One question to help you evaluate ministry among the poor

I learnt the hard way what NOT to do in poor communities. When I first came to Cambodia 22 years ago, the place was a mess. People were poor. Dirt poor. Frankly, you’d have had to be a heartless zombie not to respond.

And the missionaries came flooding in. We were full of compassion and big dreams. Some were here to plant churches. Others were here to bring development. Some ambitious souls wanted to do both. Every one of us was here to see transformation.

Now 20 years later, it’s easy to see what worked and what didn’t work. And more tellingly, we can now see what worked while the foreigners were here, and what fell apart after they left.

In this circus of good intentions, no one wants to waste their efforts. And no one wants to prop up something that will inevitably collapse. So, how can you know? How can you evaluate whether what you are doing is going to last? How can you create something that will continue to bear fruit, even long after you have gone home?

Over time, I’ve discovered a rough way of measuring whether something holds the seeds of long-lasting impact or not. It’s contained in this simple, 3-word question: Is this replicable?

In other words, is this approach to church planting, or development among the poor, an approach that local people can repeat when I’m no longer around? Or does it require my expertise and outside resources to make it last?


Example 1: Church Planting

So, how does this actually play out in practice? What is, or is not “replicable”, when it comes to starting a church in a poor community?

I once heard the story of a church planted by an American missionary in South America. While the missionary was pastoring the church, leadership retreats were fully paid for by the missionary. Outreach costs were covered by the missionary. Church expenses were heavily subsidized by — you guessed it — the missionary.

After all, that American missionary knew that his church members were poor. He had access to American resources and he just wanted to bless them. But he didn’t realize he was actually doing them a great disservice.

Eventually, it came time for the missionary to move on. So after about 12 years, they handed over leadership to a local pastor. You could almost hear the screech of metal and grinding of the gears as this poor leader tried to get people in the church to take ownership and responsibility for the expenses of the church. Many left. Others questioned why they had been abandoned by the Americans. The church struggled to find its feet and lacked a viable vision for planting more churches.

To put it another way, there is a reason why so many foreign-planted churches never multiply. These churches are just not replicable. Often, they are not even sustainable.

Now check out the alternative missions strategy of Jesus in light of this discussion:

Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff — no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town….” (Mk 6:7-10)

Jesus encouraged an extreme reliance on local resources. As his disciples travelled through town and city, they encountered some who were willing to partner with them and welcome their message of the Good News. In every place, there were some who already got this radical Kingdom sharing principle. Some were willing to open their homes and share their resources, even without really knowing Jesus’ message. These were the folks they could work with. These were the men and women Jesus called “People of Peace”.

Others didn’t get it, or simply didn’t want to participate in such a radical experiment. Jesus told his missionaries not to spend time in these places, but to shake the dust from their feet and move on.

So, not every situation will be ripe for transformation. We need wisdom to know who to work with. And not use our money to make it happen, when the timing isn’t right.


Example 2: Development Project

So maybe you’re not a church planter. Maybe you’re a development worker, hoping to bring about change in an impoverished community. Let’s take a look at a development project and ask ourselves: Is this replicable?

Let’s say you are living in a place with a lot of malnutrition and hunger. People are struggling, and kids are missing meals. They are hungry. So you think, I’d better start a feeding program. People need food. I can raise money to buy food. Problem solved!

And just as in the church planting example above, you will certainly have solved the immediate need. Hungry people will no longer be hungry — as long as you are around to raise money to buy them food. This may actually be the only response possible in an emergency situation.

But what happens when the next crisis comes along? The local people have “learnt” from your model and they know just what to do. They need to raise funds from outside to solve their problems. Unfortunately, they don’t have the contacts or resources to pull this off. An opportunity for growth and true transformation has been missed.

But what if instead of a feeding program, your intrepid development worker developed some way to encourage those with food to share with those lacking food?

This is exactly what we’ve tried to do in the Alongsiders movement. By training Christian young people to walk alongside one vulnerable child each in their own communities, we’ve created a simple self-help model that anyone can participate in.

For example, when their “little brother” or “little sister” has no lunch or stationery for school, these Alongsiders share a simple meal, a pencil, or a half-used notebook from their own home.

These tiny acts of generosity may seem kind of pathetic on the surface. After all, I could easily raise funds to give a whole school bag FILLED with awesome stationery to every single one of the thousands of kids in the Alongsiders movement.

But I can guarantee that those Alongsiders mentors would never give again from their meagre possessions. Why give when the big NGO can give so much more? And thus, we would have killed something beautiful with our “generosity.”

The disciples were still getting their heads around this concept when they got back from their successful mission trip in Mark 6 – having been forced to rely only on God and the generosity of local people. They come back pumped with excitement at the impact and transformation they have witnessed.

