Compassion for the whole person: a few tips if you’re going to help the poor

By September 8, 2010

International (MNN) — Have you ever wondered if the money you're pouring into a ministry to help the materially poor is being used well? Have you ever wondered if the ministry for which you work is as effective as it can be in reaching the poor?

Some guidelines from The Mission Society may help you to better assess whether ministry time and money are being used wisely.

There are various ways to help the materially poor, from immediate aid relief to microloans. But no matter what method is being used, paternalism often comes into play.

This sort of stepping in and fathering can be helpful to ministry, but when not done with the utmost sensitivity and understanding, it can actually become harmful to ministry. There are a number of questions to be answered to determine the best way to respond to each particular situation. The Mission Society has released a few things to consider as you allocate funds to help the materially poor or enter the field to help directly.

One tactic often employed to assist the physically impoverished is known as Resource Paternalism. Resource Paternalism is the tendency of Western believers to solve the issues of international poverty by pouring funds and goods into a struggling community. The danger in providing constant handouts is that it can sometimes deprive the people of learning stewardship and may actually overturn local businesses.

Something else that can actually hinder outreach is Spiritual Paternalism, where believers come into an impoverished community with the assumption that they know little of faith and that it must be taught. The Mission Society, however, warns that many of the materially poor have had to rely on God so much throughout their lives that their faith has actually grown stronger than many others'.

Knowledge Paternalism is akin to the childhood taunts of, "I know something you don't." Knowledge Paternalism is when believers assume they know the best way to plant crops, operate businesses and cure diseases no matter the culture. To counteract this, ministries need to recognize that the materially poor may have insights that they do not, and should thus engage in conversations with them to really find the best solution.

Labor Paternalism is another thing to look out for. This is essentially the practice of doing work for someone that they can and should do themselves. Parents would not continue to tie their children's shoes through high school. Yet, ministries have a tendency to coddle the poor this way. The Mission Society suggests that this may be harmful to recipients who are not learning to take responsibility and do things on their own. It can also be a bit degrading to them to set expectations so low.

"Managerial Paternalism is perhaps the hardest nut to crack," notes a Mission Society publication. Often Western Christians step in simply because it seems that no one in the country or community is taking charge, or at least not quickly enough for Western ideology. However, the reason no one is taking charge may be attributed to one of a few things: the people benefitting from the ministry don't take charge because they know someone else will; they don't have enough confidence to take charge after watching only outsiders do so in the past; they have internalized the message that "Caucasians run things and everyone else follows;" they know from experience that the current project won't work but they are afraid to say so; they think that if others take over, it will be done more efficiently and provide more resources.

These are simply a few things to be aware of when looking at a good ministry model for your church, for a mission organization, or for your own journey onto the field. To truly win people to Christ, Western Christians must be willing to listen and understand the cultures into which they're stepping. Christ makes it clear that believers should care for the materially and spiritually poor. Doing so with respect and knowledge will be the best way to show people the love of and compassion of Christ.

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