Dignity & Sustainability in Missions

Posted on December 16th, 2013

From the November '13 Issues of the Links Magazine...

Though the world has changed drastically in the last century, mission work in many contexts is being done similarly to how it was 100 years ago.  Thanks in part to books like “When Helping Hurts,” “Toxic Charity,”  and others, questions are being raised about the effectiveness of missions. We’re finding more and more that measures of effectiveness need to be considered.

For years, Links has sounded the alarm that mission work can be and needs to be sustainable.   
Sustainability in missions is key to ensuring the work we are doing carries dignity with it. A substantial hindrance to sustainability is doing things for people that they can do for themselves.  At Links, we say, “We like to give a hand-up, not a hand-out.”  Unfortunately, much charity work is done with an emphasis on the hand-out.  The reality is hand-outs don’t solve long term problems, and they are continually dependent upon funding from an outside source.  They seem like reasonable solutions for immediate needs (which they can be for emergency response), but the bigger need is to ask, “Why do those needs exist in the first place, and what can we do about it?”

In the West, we love strategies, we love to be the hero, and we like to accomplish big projects. When we feed a certain number of children, raise money, or provide beds for homeless people, we feel a great sense of accomplishment.  However, we can do an awful lot of work without actually helping very much at all.  In fact, it is quite possible to inflict long-term harm on the very people we were trying to help if we don’t pay attention to how the help is being done.  If we are creating reliance on outside help as a solution, our work is likely not sustainable or dignified.

Another hindrance in mission work is that it makes us feel good to help. It feels good to get attention and to be recognized (or even awarded) for the good that we’re doing. It feels good to go to orphanages around the world where fatherless kids hug you and call you “Mama and Papa.”  It feels good to have sacrificed and to have raised money for a cause.  It feels good to care.  However, these feelings can subtly turn the attention from the good of those we’re helping to the good of those who are doing the help.  Mission work will not bring dignity or sustainability to any context if the focus is on those who are doing the work.

As bringers of Good News to the poor (see Luke 4:18), the goal of missions is for the Gospel to allow people in any context to experience the supernatural provision of God.  The Gospel transcends culture. Mission Work is not to make the impoverished more like us or to make us the rescuers.  Missions is to partner together to show how God can work through redemption, restoration, and relationships.  

“The role of the outsider in this approach is not to do something to or for the economically poor individual or community but to seek solutions together with them."*

Handouts will always be accepted, and people in need always know where to get stuff.  However, how many know where to go to have meaningful relationships?  How many are known well enough to discover what their non-material needs are?  How many are being loved by missional people over the long haul?  What sustainable measures are being investigated that will allow them to provide for their own families with dignity?  What do our friends and neighbors in compromised situations really need?  We have to always remember that they don’t need us. They need to experience the Good News we are bringing and watch it transform the darkness of poverty into the marvelous light of provision.

These are the types of questions Links has been asking for years. We believe that patient partnerships with a focus on equipping and empowering are the best way forward.  We are continually investigating ways to do the most good while providing the most dignity.  In this modern age of missions where there is so much activity from so many different places, Links will continue to be focused on sustainability and dignity as we continue our mission of changing lives and transforming communities around the world.

*When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert

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