Sunday, August 25, 2013

Is Your Church's Charity Toxic?

They expected 35, perhaps 50 people for the World Mission Pre Conference at Big Tent 2013, Louisville, Kentucky on August 1st. But people kept registering and registering and finally about 350 (?) people showed up on the day! The Power of We, about our collective impact on World Missions, was a great pre-conference. I am so very grateful to my presbytery for encouraging me and making it possible for me to participate at Big Tent. Thank you.

Hunter Farrell opened the pre-conference with introductory remarks about World Mission. What are the three initiatives of the PC (USA) World Mission? They are poverty alleviation, reconciliation, and evangelism. Later, the next day, I won an autographed copy of Keynote Speaker Robert Lupton's book because I answered the question correctly for a drawing! How cool is that?

Robert Lupton has been an urban activist and community organizer for four decades. His book Toxic Charity: When Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help is based on his decades of experience as a community organizer.  Here are my notes from his wonderful talk.

Lupton started by working with young men in Vietnam. Then, young men on probation, which led him to working with their families, and then their community. He realized if you want to change an environment you have to become a part of it. He kept this insight to himself. His first wife, Peggy, now no more, and he were building a dream home in the suburbs when he realized that God was calling  him to move into the inner city. He shared this finally with Peggy the night before they were to move into the dream home. Peggy asked him to write it out and this was the first time Bob Lupton articulated his sense of calling. It took seven pages. He and his wife went into discernment with his church.  It is a testament to Peggy's faith, Bob said, that she let go of the dream home. They moved into the inner city of Atlanta.

"Alms giving is Mammon's perversion of giving. It affirms the superiority of the giver, binds the recipient, demands gratitude, humiliates  him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before."  Jacques Ellul. When Bob Lupton put the slide up with this quote by one of my favorite philosophers of technology, I felt like I had come home. This feeling stayed with me for the rest of my conference!

The Luptons' church had an Adopt-A-Family Christmas program. Families would adopt needy families and then bring the gifts to their homes. Children in the receiving homes would excited. In front of the kids the moms accepted the gift bearing families from church with dignity but the men disappeared. The church also had s Clothes Closet, giving away clothes, and Food Pantry programs, giving away food. When he and his wife actually began living in the community they gained insight about their church's giving programs. One-way giving goes against community building. They also learned about the impact of their service projects where painted, fixed, inner city neighborhood homes. After Church service projects one of the men in the community, now his neighbor and friend told him, "they insult you and don't even know they are insulting you." This is the tragedy of our beautiful and compassionate hearts.

Bob also learned what they were doing wrong on mission trips. They had a mission partner in Honduras who needed water and so "we built them a well and kept fixing it every year." The Bishop in the area finally came to them and suggested they serve in another place as the place was developing unhealthy dependencies. He said, "Bob, they're turning my people into beggars."

Bob went on: "4 billion dollars of short term mission trips and greater levels of dependencies. We are dis-empowering the poor through our charity. This is the progression of one-way giving:
Give once = Appreciation
Give twice = Anticipation
Give 3 times = Expectation
Give 4 times = Entitlement
Give 5 times = Dependency"

According to Bob, we must learn to distinguish between crisis vs chronic needs and provide the correct response.

Crisis need must be addressed with intervention.

Chronic needs must be addressed with development.

When chronic needs are addressed with crisis intervention people are harmed, dependency increases, work-ethic erodes, and dignity diminishes.
We need to shift our strategy from crisis intervention to development.

Here's how his church did it:

1) Narrowing our focus was an important first step in our attempt to get rid of the toxins in our charity. (Spend time in discernment, prayer and listening first for a long time rather than just do, do, do, give, give, give.)

2) We had to think that everybody was gifted, not needy.

Once we did the above here's how the "giving" programs changed:

Adopt-A-Family: Adopt-A-Family changed to Old Toy Shop. Adopting families in the Church still bought the gifts but instead of giving it to the needy families the items were marked at low prices and the families invited to buy them. If parents could not afford to buy a gift they could volunteer time and work in the shop. This gave the gifts of joy and dignity back to the parents. We learned that parents would rather work and select the toys than show proof of their poverty to their children.

Clothes Closet: The Men's Mission group took it on. They made it a small business, a thrift store! First they developed a business plan as this is after all most of them in the congregation were, attorneys, financial planners, businessmen. 18 months from when they started the Clothes Closet was in the black and 20 years now its a thriving operation. This was accomplished by a change in the dynamic from giver and recipient to merchant and customer. How do we value our customers vs. how do we control what they get? When it was a clothes closet freely giving away clothes they (the richer) made rules for how many clothes each (poorer) family or person could take. Nobody was happy and there was a lot of conflict. But when the clothes became an item for sale/service things changed. The whole "community" (of richer and poorer) became more engaged. Together they began identifying ways to make it work for everybody. The customers wanted to make the place welcoming and not a place of conflict. Where previously they had fought over the give-away clothes they now began to take ownership. Everybody likes to go where everybody knows their name and so the women started to make the place inviting with cookies and coffee/tea.  Donors and recipients both now go away happy with what they got. The market economy is a good thing. Why on earth would we want to deprive the poor from the joy of exchange? It is the responsibility of the stewards of God's justice and resources to figure out equitable systems of exchange. Not just give away.