As they head off on a debriefing retreat with Jesus, they are derailed by the urgent need to feed 5000 people. That would take some feeding program, eh Jesus? Still confused by the lessons they should have learned by now, the disciples suggest that Jesus should send the crowds away. The need is simply too great.

When Jesus rejects this idea, they consider using their salaries to bring in food from the outside. Again, Jesus refuses. He knows that this approach might solve the immediate problem, but he has the big picture in mind. He is helping them to learn lessons about sustainability and trust for the future.

Finally, a boy who is willing to share his bread and fish comes forward. Local resources are found. They lift these up to God… And the rest is history.

Jesus showed us the way. By centering local resources and looking to God for miracles, we can ask and positively answer the question: Is this replicable?


Note: I realize there are some situations where it wouldn’t be appropriate to prioritize being “replicable” — e.g. a humanitarian emergency, transferring technical skills, or an infrastructure project. However, all too often, nothing we do is replicable, and that’s a problem. Let me know what you think in the comments.


Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of the recently published Subversive Jesus. During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.

Good Samaritan or Gullible Sucker?

A true confession of my confusion and black heart…

I came out of my office, got in my car, and there was a taptaptap on the window. I wound down the window and chatted with the man standing there.

“My wife just had a miscarriage,” he said. “She is bleeding. Can you help me?”

This wasn’t my first rodeo. I know the deal. Another expat had just told him, “I’ve lived here too long to give people money,” and drove away. She was a lot quicker with a response than me. I hesitated.

What if his wife really was bleeding?

I hear these kinds of sentences almost every day and honestly, most of the time when I investigate a bit, they aren’t true. But what about when they are?

I couldn’t offer to drive her to the hospital, that would have been the best thing to do. But my husband needed the car and it was late and I couldn’t call him.

“Where is she?” I asked.

“Follow me,” the man said.

I walked with him about a block, back behind a row of massive new houses. I wasn’t sure how long I would follow him: a strange man, a lone foreign woman, darkness, heading into a huddle of homeless people’s cloth and stick huts. He stopped before we were too far in and pointed at a woman lying on the ground.

She lay on a scrap of cloth, next to what must be called a house. It must be called that because they lived there but it bore little resemblance to what many people would consider a ‘house.’ It was four sticks jammed into the ground and a torn cloth tied down as a roof. There were no walls, just piles of their few belongings. Some clothes, some plastic bottles, probably to be bartered the next day at a shop, some empty cans.

I asked the woman what happened. I didn’t see any blood but she was probably adept at cleaning things up. Women in her position use the slips they wear under their thin cotton dresses to wipe blood every month. She mostly just moaned.

The man said he needed money for a taxi to the hospital. I gave it to him, plus a little extra.

I felt terrible.

What if he used it for khat, the leafy drug people are addicted to here? What if he had lied and it was all a show, to get some money?

And I felt terrible about feeling terrible. I felt conflicted. Had I just been duped? Was I a gullible sucker or a good Samaritan? And then I thought, does it matter?

Who cares if he used it for khat or if he lied? Or if he didn’t use it for a taxi but used it for some bread and beans for dinner? No matter what he did with the money, I had a lot more money than he did.

Why did I have to make this whole scenario about me, (like I wrote about here: Why Is It Always About Money?) about bigger philosophical issues of money and poverty and generosity and guilt complexes and best practice and helping without hurting?

And most uncomfortably, why did I feel worse about the possibility of having been duped than I felt grieved over their desperate poverty?

I didn’t want to write that sentence. I didn’t want to address that issue. It would be easier to wax poetic about the vagaries of wealth and privilege, to spout off verses about giving, to pretend like I had simply delighted in the joy of sharing. I could pretend like I’m a hero, for caring about the poor. That would all be deceptive.

I was conflicted, impatient, suspicious, torn. I don’t like being taken advantage of and so my pride became the issue at the center of this interaction. It was more important to me to be certain that I wasn’t being used than to make certain that this family had food and shelter. And since I couldn’t be certain of it, I was plagued by questions and doubts and the slimy feeling of being embarrassed. What would other expats think? Haha, Rachel, still after 14 years here, gets tricked. Haha.


If I had done nothing and gone home, I would have forgotten all about it. I would not have been kept awake at night with fears for this woman’s health or concerns about her living situation. But because I gave them money and because I worried about my own reputation and sense of honor, I was kept awake by the nagging questions of whether I should have given the money, of what other people would think.

Oh gross heart.

I don’t have any wise conclusions with which to wrap up this story. I’m simply saying, it’s complicated. I’m a mess. I still don’t know what to do. But the conclusion I’m gradually coming to in my heart, for myself and my context, is that I would rather be both a gullible sucker and a good Samaritan than a glib Scrooge.

God can work out the difference in the end. And somehow, I don’t think he will make fun of me for, maybe, being taken advantage of from time to time.

Yet again, we are talking about money. How do you deal with these situations?