Most of us at one time or another have thrown a dollar bill into the cup of a homeless man standing on a street corner. We do it because we want to help even though we know that our dollar won't really solve a problem that has much deeper causes. He'll be on the street again tomorrow because we've just treated a symptom of his condition without really addressing the cause.

As president of World Vision, I see Christians taking a similar approach to helping the poor internationally. Out of obedience to Christ, churches rightly want to respond to the desperate needs of the billions who suffer in poverty around the world and so they often reach out by feeding the hungry, caring for orphans, sending medical teams or shipping in various supplies. And these things do help to relieve suffering, but at the end of the day the poor are still poor. It's not much different than handing that dollar to the homeless man.

American Christians are astounding in their generosity. Tens of thousands of churches pour resources into feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and building houses and orphanages. Hundreds of thousands trek to Africa, Asia, and Latin America each year on short-term mission trips desiring to offer their help.

But here's the problem: Poverty, whether here in America or abroad, is one of the oldest and most complex problems plaguing the human race. It is tangled in social, cultural, economic, political, ethnic, geographic, and spiritual factors that challenge even the most skilled experts. Simple solutions just don't work, and well-meaning amateurs can not only waste valuable resources but even cause unintended harm in their efforts.

The complex puzzle of poverty

We are right to help, but we also need to help in the right way. In the complex system of poverty, well meaning efforts can have unforeseen and unintended consequences in another area. Here's a hypothetical example. Let's say that a church here in America decided to partner with a sister church from its same denomination in Zambia. Looking to encourage its members toward missions and to respond to their needs, the senior pastor arranged for a short-term missions trip to the church in Zambia, where they helped build a school.

Over the following year the church planned a bigger project to help address the grinding poverty their brothers and sisters in Zambia faced every day. They began shipping bags of grains and beans to the Zambian church to distribute to the hungry and fundraised for a new health clinic to treat children in the area.

Article continues below

These actions seemed to be quite positive until problems started to arise. The rice and beans, sent regularly from the U.S. church, drove down the prices of those items in the local markets. That caused area food production to drop because farmers, who were already struggling, could no longer afford seeds and tools needed to farm their land.

The clinic also ran into trouble. During construction, the local government learned about it and decided to cancel a clinic they had planned for the area. The church mobilized doctors and nurses from the U.S. to staff the clinic, but the costs of finding and transporting these volunteer staff meant that the new clinic could only be open sporadically. When U.S. doctors were there, people were treated for malaria, dysentery, and other diseases, but the rate of new infections stayed the same because causes had not been addressed.

Despite these challenges, more people flocked to the little church in Zambia to take advantage of the food and health programs. It grew quickly, but that growth provoked resentment. The village chief, who attended a different church in the village, resented its sudden popularity. So now the community had become divided denominationally and politically.

Finally, during a subsequent visit, one of the American visitors noticed the Zambian pastor doing suspiciously better financially. A new motorbike, a new house, and finer clothes appeared to confirm rumors that the pastor was taking some of the money the church had sent to maintain the clinic.

I often say that the complex task of helping communities is, in fact, like rocket science. We easily underestimate the intricate complexity of the puzzle of poverty—culturally, politically, socially and economically, even in a small community. The American church had intended to do good, but their initiatives had damaging and unintended consequences. Effectively addressing poverty requires cultural understanding, technical expertise, and a great deal of perseverance. It takes wisdom and experience to recognize the difference between the symptoms of poverty and its causes. The simplistic solutions brought by the well meaning church had only managed to put short term Band-Aids on problems that had much deeper causes.

In this hypothetical example, giving food to a church treated a symptom—hunger —while actually exacerbating the underlying problems of poor farming methods, and access to markets. The constant illnesses were largely due to the contaminated water supply and inadequate sanitation and hygiene. The clinic would have been more sustainable had the community petitioned its own government to provide one, or at least to provide local health workers to staff it. Involving leaders from across the community instead of from just one church might have avoided the divisiveness that erupted.

Article continues below

A more complete solution to this community's problems would have likely required addressing the water and sanitation issues, improving agricultural methods and irrigation systems, economic development initiatives, facilitating access to markets for farmers, youth leadership development training, safe childbirth courses and AIDS and malaria prevention to name just a few of the puzzle pieces needed for this community to truly begin to overcome its poverty. Addressing all these issues simultaneously takes most American congregations way beyond their current capabilities.

Principles for a new approach

It is critical for the church to get this right. We have been called to preach the good news to the poor, to feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty, care for the sick, and stand up against injustice. We have been sent to care for the widow, the orphan, the alien, and the stranger. This is the work of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Despite these many challenges, churches can and must equip themselves with new strategies, innovative approaches, and the expertise needed to do this work with excellence. Let me propose four principles that can help guide us toward a new approach to the puzzle of poverty.

1. Poverty goes beyond material things.

Because poverty is a complex puzzle with multiple inter-related causes, solutions addressing just one or two pieces of the puzzle will not fundamentally change a community trapped in poverty. We have to help a community address their challenges on multiple fronts: food, water, health, education, economic development, gender, child development and even leadership and governance.

We have to get beyond the notion that providing 'stuff' to poor communities will lift them out of poverty. No amount of material assistance will transform a community that struggles with gender inequality, domestic abuse, alcoholism, inadequate education, tribal tensions, and other cultural issues. It isn't enough to just provide things—schools, clinics, food—to a community.

