Showalter: Helping, not hurting

Nov 6, 2017 by

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This autumn I was invited to a remarkable meeting. Two African and two Asian mission leaders met with the mission committee of a North American Mennonite congregation.

Richard Showalter


I had never witnessed a meeting quite like it. The North Americans set the agenda. They asked: “How can we give financial resources internationally without creating dependency in the receivers?”

The mission committee had been reading When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. The book gives examples of how well-intentioned givers create loss of dignity and stimulate unhealthy dependency. Now a group of international leaders was visiting. The mission committee was ready to listen and learn.

There were ironies lurking around the edges. The financial wealth was with the Westerners, but the leadership wealth was with the guests. Westerners set the agenda but knew their guests might have better questions. There was good will around the table.

An African missiologist sketched the big picture. “There are three important aspects of mission: the message, the messenger and the mission field. Traditional mission boards focus on the messengers. They train the messengers, support them financially and pour resources into their well-being. But what about the people to whom they go? That should be our focus.”

With that, the focus began to shift. Dependencies in the sending-church systems came into view. The messengers depend on supply lines to their own cultures. Might helping the messenger too much hurt the receivers?

Attention shifted from “When does helping hurt?” to “When does helping help?” The other African chimed in: “You need to evaluate how you translate your use of funds into meeting the needs of those to whom you are sent.”

An Asian offered: “We need local leadership development. How can you contribute to that? You have so many resources in the West — people, information, money, skills. We have so little. Can you walk with us in developing our leaders rather than sending us your highly skilled leaders to solve our problems?”

He went on: “We want relationships with you, not your projects. Then together let’s focus on our relationship with God.”

Next a mission committee member broke in: “I lived in another country for a time, and then my friends kept asking me for money. I didn’t know how to deal with that.”

The African missiologist spoke up again: “Relationships are important in getting to the heart of that issue. But God is raising up local missionaries to your level of competence. How can we build bridges between the potential from the West and the opportunities in our countries?”

The second Asian leader circled back to the mission committee’s question: “We need a middle way. True, when missions to the large unreached populations in our country are foreign-supported, we don’t ‘own’ them. I watched local leaders who were supported by the wealth of the West take on church-planting as a mere job. When the job ended, their congregations died.”

He went on: “But when you breeze in and out of our country with your leadership seminars and other upscale resourcing, or when you send young missionaries who spend so much time learning the language, educating their children and running to conferences but ignore us who have a burning passion and commitment to introduce our own people to Jesus, something is wrong. We want you to come! But don’t bypass us. Can’t we work as one?”

Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher and writer.

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