When doing good causes harm

Posted: July 13, 2013 by efenster in Ideas
Tags: , ,

John_Snow_memorial_and_pubSummer is a great time to read, isn’t it?  I recently read The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson.  It describes how London developed its sewers due to a cholera outbreak in 1854.  (Yes, a book on sewers and pestilence!)  London’s population had exploded in the 1800’s growing to over 2 million people.  As a result, there were growing piles of human waste.  In fact, there were people who literally cleaned people’s cellars, cesspools, and gutters, moving the waste from one place to another.

Then a cholera epidemic broke out.  And here’s the irony that resulted…  Those in charge of the city’s health embraced the idea that cholera resulted from breathing bad air. With all the poop around, you can imagine how bad the air smelled in 1854, London.  So, the city started a giant sewer project, diverting the human waste into the River Thames.  This is the same river from which much of the population’s drinking water was drawn.  As a result, instead of ending the cholera epidemic by ridding the city of the stench, the city actually worsened it because cholera’s primary way of infecting people is through dirty drinking water.

So what’s that have to do with the church?  We United Methodists embrace Wesley’s rules of doing no harm and doing good.  Can it be that our churches’ good intentions sometimes actually do harm?   Books, like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity, point out that too often we do just that when we continue to provide people with relief when they really need development.  For example, we give people food through our food banks, thus, sustaining their need for food, instead of helping develop the gifts God has blessed them with that, once developed, can bring them to greater self sufficiency and self esteem.

Other examples might include, mission trips to third-world countries that provide such lavish Vacation Bible Schools, with all the bells and whistles, that the local churches give up providing VBS because they don’t have the resources to follow suit.  We create worship services and youth groups that are so attractive that other Christians leave their churches to attend ours; we  shuffle the sheep rather than reaching the ones that are lost.

Just as the London sewers contributed to disease, our churches’ good intentions actually end up keeping us from accomplishing our mission and causing harm.  (Okay, well maybe the comparison is a stretch but you get the idea!)  So what about you and your church?  How might the good you’re intending to do be actually creating more harm than good?  This summer why not give it some prayerful reflection.

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director of Church Development

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Comments
  1. Debbie says:

    As always, a very thought provoking message.

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