Many years ago, I was prompted to rethink my own presuppositions about stewardship after reading Ron Sider’s probing book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity. More recently many of us have been thinking more deeply about the church’s missional strategy as we have wrestled with Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).
Along with other books like When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself” (Steve Corbett) and Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development (John Perkins), Toxic Charity is spurring churches and non-profits to re-evaluate how we can best use our gifts and resources to create opportunities and incentives for the poor and disadvantaged.
Dr. Lupton is the founder of FCS Urban Ministries through which he works to develop mixed income subdivisions which become home to hundreds of families.
Last week we hosted Robert Lupton in Pensacola and invited him to address three groups: business and community leaders, non-profit leaders, and church and social service leaders. I attended the meeting for church leaders, which was hosted on our campus, and I walked away challenged to re-think and re-vision the missions methodology.
Here are a few of the highlights of what I heard Lupton say:
- Church ministries for the poor should aim for empowerment, not entitlement.
- One-way giving creates a downward spiral. Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
- Mercy that doesn’t move intentionally in the direction of development (justice) will end up doing more harm than good — to both the giver and recipient.
- The members in our churches are mostly motivated by genuine compassion and generosity.
- Too often we do missions in a way that helps us feel good about ourselves rather than in a way that does the most good for those we aim to assist.
- Churches tend to do “missions” with our heart and we need to learn to do missions with our head, strategically thinking toward desired outcomes.
- As pastors we need to call on our parishioners to be strategic neighbors who missionally enter targeted communities to be a redemptive and catalytic presence.
- As pastors we need to call out the young and adventuresome spirit of our young adults to be catalysts in community development.
- Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.
- We may not reduce the crime rate of the metropolitan area, but we can take back a neighborhood, one crack house at a time, one block at a time.
Upon reading Toxic Charity, as Lupton “deconstructs” the ineffective approach of many churches and non-profits, at times he seems to come across like a plain-spoken surgeon with less than a gentle bedside manner. And it is clear that he is recommending major surgery on our missional practices and not just a facelift. However, when I heard Lupton in person, I perceived him to be a passionate missional strategist, who speaks the truth in love, and who wants all missional groups to maximize their resources and their impact, and not settle for less effective uses of kingdom dollars.
Lupton’s message mostly includes pragmatic points supported by indisputable data. But there are a few points that are debatable such as his assessment of the value of mission trips. Lupton assesses the value of a mission trip by comparing the dollars spent by a mission team who travels to provide a service versus the amount those dollars could accomplish if contributed to the mission entity to provide the work or service locally.
From my perspective that argument overlooks two important facets of mission trips: First, the argument assumes that funds supporting the mission trip would be given to missions in lieu of a trip. In my experience many mission participants are already giving generously to fund missions support and the funds they use for an experiential trip to the mission field are often the funds they would otherwise use for a trip to the beach or a trip to Disney World. Second, I think the argument underestimates the value of the hands-on missions experience in familiarizing the participant with the missional landscape and hopefully cultivating a lifelong heart for supporting missions more strategically.
However, I think that Lupton is on target in pointing out that mission trip expenditures can be disproportionate in effectiveness compared to the cost of local labor. Rather than assuming a “we’re here to save the world” mentality, Lupton encourages churches to approach missions with the disposition that as missioners we are guests and partners of our hosts on a given mission field.
As pastors, church leaders, and community leaders, our missional strategies are long overdue an upgrade. Lupton’s perspectives certainly raise questions that need to be asked and they offer data that needs to be assimilated.
Lupton emphasizes that “detoxifying” our ministries requires a paradigm shift, and that shift will happen gradually and not overnight. To detoxify our mission and ministry strategy will require that individual congregations, presbyteries, and dioceses engage in courageous internal conversations that include honest evaluation, proactive vision, and community partnerships.