Dr. Brian Fikkert is the Founder and Executive Director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, a research and training center that is dedicated to helping churches and missionaries to declare the kingdom of God by bringing economic development and spiritual transformation to the poor. Brian also serves as a Professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College. Brian received a Ph.D. in Economics with highest honors from Yale University, and a B.A. in Mathematics from Dordt College. He is the co-author of When Helping Hurts, which was recently re-released.
KW: On the re-release of When Helping Hurts, describe the core of the message that has been so effective in connecting with and impacting readers.
BF: The goal of writing When Helping Hurts was to dialogue with North American Christians, equipping them with gospel-based ministry approaches that empower the poor to help themselves. Given the current excitement about issues of justice and mercy, that message naturally strikes a chord with many Christians. But on a deeper level, readers find the idea that we can inflict real harm on poor people in our efforts to help them to be compelling, partially because it resonates with their own experiences. We have had countless church and ministry leaders say, “What we were doing wasn’t working, but we didn’t know why. When Helping Hurts offered a framework to help us understand why, and then a healthier perspective to help us to move forward.”
KW: How would you define poverty and in what ways is it broader than just an economic distinction?
BF: Poverty is about broken relationships – not just about a lack of material things. Thus, we are all poor in some way, but Christ came to heal our brokenness. This principle is rooted in the grand drama of Scripture: God created a perfect world, but the fall marred our relationships with God, ourselves, others, and the rest of creation. Thus, while the materially poor experience unique pain and desperation that many of us have never faced, sin made all of us “poor” in that we experience less than the fullness that God intended for us at creation. For the non-materially poor, our poverty often takes the form of materialism, workaholic tendencies, and messiah complexes. The good news is that God is reconciling all things through the work of Christ, offering healing for the poverty in all of us.
KW: Since the original publication of When Helping Hurts, what are some of the changes and cultural shifts that you see happening?
BF: Churches and ministries are increasingly aware that poverty alleviation isn’t as simple as it seems – it isn’t just about giving things to the materially poor. The language of “relief, rehabilitation, and development” is also popping up more frequently in ministry circles. That being said, we are constantly warning churches against simply adopting the language of effective poverty alleviation without actually changing their practices. For example, we can say that we are doing development, but it is easy to continue our traditional programs, even if they are essentially handouts. Thankfully, we see countless churches that are aware of this danger and are doing the hard work of truly transforming their approaches. It’s an exciting moment, and we are looking forward to seeing what God continues to do in and through His church.
KW: In what ways are you encouraged by the ongoing development in the conversation on justice in the American church?
BF: The church is waking up to its unique role in poverty alleviation and pursuing justice. It has something to offer beyond running a food pantry. As the body, bride, and fullness of Jesus Christ, it is to serve as a sneak preview for the full restoration that Christ will bring when He returns. In Colossians 1, Paul explains that Christ is reconciling all things to the Father. We don’t serve a “Star Trek” Jesus who is simply “beaming up” our souls out of this world. Rather, we serve a Jesus who is making all things new and who is bringing restoration “as far as the curse is found.” Since God’s mission is to restore every speck of the cosmos, we are called to the business of reconciliation, too. The American church is beginning to grasp how multifaceted and beautiful that calling is, engaging in holistic ministry that addresses the spiritual, social, physical, and economic brokenness around us. That having been said, it is profoundly critical that we not lose sight of the fact that the full benefits of the kingdom only come to those who repent and put their faith in King Jesus; sadly, judgment awaits those who do not.
KW: What do you think is still the greatest oversight in how we perceive relief and development in Western culture?
BF: We may be changing the mechanisms and features of our poverty alleviation efforts (e.g. recognizing the difference between relief and development,) but we still often struggle with our underlying attitude. With our Western emphasis on efficiency and control, we have a tendency to view ourselves as the ones with the answers and the initiative to change the materially poor’s circumstances. We dictate the terms of the relationship. But when we do so, we aren’t really doing development anymore. The key to development is forming empowering relationships with people who are poor that help them to discover their God-given gifts and to explore concrete ways they can utilize those gifts. When we insist on being in the driver’s seat, we reinforce the materially poor’s sense of shame and powerlessness, discouraging them from stewarding their God-given gifts and resources. But when we let them initiate and participate in change, we combat their crippling shame, uncover ways they can support themselves, and point them to the God who gave them those gifts. The church can and should be a leader in this area, engaging with low-income communities with an attitude of humility and respect.
KW: What advice do you have for an individual or church suffering from “compassion fatigue,” wearing out after years of service?
BF: Understand and cling to the gospel in all its fullness. God is making all things new, and will ultimately bring restoration “as far as the curse is found.” When we truly believe that, we can rest in the reality that the success or failure of His cosmic plan is not contingent on our success or perfection in poverty alleviation. In fact, we never will do it perfectly, and we will encounter countless obstacles. Yes, assess your ministry efforts as best you can: Are you utilizing effective poverty alleviation techniques? Are there ways you need to retool your work? But then fight compassion fatigue in community – encourage each other, celebrating God’s moment-by-moment sustaining grace and the coming full restoration secured by the sacrifice of Christ.