November 16, 2019

Is Our Charity Hurting More Than Helping?

Robert D Lupton, the author of this book, is something of a hero in these parts. His first book, Toxic Charity, was written to reveal the truth behind many of the ill-thought-through charity programmes run by Christians to help the poor and marginalised.

This is his follow up work, subtitled: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results. Let me warn you straight off the bat: don’t read this if you are easily offended or squeamish about your personal and/or church/organisation’s work among the poor. This little fella is like a slap in the mush with a fish on a cold winter’s day. It stings!

Now, a small but important point. Great though it is, it still only manages to grapple with and discuss what I would call the ‘work minded’ poor. In other words, it doesn’t really get to grips with the indigent poor or the mentally ill and addicted, all of which make up a growing percentage of the marginalised in our Western contexts. We still need more thought and work on that as evangelicals.

Subsidised Inactivity

However, the book is a veritable quotation vending machine! Take this as a perfect example: “Subsidising inactivity is a bad practice. Yes, people have to survive. But they will not thrive if they are induced by charity (public or private, government or religious) to be unproductive.” (32)

I think the Bible has something to say about that in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (granted there are other verses encouraging to give generously too, á la Luke 6:30). But his point is still valid. Much of what passes for charity, particularly in evangelical circles, is practically funding and enabling sinful lifestyles among those who are more than able to work if they so desired.

The book has a really helpful chapter on ‘Social Entrepreneurs’ in which recipient groups are encouraged to be more business minded when it comes to receiving missionary groups. He encourages us to think about converting our “mission trips into business-as-ministry ventures.” (62) Lupton wants richer churches to consider sending businessmen on mission trips who can teach something of their financial acumen rather than the usual, ‘let’s paint some doors’ brigade, who may leave with nice Instagram photos but have achieved nothing of lasting significance. For Lupton, “Making money with the poor, after all, is the highest form of charity.” (62)

We do something similar at 20schemes. We charge each visiting intern and mission team £100 to come and serve with us. That money then goes into our ‘indigenous interns’ pot and enables us to fund one or two local people a year for training and personal development. It makes the trips more expensive, but it enables true partnership at a much deeper, and longer lasting, level.

Unhealthy Dependency

His chapter, ‘Return On Investment’ is one of his strongest. He reminds us: “Very few people in our society are so severely dysfunctional that they have no capacity to give. Even the chronic homeless with mental illness or addiction have something to contribute. Everyone, no matter how impaired or down on their luck, has a talent, a capability, a strength to bring to the table.” (68)

Here are a few more hard-hitting bits of wisdom from Lupton:

  • “. . . to offer pity instead of opportunity, is to diminish rather than empower.”
  • “Doing for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves is debilitating.”
  • “Without a means of exchange, the recipients of our benevolence remain objects of our pity.”

So, is he saying that we should never give a handout? Is there never a time when we should throw principle to the wind and just help people because, well, they need it? I mean, this can sound all well and good, but isn’t it just a teensy bit callous in the face of real human need?

He’s not advocating a form of compassion-less charity. His point is that we may well have to do ‘on the spot’ acts of giving in order to buy food for a family or a leccy bill, but we mustn’t make this form of charity habitual, or it will lead to dependency and powerlessness in the long-term.

What people need is long-term, genuine friendships built over a period of time. We need to become more closely involved in the messiness of people’s lives. But, as Lupton correctly points out, who has the time for this kind of exhaustive approach to charity? It’s often far easier to ‘give and go’ than ‘invest and stay’. That’s why churches being planted or revitalised in our schemes (and council estates) need to ensure that they are driven by relationships and not (solely) by programmes. We need to build accountability into our charitable efforts. That will keep both the giver(s) and the recipient(s) honest. For Lupton,

“. . . the ministries that yield the best return on investment are longer-term, deeper-delving programs (sic) - programs that conduct thorough individual assessments, map out personally tailored development plans, and commit to consistent follow through. These higher-yield programs cannot deliver the high-volume numbers that handout programs do, but their impact is far more lasting.” (73)

This approach to ministry in hard places is going to cost us a lot more than money, blankets, and food parcels. It’s going to cost our time, and it’s going to require deep, personal sacrifice. This sort of charity is much more than a weekly life group trip to the city centre to ease our social conscience. Volunteerism may look good on our newsletters and yearly church AGM reports, but unless we do it wisely, thoughtfully, and with careful monitoring, we can be doing serious damage to those we are trying to help, no matter how unintentionally.

‘3-R’ Approach

One of the solutions to these issues, according to Lupton, is found in his ‘3 Rs’: re-neighbouring, reconciliation, and redistribution. For him, “without a transfusion of new blood, troubled communities will continue to deteriorate as the capable exit in pursuit of better opportunities.” (134) I think we can apply the same principle to dying churches and mission halls in many of our scheme communities. Unless a new generation of committed believers move in, they will die, the doors will be closed, developers will move in, and the last vestiges of gospel light will be snuffed out. Many of these places need blood transfusions. For many more, it is already too late, and in these cases we must plant.

But, we must be careful when it comes to phrases like ‘re-neighbouring’ and its brother, gentrification. Who makes way for the new blood? Who moves aside to make space for the new affluent and talented? Almost inevitably, it is the weakest and the poorest. That’s hard to swallow in our communities that are centuries old. Much wisdom is required here. “For a neighbourhood to flourish, it must retain indigenous leaders (remainers), attract fresh leaders (relocaters), and draw achievers (returners) back to the community.” (136)

These are solid principles for church planting and revitalisation, although in a somewhat different order. For the schemes to flourish spiritually, we need a first generation of relocaters (cultural outsiders) and returners (culturally indigenous) who are willing to come in and give all for Christ. They, in turn, must develop a new generation of indigenous converts (remainers) and leaders who, instead of moving out, stay as gospel light to their own communities. That’s the vision of 20schemes. We may not see immediate fruit, but it is a long-term vision which we hope comes to fruition in the coming decades.

His discussion on reconciliation did sound hopeful on paper. In my experience here, it is not always as simple as he made it sound (not his intention, I’m sure). These kinds of things take time in a culture where families hold grudges for generations. Our experience of the schemes is that the new middle class streaming in as a result of gentrification have displaced poor families and started their own housing associations and clubs, leaving the locals to carry on with their own things. In the middle of this we have the new immigrant and emigrant communities who fit in neither group and so retreat into their own cultural ghettos. An ‘us and them’ mentality then prevails across various ethnic and social boundaries. It is the job of the church to sit across all of these boundaries and offer a counter-cultural model that challenges all but welcomes all too. As I all too often remind people, the schemes need more gospel churches, not more churches made up of poor people.

Will you agree with all of his conclusions? Probably not. But you have to respect the fact that this book will help Christians to think, if they will only embrace it. This has to go on your must-read list if you are involved in any kind of ministry to marginalised people. Of course, it is not going to be the final word on ministry in hard places. But, it is another offering to provoke us into thinking about our ministries and how much help or damage they are really doing.


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