De-Toxifying Charity: Taking Steps to Make Your Mission and Ministry Projects More Effective

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.)


De-Toxifying Charity

by Barry Howard

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.

(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)