Bob Lupton has seen both the blessings and curses of charity, cases where giving can both empower and disempower members of a community. As churches encourage giving and service projects around the Christmas season, Lupton encourages caution. How are churches measuring their outcomes, ensuring they aren't keeping people in places of need? Christianity Today's online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey spoke with Lupton during the Christian Community Development Association conference about ways Christians can navigate the charity waters.

How do you see charity hurting families?

I'm seeing one-way giving, doing for people what they have the capacity to do for themselves in a way that disempowers them. In the United States, the most common Christian charities are food pantries and clothes closets. For example, at Christmastime, I used to be involved with "Adopt a Family" at Christmas. I would line up suburban families with families whose kids wouldn't get anything for Christmas. Then, on Christmas Eve day, they would deliver toys and presents to that family. I saw something I had never seen before. The kids, of course, were excited. The moms were generally gracious, but a little subdued. But if there was a dad in the household, he just disappeared. These parents, in front of their kids, were being emasculated. They were being exposed for their inability to provide. The moms would endure that indignity for the sake of kids. But for the dads, it was just too much. It was just killing their pride.

The following Christmas, we did a "dignity for dads" promotion, or "pride for parents." So as folks called in for their families, I said, 'Go shopping, get presents for the kids, but bring them in unwrapped.' We set up a little toy shop and marked them somewhere between a garage sale and wholesale price. We invited parents to come into the shop. If they didn't have any money, we could hire parents with the money that came in. So on Christmas morning, the low-income parents could see their children open the gifts that they had earned through the efforts of their own work. We have to find a better way of entering into charitable relationships with more reciprocity.

This sounds more pragmatic or psychological. Are there theological implications for how we do charity?

Dignity is given to us by our creator. We hold a whole theology of community and mutual supportedness, bearing one another's burdens and concerns. One-way giving creates toxic relationships where one has the resources, the other has the need. Do recipients at clothes closets and food pantries become a part of your church? Often, they're not participants in our community. How do we create respectful, honest, caring, and mutually supportive relationships?

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We asked recipients of our free food, "Would anybody be interested in joining in a food co-op?" You could pay $2 a week and get $30 of groceries. We would do a run to the community food bank where you can buy surplus food. The members of the co-op became the owners of that co-op and decided on the shopping list instead of just being the recipients of whatever we gave them. They managed their money and distributed their food. It creates community and accountability as opposed to the one-way giving system.

What about foreign aid? If we can't cultivate community there, how do we keep charity at the local level?

Last week a guy was telling me that his church went down to Haiti and was so touched by seeing mothers with their babies in their arms wrapped in newspapers and rags. They were so touched that they came back with blankets. They had gotten bunches of blankets and handed those out to those mothers. The next morning when they went out they saw the same blankets in the shops along the street and went down to the mothers and the kids were still in rags and newspapers. They were furious, not realizing that the real need was food and those babies were hungry, and those women would sell a blanket anytime to get a little bit of milk and rice for the babies. We haven't looked at the outcomes of our charities. We've measured our charity by how it affects us as givers. Do we feel the numbers that we have served? Was it a good spiritual experience? Did it change my life?

How do you look at charity within missions trips? Would people give as much money or time if they didn't go on short-term missions trips?

We can identify individuals whose lives have been touched and who have done remarkable things. But the research indicates that those who have gone on missions trips and whose lives have been changed return to their same values, patterns, and behaviors within six to eight weeks after their return. Now we say well, this enhances our awareness for missions, so our support of missions goes up. So we spend money for our vacationaries to go into developing places to build houses at the cost of $30,000 a piece that would cost locals $3,000. Missions budgets are up dramatically. It's a gross misappropriation of kingdom funds.

An African woman told someone on our staff that they were told that the Americans loved to paint: "When the Americans were coming, they would dismiss us from school early and tell us to go out and get stones and mud and sticks and mess up the outside of the public school building—because the Americans love to paint. If paint is what they want to do, then we'll create the need for paint." She said, "What I wanted was what was in those suitcases." Her whole school building was painted five times in the four years she was there.

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It sounds like a metaphor, where you're painting over the external and not dealing with the internal issues.

It's a great metaphor. There's a college group I mentioned that did a missions trip to Honduras and painted the schools down there. The amount of money that they expended on that 10-day excursion was enough money to hire two local Honduran painters to paint the school, plus hire two full-time teachers for the school, plus provide new uniforms for every kid in the orphanage.

The reason why churches love this kind of service is because they believe that involvement, particularly with those in need, is an important theological practice. The more people are involved, the more obedient we are to that. The increase in missions trips continues to go up, even in a bad economy. The way we evaluate that is, how has this affected our people? We count activities and how many people we serve with our activity.

It sounds like you're suggesting churches might start thinking more like for-profit businesses, at least in how they measure outcomes.

It's the businesspeople in the pews who are saying, "Is this really cost-effective? Are we really having any positive impact?" Part of my motivation is to say let's harness all of this good, positive energy and motivation to do that which transforms the lives of those who are recipients. The only way that happens is where there is reciprocity, contributing to each other, community developing, and folks being empowered in the process. If you do something for someone that they can do for themselves, you disempower them.

Do you see any positive trends in how churches are engaging in charity?

There are a bunch of churches and organizations around the country that don't do giveaways at Christmas anymore or Toys for Tots. They're doing Christmas stores. You see in mature aid programs mainly development activities instead of giveaway aid, things like infrastructure, training farmers how to grow better crops, helping the country develop transportation networks to help farmers get items to the market.

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With Christmas coming up, how do you avoid feeling paralyzed, wondering whether something you give someone will end up hurting them?

There is a difference between crisis intervention and chronic poverty. The Good Samaritan is a story about crisis intervention. Gleaning is about how to share our assets and protect the world's poor. Don't reap to the competitive edges of your field; leave room for the poor to work so they can harvest where they haven't planted. In your grace don't strip the vines; leave some for the poor so that everybody can work at harvest.

The point is, let's examine the outcome of care. When I talk about the progression of one-way giving, first you elicit appreciation. You do it twice, you elicit anticipation. What's more, you do it three times and it becomes expectation that he's going to do it again. Four times and it's an entitlement. By the fifth time it's dependency. They've done it every year and we count on it. If anybody has been doing this kind of work, they begin to see that pattern. There is a chronic poverty issue and it calls for a chronic intervention, which is enabling people.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today articles about social justice and community development include:

Trading Spaces: Inner City Helps the Suburbs | Suburban poor change the direction of ministry. (November 10, 2011)
Feeding the Poor Through Pay-As-You-Can | A church-based café in New Jersey may be the future for helping people get on their feet. (August 10, 2011)
Let People Shop | Food pantries feed more, waste less with client choice. (November 23, 2010)