‘When Helping Hurts’: How One Book Changed Care for the Poor

As pastor Ronnie Garcia surveyed his neighborhood last fall in San Juan, Puerto Rico, two realities hit him.

First, recovery from Hurricane Maria’s devastation would take years. Second, it would take the church.

Maria was the worst natural disaster ever to hit Dominica and Puerto Rico. The Category 5 hurricane knocked out the island’s entire power grid, leaving 3.4 million residents in the dark and without relief from tropical heat and humidity. Floodwaters wiped out entire communities and destroyed 80 percent of local agriculture. Many neighborhoods had no running water.

Garcia has no disaster response training. With few options, he reached for a book he read after seminary—When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself.

Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria / Courtesy of Ronnie Garcia

The book, released nine years ago by Covenant College community development professors Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, has become the go-to resource for evangelicals thinking about short-term missions trips and economic development for the poor.

“This book is virtually required reading for everyone in our church who is intentionally engaging the poor here and around the world,” David Platt wrote in the foreword to the 2012 edition. “I have never read a better book on practically serving the poor.”

“What a fantastic book,” The Summit Church senior pastor J. D. Greear wrote on his blog. “I’ve made it required reading for all Summit pastors, as it is the ‘bible’ we will live by in ministering to our community.”

Pastor and TGC board chairman Kevin DeYoung called it “the best book I’ve read on ministering to the poor” and wrote that “every pastor passionate about the poor, every deacon, every missions committee, everyone interested in short-term missions, everyone fired up for ‘the least of these’ should read this book.”

Despite these endorsements, not everybody loved the book. Critics on the right see it as too secular (“little theological support”), while the left faults it for not spending enough time exploring issues of social justice (“they do not include addressing . . . power structures through political advocacy”). Some ministries have lost donors after implementing Fikkert and Corbett’s strategies. Others have received pushback from short-term missionaries wanting to choose their own activities.

But overall, When Helping Hurts has been enormously well received, selling more than 400,000 copies and rating 4.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon and 4.2 out of 5 on Goodreads. It’s spun off three more books, a DVD, and hundreds of courses and seminars around the country. And it’s boosted The Chalmers Center, which Fikkert helped establish, from a research branch of Covenant College’s economics and community development department to its own entity.

The amount of attention the book garnered—and the thousands of follow-up hours Fikkert and Corbett spent on it—is ironic. Because they wrote it to get the topic out of the way, so they could focus elsewhere.

The Class Everyone Wanted

When Helping Hurts began as an overly popular economics class.

In 1999, Fikkert helped found Chalmers to train churches to use economic development strategies like microfinance. He named it after 19th-century Scottish pastor Thomas Chalmers, who believed the local church needed to be more active in serving the poor. It functioned as part of the economics and community development department at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

But by 2008, Fikkert and Corbett needed a solution for dealing with some uncommitted students—primarily adults working in ministry—taking online classes through Chalmers. The introductory class on foundational principles of community development was wildly popular, but only a fraction of the participants signed up for the follow-up classes on microfinance.

Brian Fikkert / Courtesy of The Chalmers Center

When asked, the students admitted that they had never intended to take the second course. They just wanted some key principles that they could use in the work they were already doing. Some worked in areas such as agricultural development, clean water, or affordable housing. Others wanted to help their church work directly with the poor.

“We were training all these people who weren’t interested in microfinance,” Fikkert said. So he and Corbett combined the concepts from their introductory class with material they taught at Covenant into a book. It was supposed to free Chalmers instructors to teach microfinance classes in peace.

When When Helping Hurts was first published in 2009, the authors hoped a few thousand readers would benefit. Instead, it began to sell quickly and steadily. By 2014, it had sold 300,000 copies. By 2017, the book had sold more than 430,000 copies in two editions.

“We were really quite surprised that the book took off like it did,” Fikkert said. “It sold very rapidly almost immediately, and it continued to climb the charts in ways that we never imagined.”

Chalmers staff hold a banner sent to them by one of their West Africa church partnerships. / Courtesy of The Chalmers Center

Speaking invitations soon followed, as did the requests for new ways to teach the material to churches.

Leaders at some of the nation’s largest churches—including Saddleback Church in California, Fairhaven Church in Ohio, and Willow Creek Community Church north of Chicago—read When Helping Hurts. (Saddleback and Fairhaven subsequently revamped their outreach ministries; Willow Creek now teaches teams Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions before every trip.) The Summit Church, which sends out more International Mission Board missionaries than any other Southern Baptist congregation, requires its staff to read it. Watermark Community Church in Dallas uses it in training for international discipleship trips, relies on it when serving the poor domestically, and depends on its principles to evaluate partner ministries.

