Helping Without Hurting: Christian Generosity and Material Poverty

 Dr. Brian Fikkert is a Yale-educated economist who has devoted his life to equipping churches to empower the poor. As the Founder and President of the Chalmers Center at Covenant College, he’s had the privilege of seeing churches around the world embrace God’s mission to bring good news to the materially poor.

Dr. Fikkert has co-authored a number of books, including When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself. He is also Professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College.

We recently sat down with Brian to better understand how generous Christians can give intelligently and Biblically. He explains the importance of thoughtful generosity and what the materially affluent can learn from the materially poor.

What would you say to donors to help them think through the impact of their generosity?

Fikkert: I think it’s important for donors to keep a clear theory of change in mind when they give. A theory of change is an idea of both the goal and the means of achieving the goal. I would say that a lot of ministries amongst the poor that have a wrong theory of change. Most ministries attempt to meet needs from a Western materialist framework, which says that the goal is greater consumption of material things because happiness comes from more “stuff.”

Working out of this framework, many ministries try to give the poor more “stuff” and call it a day.

How have you seen this materialist theory of change played out?

Fikkert: We see this materialist theory in our welfare programs and churches often. We have clothing closets and food pantries—there is a role for these—but they can fall into the trap of saying, “Let’s give them more ‘stuff’ and then they’ll flourish.” Of course, the reality is often more nuanced than this. But there is often a strain of truth present in this characterization.

A more sophisticated approach of the West is to say, “Let’s try to promote economic growth and hope that trickles down to help the poor. Let’s try to link the poor with that growth. That might help some get a job so they can earn their ‘stuff.’’’ And certainty, there is a role for this, but it should not be the core focus. It’s still saying, the goal in Western civilization is more material prosperity.

I think this has heavily influenced the Church. We tend to think we should turn the poor into middle-class suburban Americans, and this is not working. Mental illness and addictions are skyrocketing amongst middle-class Americans, and families and communities are breaking down. This goal to simply get more “stuff” is not working for mainstream America, so why should we export this goal and lifestyle to the materially poor?

I think the Western civilization theory of change is wrong. And I think the church has co-opted it a bit into our theory of change. We’ve turned our charity work into a baptized version of Western civilization’s end goals, and I think it’s killing the Church’s work.

We should, rather, focus on a biblical theory of change to invigorate our giving and work amongst the poor.

How does a Biblical theory of change differ?

Fikkert: The biblical theory of change is seen in the movement of God in restoring believers to all that it means to be an image bearer. Functioning as a proper image bearer means we live highly integrated lives. We live in a right relationship with God, self, others and the rest of creation. Human flourishing and poverty alleviation should focus on restoring people to proper image bearing status. And the Bible indicates that this is accomplished through union with Jesus Christ. This has huge and practical implications with how we design our work amongst the poor.

For example, one implication is that the local church is central to poverty alleviation. Christ is most keenly felt in the local church. I believe that poverty alleviation has to be rooted in the life of the local church in order to draw people into the body of Christ.

This means that for para-church organizations, poverty alleviation ministries are successful if they are rooted in and flow back to the local church. This has huge implications for program design and sources for funding. We need donors that will fund church-centered, Christ-centered approaches to working with the poor.

It’s about providing penicillin but also prayer. It’s about sanitation but also about the sacraments. It’s about financing microenterprise, but also fellowshipping with the body of Christ.

What can the rich learn from the poor?

Fikkert: We can learn what it means to believe truly in God’s sovereignty. Though I’m thoroughly Reformed, I think that many of the poorest people in the world understand God’s sovereignty better than I do. I once had the chance to worship with extremely poor people in a slum in Kenya. One person prayed, “Please give us food today, Great Provider, because we are so very hungry.” Another prayed, “My husband beats me, but you’re my Great Protector. Protect my life today.” They were trusting God’s sovereignty on a whole different level than I do. We’re so insulated. Because I have a life insurance policy and a great job with a nice income, I don’t truly pray for my daily bread. I learned what it means to be Reformed from the poorest of the poor.

Everything around me is wired to remove pain and to give me great comfort and assurance. There is a sense in which I don’t see a need for God in the everyday. I do intellectually, of course. But in the way I experience my Christian life and the way I live it out, there is a sense where I do not reach out to God as desperately as people who are in need do. I really do need him for every moment, but I do believe that Western Civilization has inoculated me a bit.

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