by Brian Fikkert
When those of us who have never lived in material poverty seek to obey God’s call to spend yourselves “in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed” (Isaiah 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.
As we get involved in ministry, we find ourselves suffering from a “god complex” — 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 the recipients of our work suffer from the opposite problem — of a marred identity, of feeling inferior, 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 we who have a god complex interact with people who have a marred identity, the way we talk to them and the things we do to them or for them communicate what they’re already feeling: “You really are less than human. You can’t bring about change in your own life, and you need me to fix you.” 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. We have to get out of this dynamic!
One way we may be perpetuating this cycle is that many churches and ministries use needs-based approaches to poverty alleviation. That is, we try to identify what’s wrong with the low-income individual or community and then 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. For example, what gifts and abilities does this person have? What resources are already available in this community? How can we help these people use their gifts and abilities to achieve their goals? With this approach, solutions and resources come from the low-income individual or community as much as possible.
The staff at Everett Gospel Mission in Everett, Washington, implemented the program from the Chalmers Center for Economic Development because it offers a different approach than other financial training classes. Because they work with people coming from extreme poverty — sometimes generational poverty — they wanted to move away from any authoritarian, shame-based motivation to get people to act. So the mission began hosting Chalmers’ Faith & Finances class, in which Christ-following community members learn alongside program residents. The community members agree ahead of time to serve as allies to clients seeking greater financial stability. The catch? The class is in session for three weeks before the teacher reveals who the allies are and suggests that participants pair up with allies for the remainder of the class.
Taking an asset-based approach, on the other hand, starts off with what’s right with the people and communities we serve. … With this approach, solutions and resources come from the low-income individual or community as much as possible.
“The participants in the class were like, ‘You committed to this?’ They really felt honored by the fact that these allies were committing that time, energy, and effort to do it,” said John Hull, director of strategic initiatives at the mission. “They assumed everyone in the class was an equal because the allies hung out with them like they were all the same and participated in the class. Everyone had bonded by that point because of the open and vulnerable discussion during the first three weeks.”
To put it in terms of a 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, sin, and misery. In this way, a church or ministry can look for and use those assets that are God’s good gifts to address the needs that pop up because of life in a fallen world.
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 his or her situation. Participation increases ownership of the solution, making it more likely that individuals will stick with it when challenges arise. In addition, a participatory approach treats people as image-bearers, thereby helping them 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 the person’s goals and how the ministry might walk together with them to pursue those goals. That might look like 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.
Many graduates of Everett Gospel Mission’s Faith & Finances class remain in regular contact with their allies over the years, meeting with them for fellowship as well as for counsel when challenges arise. One of the men has become good friends with John, who shared, “We get together for coffee periodically, and he’ll bring up things he learned in Faith & Finances that he still is applying in his life. He continues to think about those things.”
A participatory approach shifts the focus of benevolence ministry from a transactional approach that simply writes checks, to inquiring about the person’s goals and how the ministry might walk together with them to pursue those goals.
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 those you serve. 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 they can steward the gifts God has given them to achieve what God is calling them to do.
A church or ministry can look for and use those assets that are God’s good gifts to address the needs that pop up because of life in a fallen world.
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 to 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 approach, 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.
Brian founded the Chalmers Center for Economic Development to help ministries go beyond Band-Aid solutions to address the roots of poverty. He is also a professor of economics and community development at Covenant College. Brian earned a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University, specializing in international economics and economic development. He’s the author of numerous articles in both academic and popular journals.
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This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of INSTIGATE magazine. © Citygate Network, All rights reserved. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for additional permissions.