Article continues below

I like to use the analogy of a computer's hardware and software. Poor communities do need "hardware" inputs like water wells, irrigation systems, schools, clinics and microloans. But hardware alone is not enough. Thriving communities also need good governance, committees to manage community health, water and education, savings and loan groups, business training for farmers and entrepreneurs, support groups for domestic violence victims, farmer's cooperatives, access to markets, and strategies for disease prevention, neonatal care, and child nutrition. We may also equip the community to advocate on their own behalf for better services—roads, electricity, teachers, and health workers—through their local government.

Solving the puzzle of poverty requires that we go well beyond just meeting material needs.

Working with a community through these "software" strategies provides them the foundation they will need to leverage their physical and structural assets while equipping them with the tools needed to take charge of their own development going forward.

And let's not forget that the most powerful software tool we can offer is the human transformation that comes from a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, something no government or United Nations agency has to offer. This is why the church is potentially the most powerful change agent of all.

2. Sustainable solutions require community ownership.

Americans like to fix things. Often we rush into a community, diagnose its problems, and prescribe quick-fix solutions, without taking the time to listen and learn. Imagine if the roles were reversed. How would we react if a group of Christians from Africa, upon learning that our local public school system was performing poorly, came to your hometown to help? With no knowledge of our culture, our language, our children, our schools, our political processes or the real causes of the problem, they would look rather silly to us. Might we not look the same way to them?

When we seek to work cross-culturally we need to take the time to appreciate the rich knowledge and considerable assets already present in a poor community. The people of the community are created in God's image, brimming with gifts, talents, and abilities very useful in their context. They often know a great deal about their own problems and their potential solutions.

More importantly, if we seek to solve all of their problems for them, we become more likely to create a harmful dependency than a lasting solution. This is about their community and their children's future. We can advise, encourage, help, and provide some expertise they may lack, but the community should lead and direct its own change. We simply help make it possible. When a community takes pride and ownership of its accomplishments, the solutions are more likely to be sustainable and we can work ourselves out of a job.

Article continues below
3. We may need to bring in the experts.

When a U.S. church sets out to construct a new sanctuary building, the pastor doesn't just post a sign-up sheet in the foyer. For big and complex projects, we hire professionals—an architect, general contractor, skilled tradesmen, and so on. There are roles for us "amateurs," maybe hanging drywall, spackling, and painting but building a new church is not a volunteer project.

Yet, when we approach global poverty—one of the human race's most intractable problems—we think we can somehow tackle it using only amateurs and volunteers. Churches call in experts to help with all kinds of things: music, accounting, audiovisual support, counseling, and building construction. Shouldn't we do the same to assist us in tackling complicated problems halfway around the world? Some of this expertise may reside within our congregations, but we will likely have to look outside as well, perhaps hiring people with the necessary skills or partnering with organizations that have experience and a long track record of success. (Interested churches can start with these two umbrella groups: InterAction is a respected secular alliance of international NGOs, with many Christian members. The Accord Network brings together Christian organizations working internationally.) Even when those with specific expertise provide project leadership, there will always be some valuable places where volunteers from your church can also add value.

4. Change doesn't happen overnight.

Be patient and stick with it. Many poor communities have been poor for decades—even centuries. They won't transform in two or three years. A church that commits to go deep and long with a community can experience the richness of relationships that come from doing God's work with God's people in a spirit of love and commitment. World Vision invests between 10 and sometimes 20 years in the communities in which we work, but the changes we see are often remarkable. Our goodbyes are often both tearful and joyful knowing that our friends can now continue their journey without us. If you don't have an exit strategy the community you are serving may never become fully independent.

Article continues below

A few months ago I visited a community in Honduras where World Vision had been working for 18 years. I got a glimpse of the kingdom of God coming in all its fullness. Once poor, despairing and without hope, the community was bustling with life and optimism. Farmers had been trained and organized into co-ops to gain better access to markets. Crop yields and incomes had improved. Mothers met in groups to weigh their babies, assess their level of nutrition, and help new mothers to know how to raise healthy children. Savings groups were stimulating savings, giving loans, and boosting family incomes and assets. Children had participated in leadership development programs, attended school, and grown more involved at all levels in their community. Meetings began with prayer and Bible reading, often led by the children, and local churches had become more deeply involved in people's daily lives. Bible study groups had sprung up—one founded by a former alcoholic and wife abuser who had found new faith when he came to receive agricultural training.

When Jesus told his followers to preach the gospel of the kingdom to the ends of the earth, he asked us to show the world a different way to live. He asked us to demonstrate His great love in powerful ways and to restore, redeem, and renew the brokenness in our world. There is no more powerful invitation to this new way of life than the tangible demonstration of that kingdom to people who have been broken, exploited, forgotten, and ignored.

Christians do a good thing when they eagerly respond to the needs they see around the world. Sometimes, though, as business guru Jim Collins has said, "the good is the enemy of the great." It is a good thing to give a meal to a hungry child, but it is a great thing to offer "life in all of its fullness" to that child, her family and her community and to do it with compassion, excellence, and the good news of the gospel.

Scripture says, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news" (Isa. 52:7). When we offer loving help to our neighbors in ways that allow them to live full and abundant lives, we make the good news attractive and we bring substance to that oft prayed line, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Richard Stearns is president of World Vision US and author of The Hole in Our Gospel and Unfinished: Believing Is Only the Beginning. Follow Rich at