Whenever someone who has never lived in material poverty (like me!) seeks to obey God’s call to “spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed” (Isa. 58:10), we need to be mindful of a common pitfall of poverty alleviation.
While the motive for loving our neighbors might be a genuine, God-given desire to be like Christ, if we’re not careful, hidden sins of our hearts can turn what we intend for good into an opportunity for harm. It turns out that good intentions, by themselves, are not enough to care well for people struggling with poverty. Let me explain….
What we often find as we get involved in ministry is that we suffer from a “god-complex”. This being a sense of superiority to our low-income neighbors that suggests, however subtly, that we have things figured out and they need our help to make it in life. At the same time, many low-income people who are involved in the work with us, like those asking our church for financial help, are suffering from the opposite problem of a marred identity—a sense of inferiority, of not having a voice, of not being able to effect change in their lives.
As you might guess, the combination of these two problems is a bad mix. When those of us who have a “god-complex” interact with people who have a marred identity, the way that we communicate to them, the things that we do to them or for them, communicate what they’re already feeling. “You really are less than human. You really can’t bring about change in your life, and you need me to fix you.” And the whole dynamic that unfolds often makes everything worse—as the “helped ones” act from their sense of inferiority, they become more passive, and the “helpers,” in turn, get more frustrated with them as that proceeds. We have to get out of this dynamic!
Breaking the Cycle
One way we end up perpetuating this cycle is that too many churches and ministries use needs-based approaches to poverty alleviation. That is, we basically try to identify what’s wrong with the low-income individual or community, and then try to bring in outside resources to fix what’s wrong. A needs-based approach basically says, “What’s wrong with you? And how can I fix you?” That’s not a good way of getting out of this god-complex/marred-identity dynamic!
Taking an asset-based approach, on the other hand, starts off with what’s right with the people and communities we serve. What gifts and abilities does this person have? What resources are already available in this community? How can we help them use their gifts and their abilities to achieve their goals? In this approach, solutions and resources come from the low-income individual or community as much as possible,
To put it in terms of the biblical story, an asset-based approach starts off with Genesis chapter one—the goodness and fullness of God’s creation—rather than Genesis chapter three—the Fall and sin and misery. In this way, a church or ministry can look for and use those assets that are good gifts of God to address the needs that pop up because of life in a fallen world.
Participation is Key
Asset-based approaches should also be highly participatory, engaging the low-income individual and community in all aspects of the design, execution, and evaluation of the solution to their situation. Participation increases “ownership” of the solution, making it more likely that they will stick with it when challenges arise. In addition, a participatory approach treats people as image-bearers, thereby helping to overcome the problem of a marred identity..
A participatory approach shifts the focus of benevolence ministry from a transactional approach that simply writes checks to inquiring about their goals and how you might walk together to pursue those goals. It might look like a financial education or jobs-preparedness training that moves the conversation from simple knowledge transfer to mutual transformation and developing action plans for life change together.
Over time, a ministry can look less like the “haves” helping out the “have nots” and more like a partnership as you work together to catalog and develop the financial, social, physical, and spiritual resources available to someone. And when you start to ask how, together, you can use those resources, gifts, and abilities to achieve their goals and to address obstacles they might face, you’ve shifted to a completely different relationship. The focus is no longer on what you’re going to do to fix them but on how can they steward the gifts God has given them to achieve what God is calling them to do.
The Limits of Asset-Based, Participatory Development
Of course, this approach to ministry is a lot more work than just giving away food, money, or information—for both the servers and those being served. As you engage with people, asking them to think through their assets and to develop an action plan, some aren’t going to want to take that step. That’s okay. An action plan is actually a good tool to gauge receptivity—how open is this person actually engaging in long-term change? If they’re not willing to even start this process with you, it suggests they’re not really open to the long-term change necessary to get them out of the situation.
Our posture in that situation is not to “shake the dust off our feet,” but to say, “Hey, it sounds like you’ve still got some thinking to do. If you change your mind and decide to come back someday, we’re right here, ready to walk with you. If you want to engage in this long-term work, we want to walk with you as far as we can possibly go.” In the meantime, you don’t want to enable others simply by putting a Band-Aid™ on a much deeper wound.
Of course, none of this is meant to encourage people to do less to care for the materially poor. On the contrary: far more needs to be done! We need to continue providing handouts for people who are in a real crisis. And then once the bleeding has stopped, using an asset-based, participatory approach will require a far greater investment of time and resources to bring about lasting change.
Although it is costly, an asset-based, participatory approach is much more effective than the more common transactional, needs-based approaches, both for churches and ministries and those they serve. It presses us into the good news that all of us are created as image-bearers of God, that the fall has impacted us, but that Christ’s redeeming work can restore us to all that it means to be human, engaging both parties in a process of real transformation and growth.
*The author of this article is Dr. Brian Fikkert who is a Professor of Economics and Community Development and the Founder and President of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College. He is coauthor of the best-selling book When Helping Hurts as well as Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions, Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence, and From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty Through Church-Centered Microfinance.