What’s Right with You?


Trying to "fix" poor people can be harmful to their self-esteem and our efforts to help them.

Your church wants to minister to an individual poor person or to a low-income community. Stop and think: What is the first thing you should do to determine the best way to begin your ministry?

Most of us would probably start by trying to ascertain what is wrong with the individual or community. We might conduct a “needs assessment” by using an interview or survey to determine the best way to provide assistance. Although this “needs-based” approach has merit, it amounts to starting a relationship with low-income people by asking them, “What is wrong with you? How can I fix you?” Given the nature of most poverty, it is difficult to imagine more harmful questions to both low-income people and to ourselves! Let me explain.

God has established four foundational relationships for each individual: relationships with God, themselves, others, and creation. Sin has broken each of these relationships, wreaking havoc in the lives of every human being. In particular, research has found that shame is a major part of the brokenness that low-income people experience in their relationship with themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God and as having inherent value and worth, low-income people often feel they are inferior to others and incapable of improving their situation. On the other hand, those with higher incomes tend to feel a sense of superiority, believing that they have achieved their good fortune through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to save the poor. When the rich fail to embrace their own brokenness, their engagement with the poor tends to hurt both parties by reinforcing their distorted views of themselves and of one another.

In this light, starting a relationship with low-income people by asking—“What is wrong with you?”—initiates the very dynamic that we want to avoid, a dynamic which confirms the feelings that we are superior, that they are inferior, and that they need us to fix them.

For these reasons, community development experts have discovered the benefits of using “asset-based community development” (ABCD) as they try to reconcile people’s relationships with God, themselves, others, and creation. ABCD recognizes that God has blessed every individual and community with a host of gifts including such diverse things as land, social networks, animals, savings, intelligence, schools, creativity, production equipment, etc. ABCD puts the emphasis on what poor people already have and asks them to consider, “What is right with you? What gifts has God given you that you can use to improve your life and that of your neighbors?” In addition to helping poor people to take initiative and to utilize their own resources, the very nature of these questions affirms their dignity and starts the process of overcoming their marred identity.

In contrast, needs-based development focuses on what is lacking in the life of a community or a person. The assumption in this approach is that the solutions to poverty are dependent upon outside human and financial resources. Churches and organizations using a needs-based approach are often quick to provide food, clothes, shelter, and money to meet the perceived, immediate needs of low-income people. Pouring in outside resources is not sustainable and only exacerbates the feelings of helplessness and inferiority that paralyze low-income people from being better stewards of their God-given talents and resources. As a result, when the church or organization stops the flow of resources, they leave behind individuals and communities that are more disempowered than ever before.

Asset-based approaches to poverty should not be seen as denying the fact that low-income people—like all of us—have glaring needs. Some of these needs emanate from their personal sins, some result from the effects of unjust social, economic, and political structures, and some come from natural disasters resulting from Adam and Eve’s sin! Indeed, the fall has tainted every square inch of the cosmos. The point of ABCD is not to deny those needs or the deep-seated brokenness that under girds them. On the contrary, the point of ABCD is to recognize—from the very start—that poverty is rooted in the brokenness of the foundational relationships and to start the process of restoring both low-income people and ourselves to living in right relationship with God, self, others, and creation. What’s wrong will come out soon enough, but by starting out with what’s right we can change the dynamics that have marred the self-image of low-income people and can remind ourselves that these people have gifts and abilities that we want to accentuate.

It is our prayer that you will be inspired to see ways that your church can start to help poor people to consider—possibly for the first time—the gifts and abilities that God has given to them.

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