Can you believe it? Waaaaay back in little ol’ 2009, a new outreach ministry book called When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert was published which set out to teach Christian ministers, churches, and regular Christian folk a more “effective” way to show compassion and charity to the poor. And what a decade it has been! Just two years later, this book was joined by another top selling and very influential outreach ministry book, Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton. It also sought to criticize Christian charity, not for caring and trying, but for going about it all wrong.
These two books became mainstays of any church outreach, and certainly most churches of Lubbock, Texas (as far as my own experience shows). And in recent years, Lupton joined forces with Corbett and Fikkert (and others) and put out a joint effort – a web-based seminar called “Seeking [$]halom” – to reach America’s churches criticizing the way they offered alms and charity to the poor and retraining us to think more carefully about “effective” approaches. In both cases, these writers bring to our Bible class and Christian ministry training a decidedly “economic development” $trategy to caring for the poor.
Corbett, Fikkert, and Lupton all three bring to the table a lot of professional experience in the field of outreach too the poor. Years of experience, in fact. And all of them after spending years in the trenches around the globe, in some cases among the poorest of the poor, yet after discerning from first-hand experience that giving people money does not make their poverty go away, they set out to address this and discover more “effective” ways of reaching out.
This effort to be more “effective” appears to be driven by a desire to love hurting people and fix their problems – to truly fix them. Otherwise, in so many cases, you can give your alms, maybe even feel good about yourself for having given, then walk away and no real change has been affected. At root, this dynamic is what Corbett, Fikkert, and Lupton wish to address, and they do so drawing on their training in “economic development” strategies.
So far, so good, Right?
It would seem.
However, there are a number of ironies at work in the When-Helping-Hurts charity industry which have conspired, I think, to create the very harm these guys wish to avoid. And here at Fat Beggars School of Prophets, the first and most important issue is whether Corbett, Fikkert, Lupton and friends are remaining true to Jesus and to the Bible. If a best-selling Christian ministry book comes along which looks and sounds biblical and true to Jesus but which actually lures Christian ministers and churches away from Jesus and biblical teaching instead, then what is the point? The new methods of charity these guys teach may well be meaningful for social workers and economic developers at a state school or a state bank, but what business, if that is in fact what is happening, do their methods have being taught in a church?
YET, just because those of us here at Fat Beggars see it that way does not necessarily mean that is what matters to church leaders all over Lubbock (and it would seem a great many other places too). So this post will start the review with the more pragmatic observations and then come to the biblical/theological concerns later. (Delay the gratification, I guess, in hopes that I get a fuller hearing with this post.)
So, let’s start with the fact that the 2010s are the When-Helping-Hurts decade.
With a solid decade, now, of “effective” methods deployed on the city of Lubbock (and other places too) do we have less poverty now or more?
Ahhh… Waste no time getting to the heart of things pragmatically, I say.
Just this last week, some of the biggest proponents of the When-Helping-Hurts methodology were featured on TV discussing how that the numbers of homeless people in Lubbock are growing all the time. And I must say, this has been my observation too. In fact, I don’t discern any meaningful reduction in homelessness nationwide. Poverty seems to be increasing, not decreasing.
Now to be fair, Corbett, Fikkert, and Lupton have offered us a Christian-best-seller approach and have specifically targeted Christians with their books and seminars. So they may be forgiven for not having stemmed the tide nationwide among governmental and secular efforts, since Christian charity is not the only means of addressing homelessness and poverty. But surely we can say that in Lubbock, Texas Christian charity is at least as big, if not bigger, than secular charities and government agencies. No doubt, the Christians take the lead, and even within those government offices and secular agencies, the staff there are largely Christians too. Thus the exposure to the When-Helping-Hurts decade is more profoundly felt here, perhaps, than your average US city.
But in a decade of devotion to these “effective” methods, we are not enjoying the success we should be. On the contrary, we are falling behind and losing ground.
Perhaps you read what Corbett and Fikkert tell us on page 56 of their book, amid a passage likening the discernment of charity practices to that of a doctor making diagnosis of a sick patient, where they say:
…the underlying diseases behind those symptoms are not always very apparent and can differ from person to person. A trial and error process may be necessary before a proper diagnosis can be reached. … And even after a sound diagnosis is made, it may take years to help people to overcome their problems. There will likely be lots of ups and downs in the relationship. It all sounds very time-consuming, and it is.
