All posts tagged “Toxic Charity

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The debated merits of short-term mission trips and one-time service projects

In the past couple of weekly roundups, I’ve included links to a recent three-part series by Darren Carlson of Training Leaders International on the pros and cons of the short-term mission trip phenomenon, as well as some hints at a better way forward. As it happens, Christianity Today took up the topic in June as well, devoting its Village Green opinion section to three different perspectives.

Those who have read When Helping Hurts (my thoughts on the revised edition soon) or Toxic Charity (thoughts here) have been forced to consider the sometimes less-than-wonderful outcomes of well-intended service projects and mission trips. Some come away from those kinds of books feeling paralyzed, afraid to do anything at all. Others dig in their heels, stubbornly refusing to change course. Neither, obviously, is the right way to go, as the authors of those books do make fairly clear.

So, what did CT’s three guest columnists have to say? Here are my summaries:

  • Wheaton anthropology professor Brian Howell says churches “should abandon most travel-intensive ‘projects.'” He’s concerned with travel that emphasizes relationships and learning, and urges us not to forget needs closer to home.
  • David Livermore, a “cultural intelligence” guru, says the key to good short-term trips is for leaders to set clear objectives that make sense for everyone involved.
  • Finally, Trinity’s Robert Priest argues that international trips and local service projects don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

The fact of the matter is that the number of short-term mission participants continues to rise (confirmed both by actual studies and by perusing Facebook photos this time of year), and increasing numbers of evangelicals are getting involved locally in service projects. As far as I’m concerned, these are positive developments, taken overall. Despite the potential of both to do harm if not done well, they can also be mutually enriching experiences for everyone involved. But they need to be done wisely. I agree with Howell, who emphasizes relationships and learning. I agree with Livermore on the importance of having clear objectives. And I agree with Priest that we shouldn’t have to choose between local projects and international trips.

If I were to add my two cautionary cents, I’d say it’s important to be realistic about what we can actually expect to come out of a short-term trip. In the economy of the kingdom, there is very little that can be accomplished during a two-week trip or during an afternoon at the local park. Real change takes time. Lots of time. Often, the one who goes to serve is the one who is impacted most positively. We need to be honest about that.

We also need to be honest about the fact that a short-term trip is a largely artificial experience. What happens in the weeks, months, and years ahead is the true measure of impact. And we should examine our motivations for participating: is it for the accolades we’ll receive at church? Is it for the spiritual buzz we’ll feel? Is it mostly to get a new profile pic with an orphan? Is it because of a resident god-complex (to borrow Jayakumar Christian‘s incisive and helpful term)?

Our motivations may never be 100% pure, and we may never be completely sure of the results of our participation. That’s reality. While all of this should give us pause and lead us to listen better, and to think and pray more deeply, we shouldn’t use it as justification for our apathy and selfishness. Following Jesus is about faithfulness, which is ultimately impossible when we play it safe and bury our treasure in the sand.

[Image credit:]

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My top 11 books from 2011

Last February I shared some thoughts on the merits of reading both widely and wisely, and I shared my own reading goals for the year. Specifically, these:

  • At least one book about/from every continent in the world (plus Central America and the Middle East)
  • At least one book by an adherent of every major world religion
  • At least 25% to be written by dead people
  • At least 40% to be written by women or non-white males.

Well, how closely did I stick to those goals?

  • I had each of the continents (plus Central America and the Middle East) covered
  • Though I read a lot of books written by Christians and a range of non-Christians (including Alice Walker, a Buddhist, and others I presume to be either atheists or agnostics), I don’t think I read anything by Hindu or Muslim authors.
  • 20 written by dead people; only 21%
  • 26 written by women or non-white males; only 27%

So I did better in some areas than in others. I’ll keep the goals more or less the same for 2012. But in the meantime, as is the custom (sort of), here are my picks for the top eleven books I read in 2011. Like last time, these are in no particular order, and include books not necessarily published this year. When applicable, I include a link to what I’ve already written about it.

Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just 
A must-read on following Jesus and doing justice. I reviewed this one for PRISM and blogged about it here.

Eugene H. Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir 
If you are a pastor, know a pastor, or have opinions about pastors, read this. I blogged about it here.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird 
It’s a classic, and I should have read it a long time ago. I’m guessing you already have.

Michael Casey, Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image 
A fascinating look at how the iconic “Che” image has been reproduced and re-appropriated for countless causes — and has paradoxically come to represent global capitalism.

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy 
This biography of the great German theologian who was part of a failed assassination plot against Hitler won all kinds of awards last year. I blogged about this here.

Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? 
In this book the Harvard political philosopher put the cookies on a relatively low shelf, helping you and I wrestle through different understandings of justice in the world around us. I blogged about it here.

Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion
One of the most inspiring, funny and heart-breaking books I read this year. I blogged about it here.

Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era 
From what I understand, this book never really took off, which is a shame, because it’s a wise, nuanced, an intelligent handling of the two topics none of us seem to know how to discuss in polite company. I blogged about this here.

Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help 
An important book on doing no harm when seeking to do good. I blogged about this here and it was also picked up by the Values & Capitalism blog.

Richard Mouw, He Shines In All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace 
I haven’t had a chance to blog about this yet, but I plan to in January. In this slim book, Mouw articulates a wonderful theological and practical vision of common grace.

N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters 
For Christians unsure about what’s supposed to happen between being “saved” and dying, this is an important book on ethics and cultivating virtue. I blogged about it here.

How about you? What were your favorite books of 2011? What are your reading goals for 2012?

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Thoughts on doing no harm

“I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.”the Hippocratic Oath


A couple of years ago a book called When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Yourself  gained a good deal of traction among Christian do-gooders. It was a bit surprising, at least to me, that a book about unhelpful — and yes, harmful — charity would catch on like that. After all, it’s not about someone who died, went to either heaven or hell, and then came back to tell about it. It’s not about sex. It’s not about the prosperity gospel. And it’s not an Amish romance novel. For all of those reasons, it was surprising to me that it gained the attention it did. Or maybe it just gained traction in my circles, which may not be all that representative of broader Christian culture. But regardless, I’ve seen copies of the book on a somewhat surprising number of bookshelves and coffee tables, and it’s come up in a variety of conversations.

I think the book’s authors, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert from The Chalmers Center, have struck a nerve with so many because as more and more Christians volunteer, donate to, or partner with local and global ministries or participate in short-term mission trips, there are all sorts of unanswered questions about the merits of all of it. I’m guessing you generally know what I mean. I think these questions are good to be asking, and I’m glad experts in the field of development are beginning to provide some good, helpful answers. WHH is a book I often recommend to friends who are church leaders or anyone else seeking to understand how to be both compassionate and wise, whether individually or as a ministry.

I recently read another book along very similar lines. It’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by urban ministry guru Bob Lupton, who has been working in inner city Atlanta and elsewhere for decades. I first became acquainted with Lupton through a fantastic (and just recently re-released) little book of his we read in grad school called Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America.

Toxic Charity is vintage Lupton and not a mere WHH spinoff (as the subtitle may understandably lead some to believe), but the two do have a great deal of similarities. And while I’m a big fan of WHH, this new one might become what I start recommending as the preferred introduction to the common pitfalls of ministry to the poor, as well as some of the best practices. Comparing my fresh impressions of TC with my admittedly less-than-fresh recollections of WHH, here’s why I’m leaning towards making TC my go-to recommendation (if I had to choose just one, something I’d prefer not to have to do).

  1. It’s more accessible. WHH isn’t all that inaccessible by any means, but it certainly packs a lot into its 230 pages, and while it’s all good stuff that I’d love everyone to read, I think more people who are looking for an introduction to these issues would track with the stories and clear principles of TC (which checks in at around 190 pages), but may lose heart with the density (hmm… richness?) of WHH.
  2. It’s more positive. Of course, TC’s title sounds fairly alarmist, but trust me, it’s not all critique. Whereas WHH is thorough in its warnings and critiques, TC  seems to include a better balance of what works and what doesn’t, told through personal stories. Both books make clear that when it comes to charity and development, “good intentions are not enough” (as a leading aid blog puts it). But I’d hate to see people with good intentions be turned away entirely by overly zealous critics of what doesn’t work. I think Lupton does a fairly good job of affirming the compassionate impulse and redirecting it in positive ways, rather than just stopping with decrying what’s toxic.
  3. It’s more applicable. After reading WHH, one may very well conclude that in order to help the poor without hurting them, one ought to simply support microfinance organizations. And that’s well and good. But there’s a lot more to alleviating poverty than simply providing small loans to microentrepreneurs, as important as I think such work is. TC is applicable to those engaged in any variety of charities and development organizations, both within the US and beyond, and I doubt if anyone would finish TC without a good idea of how to get started.

Once again, I’d love everyone to read both books, and to value the unique contributions both books make to a better understanding of what makes charity toxic, and what to do to ensure that in our efforts to do good, we do no harm.

