Dr. Arnold Cook



Help That Hinders: Six Kinds

Dr. Arnold L. Cook

“Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Although we often think otherwise, this is not “the missionary call.” Paul was already doing missions. Rather, it is a strategic missionary direction. Paul wanted to enter Asia, but the Spirit said “no” (16:6). Then Europe called, and Paul responded immediately (16:10). Thomas Wang, an influential Chinese missionary statesman, comments on Paul’s sovereign redirect: “God knew that if the Gospel had come to us Asians at that time, we would have kept it to ourselves—we’re family people—not risk takers.”

The Europeans, on the other hand, were entreprenuerers. Columbus and his companions would sail their wooden boats beyond the horizon seeking new lands. So Paul took the Gospel to Europe. Then the Europeans brought the Gospel to us in the New World and ultimately on to Asia.

Missions is many things. However, as expressed in this vision from Macedonia, missions is “helping people.” After nine years of being a missionary in Colombia, South America, I came to this conclusion: In our attempt to help people we often hinder people. It’s not intentional, but our best methods are often flawed.

We’ve all heard of the courteous boy scout who insisted on helping a little old lady across the street despite her protests. When they reached the other side, she was finally able to get through to the young fellow that she didn’t want to cross the street! We smile when this happens in our monolingual setting. Missions happens cross-culturally and in multi-lingual contexts. Thus the liability of misunderstanding is multiplied.

I’ve discovered that there are at least six kinds of help that hinder.” (By the way, these also apply to the parenting process.)

1. Help Too Soon

As missionaries, helping nationals get their own church building is very important, but timing outside help is everything. In Medellin, two couples became Christians. They were close neighbors (real close—we shared a mutual wall between their two living rooms). The Bible study they started soon ran out of space. What should we do? The answer was simple: “Let’s open the mutual wall and join our living rooms!”

The local Mission heard of this healthy indigenous group. They immediately offered to build them a nice little church building. The last I heard, that church plant became “still born.” Well-meaning missionaries stifled national initiative with “help too soon.”

Did you ever get caught helping your kids with their homework too soon? My standard query became: “Have you gone as far as you can?”

2. Help Too Late

The other side of this scenario in church planting is equally tragic--“help too late.” Good Missions develop policies that encourage nationals to go “as far as they can”--then they offer help. Example: when the group has one third of the costs raised, the Alliance National Church donates another third, and the Mission completes the last third. Some Missions take on the task of building the main structure with a roof, then the national congregation finishes the building “poco a poco” (little by little). Without timely outside financial help, promising national initiatives often fail.

I recall a church member who arrived one Sunday without his teenage daughter, Grace. “Where is Grace?” I asked. “She has been disobedient, so we have put her into a convent to discipline her.” That tragic attempt of “help too late” led me to a verse from Proverbs 19:18: “Chasten (discipline) your son while there is yet hope.” As most parents know, we have a window to do this during the “terrible twos”--what I now call “The Battle of 1918.” (Heavy-handed discipline in the teens is “help too late.”)

3. Help Too Much

This is the most common error. In my time in Latin America, the most affluent Mission was the Southern Baptists. They aggressively built one large church building in each of the capital cites of the Colombian Provinces. They were beautiful buildings, completely finished. All the nationals had to do was to fill them.

One of their missionaries told me this story. After ten years, the leadership of one of these churches contacted the Mission with this request: “Sirs, your church needs to be painted. Would the Mission have money for buying the paint?” No indigenous ownership—“too much help.” (I understand that the Southern Baptist Convention has since changed their policies. Similarly, I’ve discovered that, with giving help to my kid, he often approaches me, wanting help with the entire assignment!) Even secular voices warn relief agencies, like those who are presently rebuilding cities and towns for tsunami victims, “Don’t do it alone—let the people help. It will help contribute to their healing.”

4. Too Little Help

Alicia arrived from the hinterlands of Colombia to help my wife in the home. Although much of our home life was foreign to her, Alicia was a willing learner. But one thing she could never get right--on which side of the plate do the knife and fork go? Mary-Lou repeatedly reminded her that the knife went on the right side, but she still got it wrong. In desperation Mary-Lou explained: “See this scar on your right hand? Just put the knife on the side where the scar is.” From then on, Alicia never missed.

When we arrived in Peru, someone quoted a retired missionary who referred to the Peruvians as “quarter horses”--they run well for a quarter of a mile, but can never finish a full mile. I was alarmed by such a degrading attitude toward a people. So I set out to disprove this statement. I stumbled upon a special study series called SEAN (Studies by Extension for All Nations). Rigid accountability and serious discipline were required of all students. The six volumes covered a span of two years.

I asked the senior pastor of the large central church why they never used a certain business couple in leadership. Answer: “They never finish anything they start.” That couple became part of the first SEAN group in that church. One day I overheard the wife commenting regarding the course: “I like it because it keeps me accountable.” She and her husband graduated, and they became one of the key couples for a very successful church plant. (The results of a recent study of troubled children relates to this matter of “too little help.” It found that children who were simply neglected by parents suffered more emotional damage than those who were sexually abused in the home.)

5. Substitute Help

Street beggars are a problem to missionaries. They expect you to drop coins in their hands or box. I do contribute, but I always feel that I’m giving them “substitute help”--I'm not giving them of myself. For those with physical disabilities, the monetary help may be the best we can do. For some who have come to my door, I’ve offered them a job around the house.

Dennis, a missionary’s son in Bolivia, befriended a crippled beggar. He took him a cake on his birthday and shared the Gospel with him. When Dennis was killed, that beggar crawled up to the cemetery to honor his friend. That’s giving of yourself.

Missionaries always struggle with giving themselves versus doling out material help. Substitute help is endemic in our affluent world. How many fearful parents of teenagers foolishly think if they can just give the kids a car and free room and board, they’ll be alright. What they really need are loving parents who will take time in prayer and communication, giving "themselves" to their teens. And how many wives of successful CEOs lament, “My husband gives me everything I could ever want--everything but himself." Christ modeled “real help.” He gave Himself for His Church. We, His people, tend to give needy people “substitutes.”

6. Condescending Help

Coming from the most affluent continent in the world, North Americans have always been generous to those who are not so fortunate. Tragically, however, we have become the most detestable people in the minds of many in various parts of the world.

How could this be? Answer: It’s not what we give or how much we give--it’s how we give. Often, we do it in a condescending way—the "haves" handing down help to the "have-nots." This is the fundamental problem with short-term missions. In the early 90s, hundreds of groups rushed into newly opened Russia. They distributed tracts, showed the Jesus film, got the photo ops and retreated back to North America to reap the benefits of their PR trip. Only a very few groups stayed to do the tough stuff, e.g. learn the language, understand and appreciate the culture, and share themselves with the Russian people so that eventually they could share God's Word with them.

We fall into the same trap right in our homes. We speak down to our spouses--and especially to our children. (This elicited a book entitled, “Kids are People, Too.”)


Spanish has this saying: “What we write with our hand, we erase with our elbow.” Those of us who predate overhead projectors and power-point can relate to this saying. Missionaries do many effective and sacrificial things in the name of Christ. But too often we ourselves also erase them in our attempt to truly help people. Missions must be good at both ends. There are projects created which become popular in the North American church culture, but at the delivery side of the world they fall victim to one of the six “helps that hinder" we have just discussed.

What, then, can we do?

We can develop projects that help needy people “help themselves” become independent. Jesus and Paul modeled “help that helped” well. Someone has given us this rule of thumb: “Give help as needed and not before--as much as needed and no more.”