Book review: Becoming Whole by Brian Fikkert

Is the gospel essential to restoring people out of a life of poverty? Or do the means sometimes justify the ends as long as a good work is the final result? That’s the question Brian Fikkert tackles in his new, thought-provoking book, Becoming Whole.

A faith-based social services charity received this message:

“I’m writing to let you know that unfortunately your grant request was denied at our recent advisory committee meeting. There was a concern that the signed statement of faith required by board and staff does not fully align with our hope and commitment to inclusive organizational practice. I’m sorry to share this disappointing news.”

“What do we do about this?” asked the leader of this faith-based charity in my hometown. The organization she leads had just been denied a grant from a significant secular grant-maker because the charity’s board members are required to sign a statement of faith. The organization provides services to anyone who demonstrates need. In virtually every instance, they help the most vulnerable, under-represented, left-out people in our community: poor, single mothers in the most economically depressed neighborhoods of our city.

It stung to be characterized as not “inclusive” when her staff tirelessly pour themselves out for the benefit of every marginalized and hurting person that walks through their door. So, is it unfair to require board leaders to subscribe to a statement of faith in order to be leaders in this good work? Isn’t the goal to just help people by meeting physical needs so they become productive members of society? Isn’t that what getting out of poverty means?

It turns out, material prosperity, a good education, steady paycheck and financial discipline are not enough to make us whole. Studies indicate that as Americans have become increasingly wealthy and prosperous, our happiness has become more elusive. Social research has established that families are more fragmented, and individuals are more isolated, depressed and physically unhealthy than ever before.

More than a decade ago, Simon Sinek, leading business and leadership author, wrote the best-selling book Start with Why. In it, he explains that when you are trying to lead people to something new, “why” matters. It is an indispensable part of inspiring people to think and behave differently. In fact, his ideas are so influential, his TED talk is the third most popular of all time! Knowing your “why” is an incredibly powerful motivator.

The importance of “why” for a Christian leader is doubly important. It is not only a critical human motivator, like Mr. Sinek points out. For the Christian, our “why” is also the source of all of our strength (Psalm 27:1, Philippians 4:13), and all of our resources (Deut. 8:18, Matt. 6:31-33). Our understanding of the Kingdom of God is not just our own personal nice reason to do good things; it is supposed to be the way we identify what is broken in our world and how to restore it (Proverbs 3:5-6, Romans 12:2, James 1:5). It is our protection and power in a fight against principalities we cannot see (Ephesians 6:10-11, 2 Corinthians 10:4-5). For the Christian, if what we say we believe is really true, denying our “why” is like giving up.

And yet there is a growing trend among human services organizations to distance themselves from an explicitly Christian identity. They feel the pressure from groups that would exclude them from funding in the name of inclusion. Access to government and other secular funds often comes with strings attached, and the choice feels like a terrible one: distance yourself from your “why” or get by with less funding for the good work you are doing.

So what to do? In Becoming Whole, Brian Fikkert (author of the best-selling When Helping Hurts) and co-author Kelly M. Kapic (theology professor from Covenant college) offer a response. They make a clear and compelling case for Christian organizations to hold fast to their gospel centered approach to bringing relief to the suffering. They argue that any “story of change” meant to guide someone out of a life of poverty, must be a story of change rooted in truth, restoring the whole person, not just their finances.

But their argument comes with a personal challenge for all of us. The authors point out that the secular “story of change” that is finding its way into so many faith-based organizations isn’t just due to pressure from secular funding sources. It is because this broken story of change has found its way into many of our own lives and churches as well.

Becoming Whole is a valuable resource for Christian givers and charities. It offers a framework for how lasting positive change can happen and provides a fascinating overview of how merging secular and Christian philosophies have drawn many of us off-course. Most importantly, it is a hope-filled reminder of who we really are and why we should confidently rely on that truth for our own lives, and for those we endeavor to help.

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