Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People

Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802413390
Publisher: Moody Publishers
Publication date: 10/06/2015
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 408,009
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.36(d)

About the Author

STEVE CORBETT is the Community Development Specialist for the Chalmers Center at Covenant College and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College.

Read an Excerpt

Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence

By Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert, Katie Casselberry

Moody Publishers

Copyright © 2015 Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8024-1339-0




As described in the introduction, Ben is struggling to pay his rent, and Debbie needs help with her electric bill.

Those do not sound like enormous problems to solve. But in reality, truly helping Ben or Debbie is usually a very complex process, and there is typically no easy solution. However, there are general principles that can guide you along the way as you walk with low-income people. This chapter describes these principles in order to lay a solid foundation for your church's benevolence work.

It is profoundly important to remember that these principles are not meant to be simple recipes that can be applied blindly to every person. Indeed, the more you delve into any given situation of poverty, the more you are likely to discover all sorts of subtle complexities that require a nuanced approach rather than a one-size-fits-all formula. Hence, understanding the principles in this chapter in no way negates your need to rely upon the Holy Spirit, prayer, wisdom, and discernment as you walk with low-income people.

Most of the material in this chapter is a brief summary of the ideas presented in chapters 1-6 and 10 of When Helping Hurts. Thus, for a deeper understanding of these concepts, you might find it useful to read those chapters as well.


Imagine going to the doctor because of chronic headaches. What happens if the doctor diagnoses your problem as a sinus infection when you actually have a brain tumor? Or what happens if the doctor simply gives you a painkiller to treat your symptoms rather than running tests to discover the underlying cause of your headaches? In either case, you are not going to get better. Indeed, you could die from the brain tumor despite the doctor's good intentions. In order for you to get better, it is absolutely essential for the doctor to correctly diagnose the fundamental cause of your illness.

The same is true when we work with materially poor people. Good intentions are not enough. If we misdiagnose the causes of their poverty or treat their symptoms rather than their underlying problems, we can do considerable harm to materially poor people in the very process of trying to help them. We have to get the diagnosis right.

And therein lies one of the fundamental problems with poverty alleviation: being materialistic people, many North Americans tend to think of the disease of poverty as being a lack of material things, such as money, food, clothing, and shelter. As a result, many of us think that the best way to alleviate poverty is simply to give material things to low-income people: money to pay the electric bill, turkeys and toys at Christmas, warm clothing during the winter.

In particular, when a low-income person such as Ben or Debbie approaches our churches asking for help, many of us have a tendency to focus on meeting their immediate material needs by paying their rent or electric bill. Although this is sometimes necessary and can provide much-needed temporary assistance, simply dispensing material resources usually only treats the symptoms of poverty rather than its underlying causes. And if the handouts are repeated over long periods of time to able-bodied people, they can create crippling dependencies. To be truly effective, we need to move past treating the symptoms of poverty — a lack of material things — and correctly diagnose its deeper causes.

Toward that end, let's consider poverty from a biblical perspective. God is inherently a relational being. From all eternity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in perfect relationship with one another. As beings made in the image of this triune God, human beings are wired for relationship as well. Indeed, the Bible teaches that in creation God established four foundational relationships for each human being: relationships with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. When these relationships are functioning in the way God designed them to function, humans experience the fullness of life that God intended: we experience deep communion with a loving God; we understand our inherent dignity and worth as image-bearers; we live in positive, giving relationships with others; and we actively steward God's creation, both caring for it and being able to work and to support ourselves as a result of that work. Indeed, when these relationships are working properly, the results bubble up in all aspects of our lives: families are nurturing, communities are flourishing, work is meaningful, and we are bringing glory to God in all that we do.

However, the fall has damaged all four of these relationships for all of us. How? There are a number of forces at work that undermine these relationships for each person, including the Bens and Debbies who approach our churches asking for assistance:

Individual Behaviors of the person, including their own sins, can undermine the proper functioning of these relationships. For example, if Ben is addicted to alcohol, he may struggle to hold down a job, thereby undermining his relationship to creation.

Abusive or Exploitive People can do severe damage to people. For example, if Debbie's ex-husband physically abused her regularly, those past experiences could still be undermining her self-image (relationship to self), making it difficult for her to work (relationship to creation).

Oppressive Systems (economic, political, social, or religious) can make it difficult or even impossible for these relationships to function properly. For example, a recession can create widespread unemployment, hindering Ben's and Debbie's relationship to creation by undermining their ability to work. Many of us who are not materially poor tend to underestimate the importance of oppressive systems, because by and large the systems have worked well for us. But the systems do not work well for everybody. In particular, the legacy of institutionalized racism — both historic and contemporary — continues to wreak havoc with the lives of many people who are poor in ways that Caucasian North Americans often fail to see.