If you’re not sure you’ll read either book in full, I want to at least have you consider Lupton’s proposed “Oath for Compassionate Service” — modeled on the Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession. If you have a hand in leading any sort of ministry to poor people, or ever participate in such ministries, these are great principles to keep in mind as you do so. If you discover dissonance between these principles and the realities you experience, that may just be the impetus you need to pick up and read both When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity.

Here is the six-part oath:

  • 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 employment, 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

If you’ve had experiences related to harmful charity, or better, experience with creative alternatives, I’d love for you to share them in the comments. And if you’ve read either Toxic Charity or When Helping Hurts, what are your thoughts on how I characterize them? Anything you’d want to clarify or add? Any other books or resources on this topic you’d recommend?

Repaso: Columbus Day, the Bible, toxic charity, topography of faith, and social media diplomacy

1. The people and the Black Book
This week we North Americans commemorated Columbus Day. I remember when this day came around in 1992, the quincentennial of Columbus’s landing in the “New World.” We were living among indigenous Mayan neighbors, and I remember learning, however vaguely, that not everyone considers Columbus a hero. Here’s a hauntingly beautiful and gripping piece written by Mark Buchanan, a Canadian pastor and wonderful writer. In it he tells of his First Nations neighbors and of the soul-searching required of Christians in light of the history we share:

The Tswassens have a prophecy 500 years old. One of their ancient holy men foretold that a people pale as birch would one day come from across the great water in large canoes. They would bring with them a Black Book. The Black Book was Truth, end to end, a gift of inestimable good. The people lived for many years awaiting the prophecy’s fulfillment. And then one day it happened. The big canoes— bigger than the Tswassens ever imagined—arrived. They teemed with people pale as birch. And, yes, they brought with them a Black Book. Then the killings started. The Tswassens became an obstacle to the pale men, and the pale men slaughtered them, and those they didn’t slaughter they enslaved. This is part of my history.

2. Read the Bible, become a… what??
LifeWay Research, an offshoot of the Southern Baptist Convention, has some interesting findings in a new study examining what happens to people who read the Bible:

Frequent Bible reading has some predictable effects on the reader. It increases opposition to abortion as well as homosexual marriage and unions. It boosts a belief that science helps reveal God’s glory. It diminishes hopes that science will eventually solve humanity’s problems. But unlike some other religious practices, reading the Bible more often has some liberalizing effects—or at least makes the reader more prone to agree with liberals on certain issues… Some of the most interesting findings relate to moral attitudes. “How important is it,” the survey asked, “to actively seek social and economic justice in order to be a good person?” Again, as would be expected, those with more liberal political leanings were more likely to say it’s very or somewhat important. And those who read the Bible more often were more likely to agree.

3. Bob Lupton on ‘Toxic Charity’
Grad school was a great time. I learned a lot and enjoyed most of it. But some books were more enjoyable than others. One of the best, most refreshingly different books I read during that year and a half was a slim volume from Robert Lupton called Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America. I was about to tell you it’s out of print, but apparently it was re-released just this week! Anyway, Lupton released a new book this week also, called Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). Here’s an interview he did with the Religion News Service, published in the Washington Post. Read it for a taste of his perspective on why charity can become toxic.

4. Topography of faith
USA Today published an interesting infographic on the “topography of faith,” based on findings from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. You can see the religious breakdown of each state by passing your cursor over each one. The religious demographics of some states may surprise you.

5. Social media’s role in US foreign policy in Latin America
Liz Harper has an interesting post at the Americas Quarterly blog about the potential for US diplomacy in Latin America using social media:

Because governments that embrace new media technology are shown to be more responsive to their citizens and more transparent, the report argues, the U.S. has an interest in Latin America’s technological development… As Latin America is one of the fastest growing export markets for the United States, it makes sense for the U.S. to help encourage tech companies, like Google, Facebook and Twitter, to become more active in the region. The U.S. strategic interest in playing a “matchmaker” of sorts between the region and private companies is to promote Internet freedom and to ultimately use improved technological connectivity to advance our broader regional objectives, such as strengthening democratic values.

Of course, the proliferation of social media has been instrumental in the pro-democracy movement in the Middle East. But as observers of that case might suggest, giving ordinary citizens in Latin America their own voice through social media doesn’t guarantee  that we will like what they have to say. It cuts both ways, I suppose.

Repaso is intended as a thought-provoking compilation of news and commentary from the past week related to the intersections of faith, development, justice and peace. As always, I welcome your thoughts on any of the links and ideas in this roundup!