Review (pt.2): When Helping Hurts

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Moody, 2009, 230 pages 

Corbett_Helping HurtsSecond Concern: Naivety

I wrote “naïve” in the margin of the book over a dozen times. Because many of the authors’ conclusions were based off observations from short-term mission trips and slanted statistics, many of his comments made me roll my eyes. He said Africa will replace the United States as the center of Christianity in 2025. I live in Africa. They are as one African theologian said, “incurably religious”. But a deeper analysis tells us that the foundation of most churches is rotten to the core due to syncretism and the onslaught of the Prosperity Gospel.

The authors tell us as story of a tall and muscular man crying because the missionaries did not teach him social justice (47). He paints most missionaries in the 20th century as only concerned with people’s souls but not interested in making disciples of all nations, later defined as no classes on business and farming.

Another example of naivety came in the final chapter on Business as Missions (BAM), which represents businessmen businesspeople who want to establish corporations abroad to help the poor. Apparently, BAM “is as old as the New Testament” (216) and “finds its roots in the ministries of Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla, who used tent making as a means of supporting their missionary work” (215). The authors give four benefits to BAM and I would like to go through each one.

(1) Gaining access to a closed country. This is a valid reason. When I visited the Comorian Islands, which is just a tiny Lilli pad of lava floating in the Indian Ocean, there is no chance of entering the country as a missionary. Evangelism and churches are illegal. NGOs appear to be the route many missionaries must take to gain access to the most closed countries in the world.

(2) Providing the income needed for a ministry. This reason is surprising since this book is specifically addressed to North Americans. The authors have taken much of the book to show how Americans are the wealthiest people ever to live on planet earth. This indeed is an immense responsibility. We should be sending out church planters by the thousands. But I don’t see how getting an 8-4 job selling vacuums in Honduras is any different from the man who buried his talent in the ground. Weekly I tell my wife how thankful I am for the stateside churches whose generous giving allows us give all of our time to the ministry. According to 1 Corinthians 9, Paul The Tentmaker is the exception and Paul the Church Planter is the rule.

(3) A natural context for relationships. The utopian view is that we manage a hardware shop where people come in to buy a pickaxe and instead sit down for an hour of evangelist and leave with a MacArthur Study Bible. But businessmen know that running a company well takes lots of time and headaches. So Paul said: “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14).

(4) Poverty alleviation. Here, the business is not a cover for the real thing. The business is the real thing—the missionary’s goal is the business itself to help the poor. If a family that moves to Ecuador for the primary purpose of giving employment to the poor are called “missionaries”, then the word has lost its meaning. Moreover, let me give an example of how BAM would need to start in our village. Take a year to get the proper paper work. Spend $7,000 for plane tickets and another few thousands to send your stuff. There are no places to rent in the village, so you’ll need to live outside of town until you can find a place to build a house. This will take a good year. In the mean time, take a couple of years to learn the language, since you won’t get far selling in English. Three years later, in a village of 60% unemployment, you get your hardware and agricultural plantation started. Most of your stock is stolen the first week…and I could go on and on. Would it be easier to do in the big city? Of course, but that is where the jobs are and then you’re not needed. The point: since working in a poor, destitute place is very difficult, put all of your time into gospel-centered work.

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