A statement like that practically undermines the whole thesis of their own book! Keep in mind, the charity industry these guys have spearheaded criticizes the almsgiving churches and Christians have engaged in for two millennia in favor of “effective” methods. But you might not notice a difference in the outcomes for years, and that may be after countless frustrating attempts at trial and error and other ups and downs along the way.
Just pragmatically speaking, it makes you wonder: why bother? Why write a book persuading people to make any changes if its not going to achieve any better success than this? But when it comes to the Bible, which in numerous places instructs us and/or gives positive examples of people giving money directly to beggars and needy people, this approach becomes problematic at other levels too. The prophets don’t criticize Israel for giving to the needy; on the contrary, they speak out against the rich for not. But Corbett, Fikkert and Lupton too have criticized exactly that as being ineffective for poverty relief.
This has me thinking that the success of When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity is not found nearly so much in their alternative outreach styles as it is in book sales! I also sense that the reason for that success has more to do with the fact that these books offer a criticism of almsgiving with the look and feel of biblical teaching without the substance and which then effectively tells rich/middle-class American Christians just to keep their money rather than feeling guilty and giving to bums. All of this seemingly endorsed by Jesus. And that, I suspect, is a very welcome message to rich Christians who aren’t actually reading their Bibles much anyway.
Okay, so let’s get to the Bible for a moment.
One passage that just jumps off the page at me when I think of Corbett, Fikkert, and Lupton is Luke 6:30 where Jesus says to “give to all who ask.” Sure, we can deconstruct this passage a hundred different ways, and some of those are bound to be legitimate, but are they still relevant?
“Give to all who ask.”
That is pretty simple stuff. No, he didn’t say give money to all who ask. It is possible to give something else, I am sure. Just consider Peter and John entering the temple in Acts 3 where they say they have no silver or gold, but they have something else to give! However, based on the way they respond to this beggar, it sure appears that if they had the money, that is what they might have given instead. Perhaps this beggar was blessed that they were too broke for that! Hmmm…
And no. “Give to all who ask” does not say give everything you have to the poor and come follow me, but Jesus does tell that to at least one rich man in Mark 10. And he goes on to tell his disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (that should keep us up an night!). And no, Jesus doesn’t address that instruction to everyone, just to that one man on that one occasion, but it sure looks like the church in Jerusalem, as we find in Acts 2 and 4, seems to have thought that command or something very like it pertained to them!
Look. I can keep going with this all day if I need to, but this should be enough to rattle the When-Helping-Hurts cage! Corbett, Fikkert, and Lupton never address any of these passages whatsoever. But they should. Yet, they didn’t. And we, the Bible-believing consumer of their books and seminars, buy up this stuff without questioning it, and then we feel better about not giving to the beggar on the street who asks us for a handout. Thus that appears to be the fake license these best-selling authors are peddling.
Stack all that on one side, and on the other factor in the advice Corbett and Fikkert give in the final pages of their book regarding microfinance institutions (MFI’s) and the method they champion of lending money to the poor at low interest yet enforcing payback of the loans even when that is hard to do. This, they claim, is the most effective way to alleviate poverty, never mind the fact that the Bible in several places literally prohibits making loans – especially at interest – to the poor (see for instance Exod. 22:25-27; Lev. 25:35-37 or Deut. 23:19-20). And let us not forget that right at the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the forgiveness of debts which appears to be based largely on the promise of Jubilee. When Helping Hurts makes no mention of any of these foundational biblical principles as they preach their gospel of mammon and economic development.
And in the meantime, poverty grows worse as now even the church turns its back evermore on the poor feeling legitimated by these “effective” approaches which are neither biblical nor effective.
Look. I am not claiming that if you sell all you own, give it to the poor, count your riches in heaven and then go follow after Jesus that the poor will stop being poor. I never claimed that. In fact, you mostly likely will join the ranks of the poor if you do that. But that is the way of Jesus. That is his instruction. And it may well be that he thinks your sacrificial love for the poor is a witness to him and that is greater than any poverty alleviation. After all, “the poor you will always have with you, and you can do good to them whenever you like” (Mark 14:7 (echoing Deut. 15:7)).
But thanx largely to Corbett, Fikkert, and Lupton, we aren’t talking, as a church, about those deep theological matters. Instead, we are closing our doors as homeless people (at least 3) froze to death on the streets of Lubbock over the last decade, and we feel smug about our faith and Jesus’s lordship over our money.
And THAT is the When-Helping-Hurts decade in review.