No Free Lunches: Part 2

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Last week we broached the topic of helping that hurts. Read that post here. Often our efforts at international (and local) aid and missions do more harm than good. Well-meaning teams from churches spread out around the world in the name of the Great Commission, but how do we make sure all this work is actually making a difference in the right direction?

A better way…

We need to find a better way. I’m not certain why we trend toward aid that is unhelpful. Perhaps it’s because it is easiest. Perhaps it’s because these things make us feel like we did something. We must not overlook the irony of “helping someone” so that we can pat ourselves on the back. Maybe we like charity that doesn’t really cause us to sacrifice. Much ink has been spilled on the worthless junk that gets donated in the wake of a crisis, as people use charity to clean out their cluttered closet. If you don’t want that orange bowling ball or polyester suit, then there is a good chance the people who lost their home in a tornado don’t either. And furthermore, your wore-out paint shirt isn’t going to meet some desperate need in Africa. Trust me, they have more than enough Goodwill leftovers there already.

Instead, we need to take up the call to sacrificial giving, we need to be willing to give more, not less. We need to be willing to give our time and money instead of our junk, but we also need to do the hard work of counting the cost. Is our help going to hurt? It’s an important question. The issues that surround that questions are many and complex, but it is our obligation to think through these things.

So, before you plan your next short term trip, here are a few questions you should ask:

Ask the question, “Who pays for this?” No free lunches, remember? Whenever we consider taking a team of people anywhere, we need to ask this question. If we plan to build something, who pays for that? Would it be better to hire local workers to do that work, so that we put money into their economy and get the building up? If we plan to bring a bunch of donated goods, are these things that could be bought (or made) locally? If so, would it not be better for us to set up a system that adds that kind of value?

Will this trip position these people to do better later… when we’re not there? Sure, what you do in that two weeks may help them a ton, during that two weeks. However, we must make sure that we do not create an unsustainable system for the people we try to help. I have heard of American churches building whole conference centers out in the bush and building them in such a way that they cannot be maintained. The local churches have neither the money nor the expertise to run such a facility, and it becomes a burden instead of a help. Bigger is not always better. Instead, a good trip will do something that can be carried on after they leave. Perhaps it is training in a skill that can be sustained.

Is this a crisis situation? Crisis situations may be the exceptions to the rule. Now, to be certain, poverty, sickness, and poor education are critical issues. Nevertheless, a crisis occurs when an event or disaster takes place that brings an immediate sense of emergency. Think about the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, or an earthquake, or a tsunami. Perhaps it is a civil war that creates refugee camps in neighboring countries. In these moments, there is an immediate need for help and supplies to get people back to their status quo. Often, without immediate needs being met, people in a crisis situation will die. In these moments, we must act immediately to meet those needs.

Will this trip proclaim the gospel? And I’m not talking about the Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words,” stuff you hear all the time. That quote makes no sense, and ol’ Francis didn’t say it anyway. I am talking about real, verbal proclamation of the gospel. It is easy to pass many things off as missions, but if you are not proclaiming the gospel, then you are not doing missions. At best, you are doing humanitarian aid. That’s a good thing to do, but it’s not missions.

Will this trip help the established church in the area? Or if there is no church, will this help plant one? It is easy to skip this one. I served as a missionary just long enough to see teams with all these things they wanted to do, but they had never once consulted someone on the ground. Often, team leaders can be very demanding of missionaries and local partners, coming with a checklist of things they want to do and not asking how best they can serve. Instead, work with the local church in any area where you plan to go. Find out how best to be a servant. After all, that is why you are going, right?

Want more? Let me suggest a couple resources for you. First, here’s an article from our own Greg Mathias.  Second, two books, Striking the Match by Dr. George Robinson, a professor here at Southeastern and  When Helping Hurts, a classic work on this issue by Fikkert and Corbett.

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