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Book Review

Do our mercy-oriented missions glorify God?

A look at “So You Want to Dig a Well in Africa?”

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October 7, 2021

What is your immediate reaction when you see something that is broken? When I see something broken, I want to fix it — whether it’s a household object, a relationship, or a community. I want to jump in and start solving the problem. It’s like that broken thing was just waiting for me to come in and save the day. 

But what if the “broken” thing I see isn’t actually broken? Or what if I’m not the one to fix it? 

These are the kinds of questions that Jeff Palmer forces us to ask ourselves in his book So You Want to Dig a Well in Africa?: What You and Your Church Need to Know About Mercy-oriented Missions Palmer has served in international missions and development work for more than 30 years. During that time, he has used his background in agriculture to help people in over 60 countries with things like food security, clean water and improved health. His book, though, is not really about digging wells, and it’s not really about Africa. Rather, it’s about how Christians (and the Church) approach mercy-oriented missions.

The world is full of needy people

The world has always been full of needy people, and it always will be until the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21:1). In this digital age in particular, we feel the weight of the neediness of the world more than ever before.

We see Facebook ads telling us that every child deserves a pair of shoes, so we give. We hear stories of families in need around the world, and we give. And the more we are exposed to a world in need, the more resources we pour into overseas projects.

The average church member has more opportunities now to experience cross-cultural missions and see others’ needs first hand. We see lifestyles that are so different from anything that we’ve experienced in the West, and we think that those different communities must be broken and in need of repair.

But what if before we tried to fix the brokenness and heal the neediness, we first looked at our own brokenness? What if we first recognized our own neediness and complete dependence on God? What if people living in different circumstances than us really aren’t any more broken than we are? 

Locals aren’t depending on you

Is it possible that we’re not as necessary as we think we are?

There are a lot of people in the world who have been living in need for generations. You may be able to be a part of their solution, but as one local believer addressing a group of outsiders said, “They are not waking up every morning and mentioning your name” (31).

Throughout the book, Palmer reminds readers of both the dignity (and brokenness) of those in need and the brokenness (and dignity) of those who have much. Both “sides” have something to give and something to receive. 

Solutions that heal

When we do discover needs in the world that we are positioned to address, we must be careful to address them in ways that actually bring healing and not more hurt. Through stories, examples, and prodding questions, Palmer teaches readers to evaluate the difference between actually helping a community and just trying to make a community look more like ours — something we’re more comfortable with. 

When serving communities in need, missions teams must prioritize the dignity of their neighbor and the sustainability of the solution. As Palmer points out in the book, Jesus gave those in need the dignity to express what they were seeking. Consider, for example, when Jesus asked a blind man what he wanted Jesus to do for him (Matthew 20:32). Palmer calls on believers to serve as Jesus did, allowing compassion to move us to action that honors our neighbor more than ourselves.

There are many ways that we can do this, and Palmer spends the majority of the book helping readers decipher myth from truth when it comes to serving those in need with dignity and then looks practically at what successful mercy-oriented missions programs look like.

While there is no one right answer for every need in every community, Palmer says that involving the community in the quest for long-term solutions to long-term problems is crucial. He describes outsiders as catalysts and local people as the ones who discover their problems, prioritize them, design their solutions, and implement their plans.

Palmer walks readers through a journey of considering (and hopefully understanding) how solutions that begin and end with the local people are both dignifying and sustainable after outsiders leave.

Why we help

If I’m broken and needy myself, if locals need to be the ones to create and carry out sustainable solutions, and if they’re not depending on me, then how come Palmer’s book didn’t talk me out of engaging in mercy-oriented missions?

Palmer concludes the book by reminding readers that helping communities in need gives us access to those who have never heard the gospel, empowers local churches to be on mission with God, and leads to international gospel proclamation. But we have to ask ourselves hard questions to make sure that these things are true of our mercy-oriented missions and that the people we are trying to help really want and need our help.

Mercy-oriented missions are for the good of people and the glory of God. So we pray for discernment, asking God to lead us and open our eyes and ears to the opportunities to meet needs and make his name known.

Whether a pursuit of mercy-oriented missions is intimidating to you or makes you feel good about yourself (or something in between), Palmer’s book invites you to consider weighty questions about the how and why behind your missions engagement. May our mercy-oriented missions always be for the glory of God.

Marissa Postell

Marissa Postell currently serves as the managing editor of content at NRB. She graduated from Union University with a degree in public relations, where she served as the news editor of Cardinal & Cream, the school’s student publication. As a writer, Marissa hopes to tell compelling narratives to equip the … Read More