(Book Review) When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Reviewed By: Colleen Greene

Ministry Title: Church Library Committee Member

Church: Rose Drive Friends Church, Yorba Linda, California

Book: When Helping Hurts


Title: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself

Author: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Publisher: Moody Publishers

Publication Date: April 1, 2012

Format: Book (Kindle edition read)

Length: 288 pages


This book was recommended to me by the Missions Pastor at my church, during a Bible study he taught last year. I read it earlier this year, and since then, this book has come up in a number of other studies and conversations — one of those powerful “God coincidences” that I cannot ignore.

As Christians, we are called through scripture to help the poor. Corbett and Fikkert make the argument, however, that traditional efforts by North American Christians, ministries, churches, and missions (particularly short-term missions) to do this work have often done more harm than good, despite the best of intentions and having the right heart. The authors assert that this long history of misguided efforts is primarily due to a misunderstanding of poverty, and a North American Christian emphasis on treating the symptoms of poverty rather than the causes.

Steve Corbett is an Assistant Professor of Community Development at Covenant College and serves as a Community Development Specialist for the Chalmers Center. Dr. Brian Fikkert is a Professor of Economics and Community Development and the founder and Executive Director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College. The Chalmers Center at Covenant College equips churches around the world with gospel-driven poverty alleviation approaches that empower the poor, leading to lasting transformation in low-income communities.

North American Christians and churches tend to define poverty in material terms. This hinders our ability to help those in poverty.

The way that we act toward the economically poor often communicates—albeit unintentionally—that we are superior and they are inferior. In the process we hurt the poor and ourselves. And here is the clincher: this dynamic is likely to be particularly strong whenever middle-to-upper-class, North American Christians try to help the poor, given these Christians’ tendency toward a Western, materialistic perspective of the nature of poverty.

Corbett and Fikkert teach us that poverty is caused when any one of the God-established four foundational relationships — what they call the building blocks of human activity — are not properly working. This results in different types of poverty. Many of us North American Christians are unknowingly subject to one or more of these other types of poverty, and are also in need of some type of “poverty alleviation.”

Recognizing this and working towards reconciling these four foundational relationships is the only way we can effectively help the poor.



5 out of 5 stars.

Suggested Audience

A must-read for missionaries and anyone considering missions trips (including short-term), as well as those involved in (or considering starting) a ministry that serves “poorer” demographics or communities. Also recommended for general discipleship growth.

Suitable for teens.

Written with a group study in mind, but works as an individual read too.

Christian Impact

Christians are mandated to help the poor. Whether one does this through individual or family volunteer service, or through a corporal entity such as a church, ministry, missions team, or small group, this book will change the way you think about poverty, and how you should and can serve the poor. It will force you to take a hard assessment of your own attitude and worldview, yet provides encouragement and teachings on how each of us can try to exemplify Christ’s love and caring for the poor.

Other Notes

There is a more recent 2014 edition available, as well as a video set for small groups.

Colleen Greene
ECLA Web Coordinator
President, Southern California Chapter

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4 Responses to “(Book Review) When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert”

  1. Hi Colleen, I’ve heard good things about this particular book; thanks for posting about it! I noticed one of the tags is “social justice” (although it does not appear in the book’s verso cataloging as a subject). “Social Justice,” as I understand it, is more of a socialistic (as in Socialism, Communism, etc.) term, concept, and movement, rather than a Christian precept, although its usage has begun to creep into some church movements and social doctrine. Do the authors use that terminology in the book? Do they offer a definition of “Social Justice?” Thanks for bringing up this potentially controversial and perhaps misunderstood term; I think it’s good for us as Evangelical Christians to discuss it.

    • Hi Joanne,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      Social justice isn’t socialism or communism, any more than the first century Acts church practiced socialism. Yes, historically some socialist and communist activists and organizations proclaimed to advocate for social justice, but so have Christian organizations. Same with terms like “abolition”, “freedom”, “civil liberties.”

      The authors do use that term, but I specifically picked that descriptive tag because its fits, and it fits with several other books I plan to review.

      Spend some time checking out online all of the social justice ministries run by churches, Christian colleges (including our own nearby Biola), and Christian organizations.

      I am extremely proud of the strong social justice history of my own denomination, Friends (who grew out of the Quakers).

  2. Virginia Peterson Reply August 10, 2014 at 9:37 am

    A similar book that comes to mind is “The Hole in our Gospel” by Richard Stearns, president of World Vision. But perhaps that’s one already on your list. 🙂

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