Charity and missions are apples and oranges, in my mind. Missions is about the great commission, planting churches, and making disciples. Offering a meal to the poor, in contrast, is an act of mercy. I can argue the point that missions is the more important of the two, but this is not the place to do so. The two can work together (as in the case of a rescue mission) but they are typically distinct.
When it comes to helping the poor, is it better to do nothing, or is it better to do something (perhaps a lot) — making you feel like you are helping others — when, in fact, you are harming them? That is the ultimate question.
Most of us desire to be compassionate people, characterized by good works. But the key to loving one’s neighbor is not doing what makes us feel better, or even what pleases them in the short term, but rather looking out for their long-term best interest.
Toxic Charity’s author Robert Lupton is not as conservative as most of us are, but he is in the evangelical camp and one of the most respected authorities in this field. He has worked in inner city Atlanta for nearly 40 years. He has observed what works and what doesn’t — and his findings are startling.
When you read chapter one, you know where the book is headed. Here are a few quotations.
What Americans avoid facing is that while we are very generous in charitable giving, much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.
Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.
We have failed to adequately calculate the effects of our service on the lives of those reduced to objects of our pity and patronage.
Lupton talks about Africa, and the fact that after $1 trillion in benevolent aid over the last fifty years, Africans are worse off than they were fifty years ago, living (on average) on about $1 per day.
Locally, Lupton argues, “For all our efforts to eliminate poverty — our entitlements, our programs, our charities — we have succeeded only in creating a permanent underclass, dismantling their family structures, and eroding their ethic of work.”
Later in the book, Lupton talks about the fallacy of the mission trip. Although not all mission trips are equal, it is a big business enterprise for those who promote them. Missionaries would often prefer a gift of money to hire competent locals to do the work (properly) for just a fraction of the cost expended for mission trips. If missionaries do not come up with mission projects for eager supporting churches, they risk having their support dropped (yes, it does happen).
Sometimes work projects have to be torn down after the mission group leaves, or you have “the church in Mexico that was painted six times during one summer by six different missions groups. Or the church in Ecuador built by volunteers that was never used as a church because the community had no need for it.”
A little money with local workers and volunteers can accomplish much, and give the local people a sense of ownership and dignity. Going on a trip and doing work makes us feel like we are making a difference; sending a check to a missionary far away cannot replicate that same feeling. So do we seek the good the kingdom, or a sense of self-satisfaction?
Mission trips are useful for those considering a career in missions, and some people are permanently impacted. And, frankly, some mission trips do what people cannot do for themselves (medical clinics, veterinary training, or trips that train locals to be self-sufficient). But, in the long run, it is better to teach people to fish rather than just give them fish. And, by the way, do you remember when missions meant, “sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and discipling converts?” That’s why supporting a permanent missionary is so much better than a mission trip.
Closer to home, panhandlers and those who have learned dependence often become good at manipulating the system.
Why the guilt when John refuses to support the questionable plea of a stranger when he would refuse that same kind of unchecked giving to his own son? … Then John and I broke into laughter, recalling the antics of homeless guys who sometimes wait in front of our church on Sunday mornings and put the touch on exiting worshippers. Refuse their appeals, and their meek can-you-help-me expressions immediately change into and-you-call-yourself-a-Christian barbs. They know their market. We couldn’t decide which emotion was stronger — guilt from refusing to help or anger from being manipulated.
This book is filled with thoughtful content, as well as a plan for churches seeking to redirect their efforts (and is thus particularly useful to those in urban ministry). Those of us in smaller ministries can accomplish good results simply by not evading those with lesser means, including them into our lives and not underestimating their giftedness and talents.
So to whom should we give? Helping someone in a crisis (or people located in area experiencing disaster) is a great way to direct charity. That’s one reason I love “Samaritan’s Purse.” Helping people we know — or helping organizations that adequately screen out addicts and demand accountability (like the Rescue Mission) — is a much better investment of kingdom money. Ministries that seek to train people or that offer well-supervised micro-loans are other good ways to help empower the poor to train them to fend for themselves.
Our attempt to help others should not just be about making us feel like we are making a difference; they should actually contribute toward a long-term difference.
This book is a must-read for church leaders and any Christian who does not want to be naïve about where his or her kingdom dollars go.
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.