Demonic Forces are at war with God and human beings as His image-bearers (Ephesians 6:12). Many of us are blind to this cause of poverty, for we North Americans tend to see the world through material rather than spiritual lenses. But Satan and his legions are real and very active, and both the materially poor and the materially non-poor (middle- and upper-income people) need to "put on the full armor of God, so that [we] can take [our] stand against the devil's schemes" (Ephesians 6:11).

For Ben and Debbie, the way that the four relationships are broken results in material poverty, i.e., a lack of sufficient resources to provide for themselves and their families. But this material poverty is a symptom of something deeper: the underlying brokenness in the four key relationships due to individual behaviors, abusive or exploitive people, oppressive systems, and demonic forces. Thus, when a person like Ben or Debbie asks your church for assistance, it usually is not enough to just address their immediate needs by giving them money, food, or clothing, though such assistance may be appropriate in some situations. Instead, fostering lasting change requires us to move beyond treating symptoms into a much longer-term process of walking alongside them as we all depend on Christ's power to conquer the individual behaviors, abusive or exploitive people, oppressive systems, and demonic forces that are the root causes of their material poverty.

As we engage in this longer-term process of change with low-income people, it is absolutely imperative that we constantly remind ourselves that all of us, regardless of our income level, are profoundly broken and desperately in need of the restorative work of Jesus Christ. Failing to embrace this fundamental truth will typically lead us to inadvertently harm low-income people ... and ourselves. Indeed, the way that the materially non-poor (middle- and upper-income people) are broken can deepen the brokenness of the materially poor, and vice versa.

To see this, consider how both parties typically experience brokenness in the four key relationships. Among other things, those of us who are not materially poor often experience this brokenness in the form of pride, self-centeredness, workaholic tendencies, and a desire to "play god" in the lives of others. In contrast, materially poor people often experience this brokenness in the form of a paralyzing sense of shame and inferiority, social isolation, and in less than ideal work opportunities and habits.

When the materially non-poor try to help the materially poor, each party brings their respective brokenness into the process. The materially non-poor often exhibit an air of superiority and "play god" by trying to fix the materially poor, thereby confirming what the materially poor are already feeling: "I am inferior; I can't do it; other people need to do it for me." The result is often that the materially poor become more passive, sitting back and waiting for others to fix their problems. And as this happens, the materially non-poor often become more proud: "I knew they didn't have my work ethic and initiative. Why don't they do something to improve their lives?" As a result, the shame of materially poor people is deepened, and the pride of the materially non-poor is enhanced. Both parties end up more broken — more poor in a relational sense — than they were before.

This dynamic is particularly problematic when we have a material definition of poverty. For if poverty is fundamentally about a lack of material things, then we materially non-poor are not broken. We are successful! We have won the game of life! Moreover, we have what materially poor people need: material things. Thus, we are necessarily in the position of being their benefactors, for in our wallets we possess the solution to their problems. A material definition of poverty puts the materially non-poor in a position of superiority over the materially poor.

This common dynamic can be summarized in the following equation:

Material Definition of Poverty + Feelings of Superiority of Materially Non-Poor + Feelings of Inferiority of Materially Poor = Harm to Both Materially Poor and Non-Poor

Note that the first two variables in this equation apply to us. Hence, breaking out of this unhealthy dynamic requires us to repent of our trust in material resources and of our sense of superiority. The key is to constantly remind ourselves of the truth of the gospel: We were all profoundly broken people who deserved eternal punishment; but through Christ's death and resurrection — and absolutely no merit of our own — we are now the adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father (Galatians 4:1–7). Preaching these truths of the gospel to ourselves every day frees us from our pride and enables us to move into a mutually transformative relationship with materially poor people, a context that Christ can use to bring healing to the ongoing brokenness in both of our lives.

Given that poverty is rooted in broken relationships, poverty alleviation can be defined as follows:


A process in which people, both the materially poor and the materially non-poor, are empowered to move closer to living in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.

The "empowerment" in this definition means that people are growing in their ability to analyze their situation, to make healthy decisions to improve that situation, and to carry out those decisions in all four of these relationships. For example, part of living in right relationship to creation includes their ability to find and perform work that will enable them to support themselves and their families. Ask yourself in each situation: Will providing immediate financial assistance help or hinder such empowerment?


Given that poverty is rooted in broken relationships, Colossians 1:19–20 is a profoundly important passage for the process of poverty alleviation:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross, (italics added)

In this passage, Jesus Christ is described as the reconciler of the entire universe. To reconcile means to put things into right relationship again, restoring them to what God created them to be. Given that poverty is rooted in broken relationships, the fact that Jesus Christ is reconciling all things is truly good news for the poor, a group that includes all of us.

