of coming in with ideas of how WE think things should be done, we’re coming alongside individuals to learn about their actual specific needs as well as what THEY have to offer. [3] Less “what can I do for you”, and more “how can we make this better TOGETHER”.

It’s about empowering, affirming, and working together.  Kind of like what my friends and family did for me back in the day 🙂

[1] fear of missing out

[3] Asset mapping/inventorying “uses individual or group-based interviews to catalogue the assets in a particular community… Once local assets are ‘mapped’… community residents and facilitators can identify strengths, make linkages between existing individuals and groups, and determine the best ways to leverage these assets to improve the community and solve problems.” (When Helping Hurts)



Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert talk about this more eloquently in Chapter 5 of their book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself.  Here are a few excerpts:

“starting with a focus on needs amounts to starting a relationship with low-income people by asking them, ‘What is wrong with you?  How can I fix you?’… Starting with such questions initiates the very dynamic that we need to avoid, a dynamic that confirms the feelings that we are superior, that they are inferior, and that they need us to fix them.”

“’asset-based community development’… puts the emphasis on what materially poor people already have and asks them to consider from the outset, ‘What is right with you?  What gifts has God given you that you can use to improve your life and that of your neighbors?  How can the individuals and organizations in your community work together to improve your community?’… Indeed, the very nature of the question – What gifts do you have? – affirms people’s dignity”

“Of course, as the process proceeds, it may become clear that the individual or community does not have sufficient assets to address all of the needs.  If and when such needs become pressing, it is then appropriate to bring in outside resources to augment local assets… gauging the appropriate magnitude and timing… takes an enormous amount of wisdom.”

(more on what this could look like in future posts…)