“Charity often hurts the people it was designed to help.”
This is the first sentence in Robert D. Lupton’s “Charity Detox,” and with this sentence the reader is introduced to the heart of this book.
For Lupton, the starting point for charity is located in the reality that even with our church’s best efforts, the world’s poor are not coming out of poverty. The gap between rich and poor in the United States and across the globe is increasing and in the areas where our aid is most concentrated, the poor are getting poorer.
Lupton suggests that churches need to “detoxify” their charity programs, which he argues are usually entrenched in the compassion industry, from dependency-producing food pantries to clothes closets to mission trips. It’s not that, as a rule, Lupton is against charity. He acknowledges it’s a sign of engaged citizenship for churches, synagogues and mosques. The problem is the way churches have been practicing it. From Lupton’s perspective, the church version of charity at best disempowers the poor and at worst disincentivizes productivity. What Lupton seeks instead is charity that is focused on outcomes, a shift to a model of development that produces evidence of lasting behavioral change in those served.
And the key, as Lupton sees it, is that Americans are uniquely suited to take this new vision of charity and run with it. He writes: “For some reason, in the providence of God, America has been blessed with an abundance of ambitious, adventuresome, business-minded risk takers who have propelled our nation to the forefront of economic prosperity.” Churches, then, need to take advantage of this special condition and start asking questions like: “What’s our return on the time and resources invested in the cause of helping people in need?” and “How do we know that the woman getting a food box from our church pantry isn’t making the rounds to other churches, telling the same hard-luck story?”
Lupton is right, of course, that churches should be concerned about the actual impacts of their efforts and should consider, perhaps, whether mission-oriented projects could be run more efficiently to make a more lasting impact.
But Lupton misses a fundamental point that the church’s expression of faith is based on stories of the poor and their social context. Lupton is suggesting a classic “top down” business approach to ministry that seems to ignore the economic structures that smoosh people into poverty. Matthew 25 is based on the premise that if a human being says they are hungry, you give them food. This isn’t a long-term solution for poverty. But this is the church’s unique role in society and our biblical truth. Would Jesus be in a boardroom figuring out the logistics of a free coat pipeline or would he be giving the person a coat?
“The world awaits,” writes Lupton. But not for a church rooted in a top-down business model, instead rather for a church embedded in the ways of Jesus.
ASHLEY GOFF is minister for spiritual formation and director of the pilgrimage at The Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C.