In 2010, overwhelmed with the work generated by When Helping Hurts, Chalmers became a stand-alone nonprofit (though Covenant is still a partner institution—all Covenant’s economics and community development profs work part-time at Chalmers, and Covenant’s president and vice president for academic affairs sit on Chalmers’s board).

To meet the demand for teaching When Helping Hurts in more contexts, Corbett and Fikkert released When Helping Hurts: The Small Group ExperienceHelping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions (2014), and Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence (2015). The leadership of Life.Church in Oklahoma City produced the material as a documentary in The Helping Without Hurting Seminar DVD.

The book has become so widespread and influential that “agencies have told me that their staff on the ground internationally can tell when the team has or has not read the book by how they behave,” Peter Greer, president and CEO of Hope International, told Christianity Today.

New Vision for Ministry

Debra Potter saw poverty in a new way when she heard Fikkert teach at an Atlanta church in 2012. As director of community outreach at Perimeter Church, Potter could not understand why a church with 6,000 attendees was so ineffective at helping people out of poverty.

Fikkert’s teaching on the nature of poverty turned Potter into a woman on a mission. The next day she made a spreadsheet of the ministries Perimeter partners with for community development. She categorized them as relief, rehabilitation, and development agencies.

Corbett and Fikkert use that language to describe help offered to the poor—temporary relief during a crisis, rehabilitation to recover from a crisis, and development to help those in chronic poverty to support themselves and to challenge systems that work against people fulfilling these callings.

“One of the biggest mistakes North American churches make—by far—is applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention,” Fikkert and Corbett wrote.

Puerto Rican church members deliver water, food, and supplies to isolated communities after Hurricane Maria. / Courtesy of Ronnie Garcia

Potter began meeting with the leaders of all 15 organizations.

“I told them, ‘Since we all desire to change lives together, what would it look like if we did more relational work and not relief work?’” Potter said.

Because at the root of poverty are broken relationships.

“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable,” wrote Corbett and Fikkert, quoting Fuller Seminary professor of transformational development Bryant Myers. “Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meaning.”

Westerners often view poverty as lacking material needs and ignore the underlying issues, they wrote. Instead, poverty is a sin-induced strain in a person’s four key relationships—with God, creation, others, and self. While everyone experiences some relational poverty, for certain individuals the effects of devastating relational poverty lead to material poverty.

Attempting to alleviate material poverty without addressing the underlying relational strain will not only fail, but will also tempt resourced Christians to view the materially poor as lazy, Fikkert and Corbett wrote.

Pastors and wives of the Christ Collaborative / Courtesy of Ronnie Garcia

It didn’t take long for Potter to convince her partners of that point. The seven ministries that did not already have a relational component agreed to add one.

Fikkert and Corbett hear stories like this all the time.

“It is profoundly encouraging to see God use our book in this way, but we are keenly aware that in many ways this really isn’t our book,” Fikkert told TGC. “Rather, it is a book that captures the insights of many people who have taught and mentored us over the course of our lives.”

In particular the authors point to Myers’s Walking with the Poor and Darrow Miller’s Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures as key forerunners to their work. But while Fikkert and Corbett build on others like Myers and Miller, the readability of When Helping Hurts brings the content to the layman’s level.

“We are just grateful that God enabled us to synthesize the ideas of all these people into a framework that many have found helpful,” Fikkert said. “When people tell us how the book has impacted them, we always just say, ‘Praise God!’”

Pushback

The relational approach outlined in When Helping Hurts has a cost, particularly for Christians accustomed to swooping into poor communities with toys, food, and help.

“The primary strategy at the core [of relational ministry] is our repentance of a sense of pride and superiority,” Fikkert said. But that’s a lot harder to do than writing a check.

Ministries risk offending and sometimes losing donors by asking them to not play the heroes. Potter saw leaders of one ministry plead with a donor to buy and donate Christmas gifts that low-income parents could purchase at a deep discount. The donor balked at this request because personally distributing gifts to low-income families was his family’s Christmas tradition.

The donor couldn’t see how he had made the ministry about his wants rather than preserving the dignity of low-income parents, Potter said.

