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?