If there is one thing I have seen over my years as a missionary, it is that there is no end of people seeing a need, feeling bad about the situation, and wanting to do something about it.
For example a church member goes on a mission trip, meets a poor family, and wants to give them a stack of cash; a volunteer stays at an orphanage, gets to know the children and decides they want to open an orphanage; a pastor visits a foreign country, feels impassioned to bring the Gospel to the people and starts sending youth mission teams.
I’m sure that you have had times in your life where your heart was moved to help, and that’s a good thing. Pretty much all compassion based ministries begin like that. We see a problem, feel called to help fix it, improve the situation and hope it makes things better.
They are what is known as “betterment” activities, short term, instantaneous help that improves the quality of life for those being served.
They are good things that when done correctly are helpful. They meet a need, solve a problem and fix a situation. However, over time, the continued implementation of betterment activities primarily seeks to meet what the giver sees as the urgent needs of the receiver, without trying to understand their needs in a deeper way. This can often times foster systems of dependency that end up hindering the growth and development of those being served.
Compassion is generally the driver behind serving those in need, and it’s a good thing. The dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”
Wow, who would be against that? Not me! The Bible tells us that we have a God of compassion. Psalm 103:13 “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”
Like so many things, it’s not the feelings that are wrong. Yes, we are to feel compassion and concern for the suffering of others, doing so is a representation of the love that God has shown us. But I think that we can sometimes be mistaken in how we go about acting on those feelings.
There is a place for helping those who are destitute and in need, but if our help keeps them from seeking a way out of their predicament; if what we do for them causes them to become content and complacent and happy to simply hold out a hand every time they have need, and if we fail to help them develop the gifts and talents that God has given them, then we can reach a point where our “help” encourages dependency and can become toxic and, in the long run, has the potential to have the exact opposite effect of what we are seeking to accomplish.
When we do for others what they can do for themselves, the result is that we can end up disempowering instead of empowering those we seek to help.
If a ministry or organization is going to be truly helpful, at some point we have to consider just how our compassion is leading us to act. Is the help we are giving more about us doing the giving and the feelings we get from it or is it about the person we are seeking to help, about truly understanding their needs and assisting in a way that leads them to achieve their fullest potential as a someone made in God’s own image using the gifts, talents and abilities that he has given them to achieve the destiny that he has for them?
Any ministry that truly cares about the people it is serving, has to ask hard questions about the work they are doing if they are going to move from betterment to development. If they are honest with themselves, they will see that most of the time betterment ministry provides diminishing returns as people often become complacent to simply receive a fish that is handed to them and never learn to fish for themselves.
As easy as it is to identify this problem, knowing just how and when to move from betterment to development is something that each missionary, ministry, pastor, church, organization and charity has to grapple with in their own context.
It is something that I personally have had to face, and it’s not easy, but if one thing I have found is that if we are dealing with hard problems, we have to ask hard questions.
If you were to ask someone in ministry “Why are you serving those in need?” the answer is easy, “Because Jesus calls us to serve them, because He says to give food and water to people when they are hungry and thirsty, because God cares for the orphan and widow, etc…”
All true and all good answers.
But if you were to go one step further, to ask the WHY behind the WHY, to question “Why do you think that the way you are helping them is right, good or even helpful in the long run?” I’ve found that many people give a vague generalization about the supposed benefits of what they are doing, or stumble around lost and can’t properly articulate or support the work they are doing with anything other than a strong belief that they are right.
I know, I’ve been there. I’m not writing this article because I have all the answers. I’m writing this article because I’ve learned to ask some of the right questions. You can’t arrive at the right answers if you don’t know the right questions.
One thing I’ve learned is that it’s ok to not have all the answers. Actually, the longer I spend in ministry, the less things I am certain about, and even when I think I know something, I try to constantly challenge my suppositions and reasons, not just for what I do, but why.
It’s not just what questions we ask, it’s who we ask. We need to look not only to experts and those with more experience and maturity in ministry for guidance, but we need to look to those we serve and those we serve alongside.
So just what are the questions one should ask? Here are a few examples:
- Is there a way to bring more human dignity to the way that we help people instead of just seeing it as a one way exchange?
- What is my basis for believing that what I am doing, and the way I am going about it is right, good, healthy or sustainable?
- Am I giving people what they want or what they really need?
- Have I taken the time to build relationships with the people I serve so that I can better understand them?
That last one is a big one that I think too many people overlook, I know I did for many years. I now know that if I take the time to build relationships with those I serve, based on trust and a mutual willingness to learn from each other, it has the potential to move our works towards development programs that truly have an impact.
It’s not that we want to lose the sympathy and empathy that we have for those we serve, and resort only to logic based strategic decisions, but if we are honest with ourselves, ask the right questions, and look for the right answers, we will come to a place where emotion and reason meet.
Simply put, we can’t save the world. No ministry can. But we can be effective in impacting the lives of those we serve if we take the time to properly assess what we are doing, ask the hard questions, look for the right answers and ultimately build relationships with those we feel called to serve.
I do a lot of reading, I’m a strong believer in standing on the shoulders of those who came before me so I can see what lies ahead.
A few books that have really helped to challenge my thinking are When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert, and Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton.
When I look back over the past year and compare our ministry with the recommendations that I see from more knowledgeable people, I can see, by the grace of God, that we have done a few things right, among them being the following:
- You have to take the time, lots and lots of time. Development work is much more time consuming than betterment and requires a long term commitment. It will be messy and frustrating and quite unlike short term betterment or service type projects.
- Build relationships, get to know the people, the culture, the country, the language. You can only truly help that which you truly understand. Listen to those you are trying to help so you don’t put a lot of time, energy and resources into solutions that aren’t needed.
- Start small. Development work doesn’t often work on a grand scale. Find the few things that are truly needed, that you truly have an ability to impact on a grassroots level. If you create a model that works, the results will speak for themselves and you can grow with time.
- Always be learning, always be asking the hard questions, listen to what other people say, actively seek out advice and be your harshest critic.
- Ask yourself continually “Am I doing for someone what they can do for themselves?” If so, how do I move beyond that.
Doing these things will definitely be a lot more work in the short term, but they are well worth it in the long run.
*Much of the inspiration for this article was taken from Dr. Robet Lupton, his books and his posts.
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About Tim and Sharie Martiny.
We are missionaries in Guatemala with our six children, Julia-now is college- (19), Audrey (16), Vanessa (14) Jessica (12), Alex (10) and Alison (8). We both come from missionary families and were raised overseas, Timothy in Europe, and Sharie in South East Asia and Mexico.
We work primarily in orphan care and prevention. The Biblical call in James 1:27 to care for the orphaned and vulnerable is our calling. Our ministry works with vulnerable children and their families in their communities through programs we run at two community centers in Colina Santa Fe and San Jose Pinula.