The primary strategy at the core [of relational ministry] is our repentance of a sense of pride and superiority.

Sherry Lanier is a short-term missions facilitator with Mission to North America (MNA), and she hears this self-centered approach to service, too. She sometimes gets calls from church leaders with a preset plan for what they want to do at a short-term site. Lanier treats these calls as opportunities to educate church leaders on the reason for short-term missions—coming alongside the local church to accomplish its ministry goals.

Lanier tells short-term groups that MNA serves at the pleasure of the local church. Most groups usually appreciate the new perspective and acquiesce to the requests from the short-term site, she said.

“Neglecting to keep the long-term ministry goals of the local leadership in view, whether domestic or foreign, can do more harm than good,” Lanier said. “Follow the model of Jesus, who did not come to be served, but to serve.”

Some churches misapply the book in ways that cause them to give less, not more. Corbett and Fikkert have heard of churches that read the book and then stop giving for fear that any money they give might do more harm than good. Other churches use the book as a cover for pure stinginess.

“When we hear stories of people using the book to do less, it is really hurtful,” Corbett said. “We want people to give more money—as long as it is going to ministries doing the right kind of stuff. Find organizations doing the right things and give them more money.”

Christ Collaborative

Garcia’s Puerto Rican community needed development and rehabilitation, but even more, it desperately needed relief—food, water, and medical supplies. He and four other pastors formed a ministry network team and called it Christ Collaborative (CC). They identified the hardest-hit communities, created survival kits, and found local pastors to deliver them.

In exchange for the supplies, CC offered the local pastors a chance to receive training in community development using When Helping Hurts as the guide.

Garcia acknowledges the concepts in When Helping Hurts are messier in real life than he expected. It’s hard for residents to identify their abilities when they are dying of thirst. And even when residents have their basic needs met, not every culture has categories for thinking about talents, abilities, and skills.

So Garcia must make on-the-fly adjustments. When one elderly couple told him they couldn’t be of any use, he pointed out their thriving tomato and banana plants, and asked if they’d teach others to garden. (They did.)

Garcia speaks to Christ Collaborative pastors and leaders in the midst of daily missions of relief to those in need all over the island. / Courtesy of Ronnie Garcia

Lanier has channeled financial resources to Garcia, and she looks forward to when she can send groups to assist him. But not yet. She knows that right now a group from the mainland staying in a hotel might displace Puerto Ricans who need the lodging.

When Garcia is ready, Lanier will send skilled volunteers who can work alongside Puerto Rico residents to restore communities and increase shalom.

Ministry leaders around the globe tell Fikkert that when a visiting team has read When Helping Hurts, the group is less focused on doing things and more intent on building relationships. Their attitudes communicate, “We are all broken and need Jesus to fix us.”

“For those who have really read and embraced When Helping Hurts, their posture to the world and the poor is different,” Fikkert said. “There is less triumphalism and a lot more of the gospel. There is less confidence in having all the answers and more humility to step back and learn and talk to people. We haven’t changed everything, but we have seen significant changes.”

Flourishing and Dreaming

When Fikkert meets people who have been affected by the book, he always wants to hear more about their ministry.

“People sometimes treat authors like celebrities or heroes, but the real heroes are those who work day in and day out on the front lines of poverty, sacrificing themselves for others without getting any recognition,” he said.

When Corbett hears praise for the book, he holds it loosely, knowing it’s empty talk unless readers put the book’s concepts into practice. Ultimately, the legacy of When Helping Hurts will rest not in how many copies it sells or how many workshops it guides, but in how many Western churches abandon the savior complex and submit to a broader, deeper understanding of human flourishing.

For those who have really read and embraced When Helping Hurts, their posture to the world and the poor is different,” Fikkert said. “There is less triumphalism and a lot more of the gospel.

“‘Inch deep and mile wide’ is glamorous and easy to understand,” he said. “But the new model—which is smaller, longer, and harder—has deeper impact.”

This new view of flourishing, according to Fikkert, centers on the gospel where Jesus is Lord of the physical and spiritual realms and is reconciling everything in heaven and on earth to himself by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

That view ties history to the future, locating help itself in the story of a redemption already paid and the hope of final redemption to come.

One sign of hopeful helping—and a community flourishing—is its ability to dream, Garcia said. If a community can dream for itself, he counts that a win. And if the same communities receiving relief after Maria are so strong that they offer relief to other communities after the next hurricane, that’s a win, too.

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