In recent years, concepts from the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself have become guiding philosophies of mission work for many churches, agencies and volunteers. But do those working in the field truly understand how to implement its principles? The idea goes beyond focusing only on the needs of and delivering the Good News to communities around the world. It is about changing relationships to the mission field and rethinking missions strategies to focus more on assets and desired outcomes.
Brian Fikkert, co-author of When Helping Hurts, said, “Poverty alleviation occurs when the power of Christ's resurrection reconciles our key relationships through the transformation of both individual lives and local, national, and international systems.”
To dig into this concept, pastors, missionaries and ministry partners from around the Dallas area recently gathered at the Buckner Center for Humanitarian Aid to participate in the first installment of the new Buckner Missions Lecture Series, featuring Dr. Jon Singletary, dean of the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University.
The lecture was the first of several in a new initiative by Buckner Missions to engage with the community to discuss the trends, models, research and practices for missions, community development and poverty alleviation strategies. Dr. Singletary’s focus was on the importance of relationships in efforts to involve congregations in mission and ministry efforts to address poverty.
“We knew that for our first lecture we needed someone who already embodies the principles of this journey,” Javier Perez, director of Missions and Poverty Alleviation, said. “Dr. Singletary came to mind, almost immediately. His passion for congregational social work is unparalleled, and his practical experience on the field is extensive. He understands the church, and he understands the field.”
The lecture began with a focus on why people of faith do the work they do before turning to some models that focused on the how. In order to emphasize relationship-building with the people they seek to care about and serve, Dr. Singletary promoted Appreciative Inquiry, a model for understanding the assets of a culture or community. The model considers what can be learned from how God is already at work in the lives of others. It identifies what is already right and good as a way of working toward a more positive future. Questions foundational to the model are: How do we assume the best in others? How can we practice empathy? How do we nurture what is working? How do we promote big dreams? How do we ask big questions and practice a commitment to listen?
“The goal of being on mission with God is not to do things, to make things, or to fix things,” Dr. Singletary said. “It is to pursue a process of holistic reconciliation alongside people who are poor, in light of our brokenness and the broken systems we benefit from, so that we are all better equipped for right relationships with each other and with God.”
Dr. Singletary continued noting that congregations and missionaries often seek to address a person’s relationship with God, but that relationship cannot be made whole if other relationships are not whole. If there is no sense of purpose, no connection to community, or ineffective social, political, or economic systems, then wholeness is not possible. A relationship with God is contingent upon these other relationships; these other relationships matter for one’s connection to God.
“In other words, we cannot expect someone to thrive in her or his relationships without the presence of God. At the same time, we cannot expect someone to thrive in a relationship with God when the other systems in their lives are not working in a meaningful and effective way,” Dr. Singletary explained.
Dr. Singletary has used this model with students on trips to Kenya and Ethiopia, as well as in congregations locally and around the country. The model has value for congregations seeking to better understand their own sense of mission, to strengthen the ministries in which they are involved, and to learn from new partners in ministry at home and abroad, Perez added.
“We are creating a space for thought-provoking, spiritually challenging and action-oriented dialogue between the missiological community and subject matter experts,” said Diego Silva, Buckner Domestic Missions team lead. “We are trying to better understand and learn how to create missional strategies that focus on outcomes and results, that truly impacts the lives of vulnerable children, families, volunteers and donors. But most importantly, we are seeking to explore, together, what the Kingdom of God really looks like.”
The next installment of the Missions Lecture Series is scheduled for Sept. 21 in Dallas, Texas.