“Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help”

To a church that is increasingly defining its core identity in terms of mission and outreach, Robert Lupton’s new book, Toxic Charity, is going to read like a literary sucker-punch to side of the head.  As a veteran urban minister with 40-plus years of experience, Lupton has been given a front row seat to much of America’s charitable giving; and he argues that this giving is largely wasted as it “actually harms the people it is targeted to help.”

Why?  According to Lupton, the “compassion industry” is too often given the benefit of the doubt without ever being scrutinized in the way that we test other industries.  In other words, Christian charities are “almost universally accepted as virtuous and constructive” without anyone every stopping to ask whether the end product produces measurable change in the lives of those that the charities seek to help.

Of particular interest to Lupton are the short-term missions projects that come at a cost of two-and-a-half to five billion dollars annually.  For many Christians in the West, short-term missions are used as a way of providing a “life changing experience” for those that are involved, offering a strong sense of having “done the right thing.”  But the question is: have we done the right thing?  Is the goal of relief-based missions the softening of the participant’s heart or the increased quality of life provided to the recipient of the aid?  Lupton clearly fears that we lean towards the former; and as such, we are a creating a toxic missions culture that is not actually about the hurting and the lost. He fears that our efforts are, in reality, “diminishing the dignity of the poor, while increasing their dependency” upon both the church and external foreign aide.

But Lupton’s assessment is not entirely negative.  In the closing chapters of his book, he lays out a proposal for a new sort of “Oath of Compassionate Service” that would be modeled upon the Hippocratic Oath.  This new oath would be governed by six unyielding principles:

(1)           Charities are to never serve the poor by doing anything that the poor can already do for themselves.

(2)           Any unidirectional giving is to be done only in the case of extreme emergencies, when the abilities of local, indigenous communities are severely hampered.

(3)           Charities are only to invest money by lending it to the poor for the purposes of developing self-sustaining employment.

(4)           We are to subordinate our personal desires and needs to the needs of those that we are serving.

(5)           Local leadership must be actively developed and engaged, so that they can speak to the needs of their community as insiders.

(6)           Finally, any aide given must do absolutely no harm to the community itself.

On the one hand, I found this book to be enormously refreshing and it serves as a very necessary correction for some deviant thinking in the contemporary church.  But on the other hand, I’m not sure that I want to evaluate ministry in terms of efficacy or success.  The church is not a corporation; and we do not offer an “end product.”  Moreover, I’m somewhat concerned that a book of this nature could be used to justify an inbred-mentality within churches that are looking for reasons to believe that they do not need to engage in missional activity.  What do you think?  

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7 Responses to “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help”

  1. Mary Yager says:

    I may just have to add this to my social work curriculum. It has always bothered me that the purpose of mission trips seems to be about the short term missionary having a life changing experience or exposure to another culture. This needs to be a latent function, not the manifest function of missions. SO I agree. However, I worry that a book this might also encourage some to say, “See – we are doing harm, so lets do nothing.” I will definitely read this. Thanks for the recommendation.


    • If you’re thinking curriculum, Mary, you might also want to check out Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aide.” She’s a bit a lone voice in the wilderness kinda gal. While Bono rallies the troops to fight for Africa, Dambisa is an African woman who argues that this sort of effort is actually causing more harm than good. Not sure I can follow all of her conclusions, but it is definitely worth the read.

  2. David Jones says:

    You may also be interested in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Moody). This book has been making the rounds among our staff and volunteers, particularly those in local impact. It comes to similar conclusions.

  3. Great post, Scott. I have similar misgivings about the motivation of participating in short term projects. Yet, I am not willing to conclude that potentially faulty motivation on the side of the participants is grounds for stopping such activity. Nor am I willing to conclude that those who participate, even from faulty motivations, will not be convicted by God to recognize any self-centeredness on their parts. All human interactions have reciprocal effects. An equal concern is whether Christians engaged in such outreach to the poor truly embrace the power of the Gospel to change lives or default to a more “social Gospel” mindset. Truth is, unless there is ongoing day-to-day connectedness to those we are trying to help—discipleship—we are in danger of inoculating the recipients of aid with just enough “religion” to either make us feel good about our efforts at evangelism or to make the recipients feel that they are “in”.

    I’ve been wanting to read the book David mentioned. Guess I need to put it on my “official” reading list.

    • In a lot of ways, I am with you Angel. I’ve been on a short term missions project (seven months in Amsterdam) and it changed my life. So there is value to getting the church to engage at that level. On the flip side, I think we do a lot of missions work that actually hurts the local economy, etc… Lupton has a great example about churches that build wells in Africa. They send a team of five over to an African country (at a rough cost of $3,000 per person) and they build a well. In many cases, they will send additional teams back in the future to look after “their well.” So a single well ends up costing tens of thousands of dollars. Lupton asks the question: what would happen if you used that money to empower the local church and to employ local workers to dig wells? it’s a very legitimate question.

      Lastly, I can’t sign off without telling you how much I really appreciated your closing comment. “we are in danger of inoculating the recipients of aid with just enough “religion” to either make us feel good about our efforts at evangelism or to make the recipients feel that they are “in.” That’s some tough, tough medicine that many of us need to hear and consider.

      Thanks for chiming in.

  4. Rich Bennema says:

    Take a look at:


    Personally, I don’t need my house painted, but I have plenty of yard work that rich folk could do if they’d like, but that’s just me. 🙂

    Regarding the Oath of Compassionate Service, I’m uncomfortable with #3: Charities are only to invest money by lending it to the poor for the purposes of developing self-sustaining employment. The potential of charities becoming the MasterCard and Visa of the developing world seems like it could be more damaging than the risks of creating a welfare state.

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