Note that Christ's reconciliation entails more than simply beaming our souls up out of this world into some ghostlike state. On the contrary, Christ is reconciling all things, transforming whole people, both bodies and souls. And it doesn't stop there, for Christ is reconciling communities, nature, cultures, institutions, and systems. Yes, He cares about people's souls, but He also cares about hunger, sickness, racism, homelessness, mental illness, spousal abuse, electric bills, and rent payments. How much does He care? Enough to be tortured on a cross so that He could conquer these problems. Jesus cares deeply about Ben's rent and Debbie's electric bill.

It is profoundly important to emphasize that the full benefits of Christ's reconciling work are only for those who repent of their sins and put their faith in Him, while judgment ultimately awaits those who do not. These truths should give us incredible passion to share the good news of the gospel — using both words and deeds — for the gospel is only good news for those who repent and believe.


As we seek to bring the good news of Christ's reconciliation to a hurting world, we are immediately confronted with the fact that there are different kinds of material poverty, even though they often look the same on the surface. For example, there is a huge difference between the poverty of a family that cannot pay their rent due to unforeseen health problems and the poverty of a family that cannot pay their rent due to being unwilling to work. The families in both of these situations have a housing problem, but the underlying circumstances that have contributed to their plight are very different and require entirely different responses.

In this light, it is sometimes helpful to think of three broad categories of poverty alleviation:


Relief can be defined as the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis. After a crisis, there is a need to halt the free fall and to "stop the bleeding," and this is what relief attempts to do. The key feature of relief is a provider-receiver dynamic in which the provider gives assistance — often material — to the receiver. Because the needy person is in a crisis, they are typically asked to contribute little or nothing toward reducing their suffering. Although this is not the point of the passage, the Good Samaritan's bandaging of the helpless man who lay bleeding along the roadside is an excellent example of relief applied appropriately (Luke 10:29–37).

Rehabilitation begins as soon as the bleeding stops and seeks to restore people to the positive elements of their pre-crisis conditions. The key feature of rehabilitation is a dynamic of working with the person, asking them to take positive actions as they participate in their own recovery.

Development is a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved — both the materially poor and materially non-poor — closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation than they have been in the past. For materially poor people who are able-bodied, development includes their moving toward fulfilling their calling of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruits of that work. The key dynamic in development is promoting an empowering process in which all the people involved — both the "helpers" and the "helped" — become more of what God created them to be. Development is not done to people or for people but with people.


Excerpted from Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence by Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert, Katie Casselberry. Copyright © 2015 Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


• Introduction — The Moment When ..., 7,
Part One: A Foundation for Effective Benevolence,
1. Reframing Benevolence — Understanding the Principles of Poverty Alleviation, 17,
2. Take a Second Look — Recognizing the Complexity of Poverty, 37,
Part Two: Designing and Implementing an Effective Benevolence Ministry,
3. Built for Transformation — Creating a Benevolence Philosophy and Policies, 51,
4. From Electric Bill to Restoration — Walking with People through a Change Process, 77,
5. Ambassadors of Reconciliation — Building Your Church's Capacity for Benevolence Work, 107,
6. Rubber Meets the Road — Training Scenarios and Questions, 123,
• Epilogue, 147,
• Notes, 148,
• Acknowledgments, 151,
• Suggested Resources, 153,

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Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence: A Practical Guide to Walking with Low-Income People 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I chose to read Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence because I am aware that there are specific skills and wisdom needed for effectively helping low-income people. Authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert did not disappoint in providing a concise but thorough guide for benevolence work. Corbett and Fikkert open Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence by discussing the foundational forces that contribute to poverty: individual behaviors, abusive or exploitive people, oppressive systems, and demonic forces. I especially appreciated that Corbett and Fikkert addressed the role of demonic forces, as our society tends to avoid discussion about spiritual warfare and the power of demonic spirits. Corbett and Fikkert are also frank about the realities of frustration, weariness, and ongoing efforts of benevolence work, but recommend practices to reduce these symptoms of burn-out. Readers learn the differences between relief, rehabilitation, and development and are encouraged to utilize two questions when determining the appropriate response to a request for assistance. Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence includes many resources, examples, and stories to illustrate principles. The last chapter in the book also includes training scenarios and questions that address several situations that might arise in church benevolence. I think Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence provides a much needed guide to assist churches in developing a benevolence program that has long-term effectiveness and sustainability. I would suggest Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence to any churches or organizations that are starting a benevolence program, or persons who are receiving requests for assistance. Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.