Food Pantry: Similarly the Food Pantry became Food Bank and Food Co- op.. The gifts of the body were beginning to emerge. This is how community grows.

Hot meal from program delivered from the suburban churches now became a Noontime Lunch (for sale service) and then a Restaurant that the poorer folk ran themselves. Today, Tummy & Soul is the outgrowth of the Georgia Ave Food Company

Church service projects
are now community-initiated and community led.  The recipients can no longer say, "They come in thinking we're the least, last, and lost. They have no idea how God is working in our community."

For short term mission trips Lupton's church hired a community development staff person on the ground to work with the mission partner. The community is always the first investors. When they invest in a project that's a statement about their priorities. They now had a wealth creating asset that could help them generate wealth for the benefit of the entire community.

Next we discussed some of the core principles (shown on An Oath for Helpers slide) and practices based on stories that we heard after Lupton's talk in small groups.

1) Dignity. We all agreed that every human being is created in God's image but we often, forget this in our compassion for the neediness we see. Consider the role of human dignity in our giving.

2) Doing Missions at Church. One of the churches represented in our group is taking a whole year for discernment and doing no missions during this time.Many were flabbergasted, astounded that a church could stop doing missions for discernment!

3) Takes a huge amount of time. We felt this was a much much more time-consuming doing missions than the usual way we tend to do it.

4)  Dependency issues in our families. Some of us also have personal family members with dependency issues and we deal with it in completely different ways than we do with the "poor and needy."

5) One of the stories we heard was the experience of a worker in Malawi. She was able to align her interests, abolishing child marriage, with the interests of the chief, education, and get community buy-in. Working with other cultures or faiths we have to learn to wait for the right person and God's timing. The right person may not always be us. Also, we learn to work with all people in the community not just those who share our own passions. This is powerful, impactful and transforming.

6) Listen. How do you listen in a language you don't know? You really learn to hear God and notice things you would not otherwise have done.

7) Be still and know that God is working in our world; its not always about us.

In the second half of the pre-conference, Bob continued thus:

Service is wonderful but you cannot serve a community out of poverty. Only business - good jobs - will do that. Only jobs will move the poverty needle up and finally out of the community altogether.

The only thing that alleviates poverty is a job. Americans create jobs better than anybody else. 50% of our GDP is from small businesses. It is wealth creation that builds our churches, roads and other infrastructure. There are two categories of people in our pews, wealth producers and wealth transferers. We need to harness both groups, effectively, not just getting them to open their wallets, for God's work in our world. Transformation is two-way.
Instead of a short term mission trip go on an investment trip. Get business leaders together and see if you can go on a trip to identify opportunities that will generate jobs and wealth.

We need to make investment trips in our country and around the world. This will move the poverty needle in the right direction.

The very best way to revitalize a community is gentrification. Young visionary gentry with disposable income.

Community transformation in our country is the deployment of saints.

Advocacy is important but it will not move the poverty needle.

Christian investment in poorer communities is not just about creating jobs. We're sharing the wealth.

Finally, the importance of invitation came through in our group as well in Bob's talk. We must invite others to talk and then do them the honor of listening to both what they are saying as well as what they are not saying.

More about World Mission from Presbyterian Mission Agency can be found here, You can also subscribe to the Mission Crossroads magazine and forum to keep updated.

I am currently reading Toxic Charity and I will try to provide a book review later this year. But after listening to Lupton I did have one question that I continue to reflect upon. We can't all move to the inner city and suburbs have their share of poverty problems too. How can I do mission right where I am living in surburbia?  The answer, of course, is that missions and service are not things we do. We live missionally and incarnationally, just like Jesus showed us. Exactly how we live missionally and incarnationally is going to differ for each one of us and take some careful working out. For example, one concrete aspect of my own missional living is the whole house fan in our home (rather than just using the a/c). In the culture I live in this has opened the doors to sharing about Jesus.

In the meantime, please join me in prayer. Our Father, help us be toxic-free in our churches and our own individual charitable giving. We want to do your work and respect the dignity of all people and not hurt anybody. Save us from the error and pride of our ways. Help us see the gifts of the "needy" people in our world. We thank you for the compassionate hearts you've given so many.  Continue to teach us. Lead us to do only good and no harm, in Jesus name we pray, Amen.


  1. The hand on the shoulder is better than the hand in the wallet. See on our blog the poem posted "Compassion's Target".

  2. Although I'm not a Presbyterian, there are interesting bits wisdom and insights here, thanks for sharing. I especially like the quote from Jacques Ellul. I think we need "a reverse mission" in the church, i.e. missionaries from the Two-Thirds world coming to North America to teach us, rather than we them.


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