A handout may initially help Christian mission, but may hinder it later. By “handout” I mean something that is given freely, with little or no condition, because a person is not providing it for himself. Typically, something like food and clothing are given to those who do nothing but take the initiative to come and get it. The goal of Christian mission is to make disciples of Christ. Our initial step is to move a person from spiritual death to spiritual life. This is often the step where a handout might be given. But soon we will want to move that new spiritual infant to spiritual childhood. One of the first things a spiritual child begins to learn is how to feed himself on God’s word and care for his own needs. Increasingly, then, handouts become a hindrance to spiritual maturity.
The term “rice Christians” was used as early as 1731 in Portugal. Similar expressions are “curry-and-rice Christians” (Asia, 1838), “loaves-and-fish disciples” (1855), and “famine Christians” (1900). They refer to people who convert to Christianity, not because of the weight of sin or the desire for heaven, but because of the material things given or promised to them.
Glenn Reiff tells about a prison ministry in Jalapa, Guatemala. Missionaries took bread to the prisoners, fed them, then preached to them. Each week the jailhouse congregation grew; missionaries purchased increasing amounts of bread. One week they didn’t take bread for the men, and the following week the congregation was down to nearly zero.
The problem with handouts is that they too often attract people to church for wrong motives. They can create dependency. Handouts can make a ministry look more successful than it really is. And when they end, the ministry’s accomplishments frequently end, also.
One needs to know the circumstances and reasons for giving a handout. When a house burns down and a family has lost everything, emergency assistance might be exactly what is needed. However, one needs to understand the difference between emergency help and enabling. There are times When Helping Hurts (the title of a very insightful book). Everyone wants to help, but not all “help” is helpful. We need to be asking honest questions, such as, “What does help look like?” and, “Who is this really about? Is it really helping, or is it just making me feel better about myself?”
The right motive should always be to see our help connected to and developing the broader relationship with God and His people. Helping people is always dangerously close to enabling them. We need discernment to know the difference.
Meeting basic needs does not change a person’s situation. Providing for a period of time ensures that the recipient will remain poor. Basic needs are the strongest motivation to personal responsibility, and it does nobody a favor for those to be removed. Repeatedly providing routine needs as if they are emergencies destroys personal responsibility.
Except in an emergency situation comparable to that of the “Good Samaritan,” providing basic needs creates a sense of entitlement – the idea that someone should give to me just because he has it and I don’t. A general principle is to never give anything – instead, provide opportunities. The best thing you can give a person in poverty is the opportunity to change his situation.
You don’t help the most by helping those who want help most; you help the most by helping those who will do the most with the help.
This issue is dominant in both inner-city and foreign ministries. Handouts most often raise the expectation level of “gifts from ministry Santa Clauses.” The giver feels “nice, warm, and fuzzy” inside while diverting the recipient from depending upon the Lord to provide for him. The recipient is robbed of his dignity and self-worth while remaining in “begging mode.”
Handouts foster a mind-set of financial and paternalistic dependency, which then results in increased levels of expectations by the recipients. Handouts can be a blessing when they are connected with, and result in, accountability and responsibility. Actually, with those two features integrated into the “handouts,” they can actually become “hand-ups.” The American dollar represented in food, clothes, and other help can be the greatest blessing during times of true need as well as being the greatest curse when it fosters enablement in wickedness. Let’s keep dialoguing about this issue. We continue to work through this within our own ministry.
Handouts can both help and hinder mission work, depending on the situation. When Haiti experienced a massive earthquake in 2010, there was a significant need for handouts. Why? Because the situation was catastrophic and those affected by the quake were unable to help themselves, so decimated were their lives. When people cannot help themselves, handouts promote mission work by showing Christ's compassion towards the needy and thus opening a door for the Gospel to be received.
After the crisis had passed, instead of helping the Haitian people re-establish their business, create new employment, or learn the skills necessary to survive on their own, mission organizations have continued to give handouts. The results?