Relief or Development: What Do You Believe about Solving Poverty?

When you think of outreach or compassion ministry, you might think like I did for many years - what I call my “toy basket and turkey dinner” years. My understanding of “outreach,” for so long, involved simply finding some marginalized folks and giving them “things”: Food. Clothing. Toys. Money. Fill in the blank.

Typically, this resource dump was an awkward, one-way transaction. Usually it involved people I had no relationship with before (or after). It did little to change the person’s circumstances, much less the community’s situation.

But since then, I have been reminded of what I intrinsically knew already and what scripture taught all along – that people have worth and value as image-bearers of their Creator (Psalm 139). (Some of my terrific equipping came through books like When Helping Hurts or Toxic Charity).

And I’ve come to realize that poverty is about far more than just a lack of material resources. Poverty involves a breakdown in relationships – between people and God, their families, their community, and themselves.

What you believe about the causes of poverty will drive how you think about the solutions to poverty.

There’s a Time for Relief

In cases of natural disasters (weather or health-related crises, for example) or man-made disasters (like war/terrorism), “relief” is entirely appropriate. We want to help people receive emergency access to food, water, shelter, safety, sanitation, and health care, whether they’re overseas (as our church did following the 2010 Haiti earthquake) or they’re nearby, on the street corner or in our circle of relationships.

But the relief phase is just that – a phase. It responds to emergency needs.

Later, beyond the relief phase, there are opportunities for “rehabilitation,” working with people and communities to rebuild and return to their status quo.

Ultimately, “development” moves beyond those early phases of response and looks for ways to build capacity, opportunity, and structure moving forward. Again, this applies to both individual people and entire communities.

Development Should Be the Norm

The truth is, most of the issues that we face in our city – and with people whom you and I regularly encounter – are not “crisis” situations, but rather “chronic” (ongoing) situations. That means relief is rarely the need; development is.

Bob Lupton, who has been doing urban ministry for more than 30 years, has said,

A crisis requires emergency intervention;

a chronic problem requires development.

Address a crisis need with crisis intervention, and lives are saved.

Address a chronic need with a crisis intervention, and people are harmed.

The key to effective service is accurately matching the need with the appropriate intervention.

What is Needed Here?

Remember what I wrote above? What you believe about the causes of poverty will drive how you think about the solutions to poverty. So, if poverty is ultimately about a need for repaired relationships and heart transformation, rather than simply a lack of money or stuff, you will respond humbly – building relationship, preserving dignity and value, and empowering people to be all that God intended. You’ll learn about the root causes of a person’s particular poverty, and you’ll seek solutions that match those deeper needs.

Only meeting a felt need misses the mark. And while we might feel kind in the moment, providing only “relief” can actually be the kindest way to destroy someone!

Yet we also have to remember that development is ultimately God’s work. He graciously allows us to participate, so we do it humbly, prayerfully, and by His power. We also look for ways to partner with others, including churches and faith-based ministries, in the communities where we serve.

At the end of the day, we are called to pray as Jesus prayed that “…God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). God is in the development business, and as his people, we should be too.

For more on this topic, see the books mentioned above as well as our blog posts about helping the “man on the corner” and another reason “turkey dinners and toy baskets” aren’t the best way to help.

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