by Barry Howard
In his popular book, Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton challenges churches and other charities to reconsider and revise their mission strategies in order to make them more effective. If a church deems Lupton’s assessments to be valid, what are the steps a congregation can take to instill a sense of empowerment and not a sense of entitlement in the people we aim to help?
In addition to providing ministries to educate, equip, and care for their membership, local churches generally invest a significant portion of their “tithes and offerings” to fund local, national, and global mission projects. When those resources are distributed to persons in need without any expectation or long-term objective, the perpetual flow of unmitigated resources ignites a “downward spiral” which produces a sense of entitlement that trends toward continual poverty. When those resources are made accessible via a delivery system that nurtures personal responsibility and cultivates life management skills, opportunities emerge that may enable a family or individual to rise above poverty and to live as an integral member of the community.
When a congregation or agency begins re-thinking, re-imagining, and re-visioning their missional strategies, there are a variety of possibilities that may emerge. But for a reformation to begin, a church has to start with a few specifics. As I think about the church that I serve, the following five strategic steps come to mind as doable and specific transitions where we might begin the conversation:
• Adopt guidelines for charitable giveaways. Lupton encourages churches and non-profits to limit “giveaways” to emergency situations and special occasions such as the aftermath of a disaster like a house fire or major storm.
• Grow a coalition of community partners. Consider convening a network of community partners who share the common goal of empowering people toward a sustainable quality lifestyle beyond poverty. Cooperative and collaborative partnerships between churches and missional agencies can strengthen the effectiveness of each partner, and accomplish exponentially more than one partner acting alone.
• Convert existing ministries such as food pantries and clothes closets to “co-ops.” Providing opportunities for individuals in need to participate in the purchase of commodities at a price that is affordable to them reinforces a sense of pride, fosters financial management skills, and encourages personal responsibility and accountability.
• Expand “adopt a school” initiatives to “neighborhood development” initiatives. Neighborhood initiatives may target such crucial life areas as educational enrichment, vocational training, neighborhood morale, spiritual well-being, and health and recreational opportunities. Just as congregations have often “planted churches” in missional areas, perhaps it is equally important for churches to “plant communities” in strategic neighborhoods. Specific community development projects may include extreme home renovation, launching neighborhood renewal teams, and encouraging families to re-locate to the adopted community to live as strategic neighbors.
• Engage in global missions initiatives that have a blueprint for becoming self-sustaining. While relationship building is an anchor tenet for effective mission work, mission trips and projects that engage, empower, and/or employ local and indigenous personnel in a partnership aimed for sustained ministry is much more effective than hit or miss “feel good” trips that have no long range plan.
Robert Lupton cautions us that transitioning our missional strategies represents a significant paradigm shift, a shift that will require intentional conversations, honest evaluation, and courageous leadership. When it comes to sharing the good news tangibly and effectively, a church may have to sacrifice a few “sacred cows” to accomplish a more sacred mission.
If you really want to make a difference for the kingdom and to maximize the energy and resources of your church, dare to launch the conversation in your congregation and begin to identify the strategic steps you need to take to detoxify your missions and ministries.
(Barry Howard serves as the senior minister of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)