Corbett, Steve, and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor or Yourself. 2nd ed. Chicago: Moody, 2014. 288 pp. $15.99. Purchase at Westminster Books or on Kindle.
How can North American churches appropriately and effectively work to alleviate poverty at home and abroad? Drawing from their extensive experience, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert wrote When Helping Hurts to answer this question. Corbett and Fikkert work together at the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, a research institute that seeks to equip churches to minister to low-income people, and teach together at Covenant College in Lookout, GA in the areas of community and economic development. Two motivations drive this book: North American Christians, particularly with their vast wealth, are not doing enough about poverty; and when they do attempt to do something about it, their methods are often more harmful than helpful.
When Helping Hurts has four parts, each containing three chapters. Part 1 provides a biblical and theological understanding of poverty, with Chapter 1 focusing on the nature of the gospel and the mission of the church, Chapter 2 on the nature of poverty itself, and Chapter 3 on a biblical understanding of poverty alleviation. Part 2 concerns general principles that should guide our understanding of helping the poor. These include recognizing the different kinds of intervention a situation might call for (Chapter 4), utilizing the poor’s assets whenever possible (Chapter 5), and enabling those you are helping to participate in the process (Chapter 6). Parts 3 and 4 provide practical strategies for putting the principles of Parts 1 and 2 into practice, including advice on short term-missions trips (Chapter 7), working in your own community (Chapter 8), and how to get started (Chapters 10-11).
With over 225,000 copies of the first edition (2009) sold, When Helping Hurts has had an immense impact on evangelical poverty relief work, and this is a good thing due to the book’s strong gospel focus and useful strategies. The authors rightly ground poverty alleviation in the gospel and a holistic understanding of salvation. Chapters 2-3 are particularly helpful in this regard, highlighting how human beings are spiritual, social, psychological, and physical beings, and that every person is poor in the sense of hurting in their relationship with God, themselves, others, and creation. Therefore helping low-income people must take all of these relationships into account, and not just physical, material needs. As the authors state, “poverty is rooted in broken relationships, so the solution to poverty is rooted in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to put all things into right relationship again” (p. 77). This idea leads to one of the strongest points in the book, which is that the goal of poverty alleviation is not to make the materially poor into middle or upper-class North Americans, or even to make sure they have enough money, but to restore people to a “full expression of humanness, to being what God created us all to be,” in all four relationships (78).
The authors build upon this strong gospel-centeredness by offering several practical applications. Churches must work to combat the individual and systemic causes of poverty, to identify assets that the poor already have instead of duplicating those assets, to empower the poor to help themselves instead of just doing things for them. This means the default response of churches and individual Christians cannot be to just give more money or things to help the poor, as it too often is (though in cases of immediate need this might be necessary). The authors rightly demonstrate why this default response is most often not only unnecessary but hurtful (106-09). Churches must do the harder, more time-consuming, but much more effective work of developing relationships and leading people to help themselves as they realize their dignity as created beings through the gospel. The authors’ much needed critique of the typical short-term missions trip is along these same lines (161-80), as too often these trips are focused on short-term relief at the expense of long-term development.
The book does have some minor weaknesses. Corbett and Fikkert don’t adequately distinguish between the church’s mission, Jesus’ mission, and the individual Christian’s mission, (e.g., pp. 14, 37, 40-41, 44, 73-75), and a book such as Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilberts’ What is the Mission of the Church? would be a helpful supplement. The authors also conflate what the Bible says about helping the poor inside the church with helping the poor outside of the church (e.g., pp. 38-42). Additionally, some of the strategies the authors propose, such as setting up micro-finance institutions for people in developing nations, seem to be beyond the capabilities of the average-sized church. None of these weaknesses take away from the overall value of the book, but do have the potential to lead to confusion or discouragement.
I recommend When Helping Hurts to pastors, deacons, missionaries, and any involved in Christian benevolent ministry. The book is written to be used in group studies, and as a pastor I profitably led our deacons through the book using the questions and activities provided by the authors. This resulted in several positive changes for our church’s benevolent ministry and a deeper appreciation for the holistic nature of the gospel. The second edition adds two additional chapters, a new foreword by David Platt, and a new conclusion, but these additions don’t necessarily warrant a new reading if you have read the first edition. If you haven’t, this book offers insights too good to pass up for a minister of the gospel.