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BookMark - Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)
Pray for London
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A review of the latest Christian books to hit the stores.

Author: Robert Lupton

Publishing Date: November 2011

Availability in London: Special order through Creation Bookstore and the Mustard Seed.

Price: Print - $18.50 Audio CD - $25.50.

Reviewed by: Amy L. Sherman / Christianity Today

Introduction by: Rick Vandekieft

Introduction: I recently read Toxic Charity. While it is not a new book (November 2011) I suggest this will be of interest to anyone involved in missions, ministries or those that just donate to "good causes".

Toxic Charity covers all types of ministries home and abroad and there are parallels to every ministry I know of here in London. While I do disagree with some of the author’s evaluations and criticism of work being done, he does offer alternatives and, in my opinion, some quite worthy of consideration.

The following is the review that appeared in Christianity Today shortly after the release of Toxic Charity in 2011 and the first line in the review will set the tone. "Robert Lupton's new book is going to ruffle some feathers".

The Review: In Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) the 40-year veteran urban minister "takes the gloves off" and argues that much of Americans' charitable giving "is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help."

The reason is that the "compassion industry" is "almost universally accepted as a virtuous and constructive enterprise," but its "outcomes are almost entirely unexamined." Years of charitable giving at home and abroad, Lupton contends, have made barely a dent in reducing poverty and often encourage dependency. Toxic Charity offers some statistics, but more stories, as evidence that both our philosophy and practice of charity are frequently misguided.

The news here is painful. Our self-centeredness contributes to the problem. We evaluate our giving, Lupton argues, "by the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served."

Short-term mission trips are a case in point. Such "junkets" involve expenditures of between $2.5-5 billion annually, yet produce little lasting change, often displace local labour, and distract indigenous church leaders from more important work. We get more than we give when we go.

Meanwhile, our relief-oriented, commodity-based charity flourishes at home because even though its effects are irresponsible, it feels good to the givers. Lupton grieves that "our free food and clothing distribution encourages ever-growing handout lines, diminishing the dignity of the poor while increasing their dependency."

Lupton does offer some ideas for improvement. He proposes a new "Oath for Compassionate Service" for the charity industry to adopt, much as the medical community has adopted the Hippocratic Oath. Lupton's Oath offers six key guidelines: (1) Never do for the poor what they can do for themselves; (2) Limit one-way giving to emergencies; (3) Empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements; (4) Subordinate self-interest to the needs of those being served; (5) Listen closely to those you seek to help; (6) Above all, do no harm.

The Oath embodies the philosophy of "asset-based community development" (ABCD). This is a glass-half-full strategy that focuses on a community's strengths more than its needs. It takes seriously the gifts and talents of the poor, and seeks to do ministry in the community with them rather than for them, thus protecting people's dignity.

For example, Lupton profiles a church that replaced its traditional food pantry with a food co-op. Local residents pay $3 in co-op dues for $30 worth of groceries, and they buy the food, box it, and distribute it. Another congregation turned its free clothing closet into a revenue-generating thrift store that teaches job skills. Still another transformed its soup kitchen into an entrepreneurial venture for female recipients who had a vision for starting a catering business.

Lupton's critique is largely on target, but he might have mentioned a few more positive trends—like the growth of social entrepreneurship and growing interest in reciprocal short-term mission projects.

Lupton says hard things that need to be said, and he's earned the right to say them. Believers would do well to receive his words with the mindset that "faithful are the wounds of a friend." If we accept rather than resist his critique, the poor and non-poor will both be better off.

Dr. Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, where she directs the Center on Faith in Communities. Named by Christianity Today in 2012 as one of the fifty most influential Evangelical women in America, Sherman is the author of six books and over 80 articles in a variety of Christian and secular periodicals including First Things, Books & Culture, The Public Interest, The Christian Century, Philanthropy magazine, Prism, and Christianity Today.