Review: “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert

Since Coram Deo’s inception, we have had an active concern for the poor. I take no credit for this; it’s all a result of God’s good providence, and His good plan to sanctify me. I am wired with a primary concern for the word of the gospel. But in the early days of Coram Deo, God placed on our launch team a number of people with an equally aggressive concern for the deeds of the gospel. These folks were relentless. They helped me come to grips with my own faulty understanding of poverty, and they helped form a vision for social justice that lodged itself in the DNA of our church.

Hashing out that vision for social justice proved more difficult than anyone expected – primarily due to the lack of good books on the subject. The language of “social justice” had been almost entirely co-opted by liberal theologians, who were heavily influenced by liberation theology and tended to equate serving the poor with the gospel itself. The more conservative evangelical types were still recovering from a century of fundamentalism and were suspicious of any model for helping the poor that didn’t start with evangelism and gospel proclamation. In the (very narrow) middle stood some disaffected Christians who didn’t seem to fit comfortably in either camp – guys like Ron Sider and Shane Claiborne – who were making important contributions to the dialogue, but tended to say things in ways that made my “gospel reflex” twitch with discomfort. Finally, at a loss for good theological material, we tasked JD Senkbile with writing a position paper on poverty to provide a starting point for our church’s thinking and practice.

WhenHelpingHurtsIn light of our concern for this subject – and the lack of good foundational resources – it is a great joy for me to report that the book we’ve been waiting for has finally been written! When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself was put out late last year by Moody Press. Authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert run the nonprofit Chalmers Center for Economic Development and also teach economics at Covenant College. In other words: they’re respected in the field and they know what they’re talking about. In the book, they have crystallized both a sound, gospel-centered theology of poverty and the “best practices” of poverty alleviation. They have succeeded in being academic but not heady, helpful but not condescending, challenging but not demoralizing.

I had an inkling this book would be genius when I saw it endorsed by both John Perkins (a founding father of community development who “gets” the practical side of poverty-fighting) and Brian Chappell (a seminary president who “gets” the gospel). Corbett and Fikkert strike all the right notes. They help us understand poverty as something more than an economic problem. They help us confront the unrecognized “God complex” that often hinders our effectiveness. They introduce us to best practices (like asset-based community development) and help us recognize crucial distinctions (like those of relief, rehabilitation, and development). And they do all of it through a rich, gospel-driven perspective. They write neither as smug experts who have already arrived, nor as distant prophets who are content to point out our faults, but as humble practitioners who are learning what it means to seek for God’s kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Those of you who have been around Coram Deo for awhile know that we love our partnership with inCommon Community Development primarily because of their relational approach to ministry. Corbett and Fikkert will take you further in understanding why that’s so crucial to reducing poverty – and why, in fact, other strategies are doomed to fail. Furthermore, as the title indicates, they’ll show you why many well-meaning approaches to poverty alleviation – both governmental and private-sector – actually hurt the very people they’re designed to help. Oh, and if you’re gung-ho about short-term missions trips… you might want to read chapter 7 before you plan your summer.

If you care about the poor… if you long to see the church recover a heart for justice… if you desire to alleviate poverty in ways that are truly sustainable and empowering… if you just want to learn more so you can participate intelligently in the conversation… or if, like me, you know you need to grow in this area and want a reliable tutor… you should buy this book. While you’re at it, get some copies for your friends and family. The evangelical church has a long way to go in living out our biblical mandate to “the least of these.” Corbett and Fikkert have written a book that will resonate with liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, big-church folks and small-church folks, academics and novices. It’s well worth your time.


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  1. Too funny! My roommate did the cover design for this. She had a couple of more layered concepts they rejected. My favorite was someone dropping coins into a cup…only the well-meaning philanthropist hadn’t noticed it was a guy’s cup of coffee. He wasn’t looking for a hand out. In fact, you just ruined his Joe. When helping hurts indeed.

  2. This book has changed my perspective on poverty. I would also mention Bob Lupton’s book “Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life” as another excellent book on how our ministry to the poor needs serious reflection and rethinking. For example, most American’s have a very simplistic view of poverty, equating it with lack of material goods. This completely ignores the social and psychological elements of poverty which are at times more hidden, but also more destructive. See Learning empathy for the poor through unemployment if interested in more of my thoughts on this.

  3. I’m really intrigued by this book!

    Ever since going on a short-term mission trip to Tanzania, I’ve felt a vague discomfort with the impact of short-term missions. I’m really interested to see what Chap. 7 has to say!

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