A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend who has several years of experience working with a local homelessness charity, and they commented to me on how ineffective they think churches are. They spoke of how their charity works with several hundred young people at any time, and has a clear process for supporting their clients towards improving their life skills and becoming more independent. And then came their concluding statement: ‘We would be worried if, after a year, we haven’t helped someone get to the point of living independently. But churches are full of people who have been supported with the same issues for years, and who haven’t moved on.’
A similar set of issues is addressed by Robert Lupton in Toxic Charity. The book’s subtitle provides a helpful summary of Lupton’s argument: ‘How churches and charities hurt those they help.’ In the opening paragraphs of the book Lupton comments: ‘I have worked with churches, government agencies, entrepreneurs, and armies of volunteers and know from firsthand experience the many ways “good intentions” can translate into ineffective care or even harm’ (ps1-2).
Lupton addresses the problems of charities and aid both at the levels of local church and international development. At the end of a small book (only 190 pages of large font, which could be read in a few hours), I was left frustrated that his argument never seemed to develop beyond the basic assertions made at the beginning, and also felt this was a work long on diagnosing the problem and short on offering practical solutions. But I’d still call it recommended reading, because it’s impossible to escape the difficult questions he is asking. If churches run activities, year in year out, giving to the same people but never helping them change, what benefit are we achieving? Is our service sometimes motivated more by a sense of our self-worth (I do good things, which must make a good Christian), rather than built around the needs of those we are seeking to help? As Neil Hudson has recently pointed out in ImagineChurch, do we have a ‘church contract’ which only offers to care for people, and not disciple them?
One of Lupton’s most helpful suggestions is the following ‘Oath for Compassionate Service’ which he recommends for all churches seeking to serve those who are disadvantaged. I wonder how many of our churches’ regular activities would pass these tests:
- Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
- Limit one way giving to emergency situations.
- Strive to empower the poor through unemployment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
- Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
- Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said - unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
- Above all, do no harm (p128).