Charity is a core part of the church's mission to our nation and world. But what if our best efforts to help those in poverty actually drive their poverty deeper? Robert Lupton, founder and president of Atlanta's FCS Urban Ministries, argues that many popular forms of generosity and service are often toxic and destructive. In his new book, Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results (HarperOne), Lupton offers a roadmap for turning short-lived good intentions into lasting transformation. Bethany Hoang, founding director of International Justice Mission's Institute for Biblical Justice and co-author of The Justice Calling (Brazos), spoke with Lupton about stories of destructive charity and his vision for a new way of doing missions.

How does serving and giving become toxic?

We have a very involved and compassionate group of Christians in our culture who volunteer and give from the heart. In one sense, that’s something we can be proud of. We are a serving nation, a serving church, and our motivations are good. It’s just that we have been measuring our activities—how many people we see, how many food boxes we distribute, how many clothes we give away—instead of looking at outcomes.

The unintended consequences are sometimes destructive. When we do for others what they have the capacity to do themselves, we actually disempower them. We assume responsibility that was never ours to carry. And so the troubling message of Charity Detox is that we may be doing more harm than good, and folks who are well-meaning and operating from the heart have a very difficult time hearing that.

Can you give an illustration of when serving and giving becomes destructive?

Take Haiti, for example. With all our kindness, our aid, our mission work, people in Haiti are poorer today than they were at the beginning of the compassion boom that began about 40 years ago. Prior to the earthquake in 2010, $8.3 billion in aid had been pumped into Haiti, and an equal amount has been committed since. Yet, the average Haitian is 25 percent poorer today than 25 years ago. That’s a destructive outcome.

Along these lines, I was talking with a Nicaraguan banker who has gone into microlending ministry, giving small loans for peasant people to help them strengthen their businesses. When we were talking about how he works with the church in Nicaragua, he told me that there are whole sections of his country where they cannot do microlending at all: areas where there are concentrations of US church partnerships with Nicaraguan churches.

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The banker told me, “My people say, ‘Why would we want to borrow money? They give it to us! Why do we want to borrow money for our churches? They build them for us!’” He said, “They are turning my people into beggars.”

These are just a couple examples from the ground that make me realize how much of our aid has a destructive impact. Instead of alleviating poverty, our aid is deepening poverty. And that’s how our paradigm needs to shift—from giving aid to developing people, from toxicity to transformation.

What does it look like to make that shift, from toxicity to transformation?

One local example is in our ministry in the inner city of Atlanta. For years I led a Christmas program for kids’ families that aren’t getting anything for Christmas. Caring people from around the city would go shopping and buy toys for the kids and deliver these gifts to homes on Christmas Eve. It created a lot of excitement; it was like Santa Claus was coming. But when we moved into the inner city and were more closely involved with those on the receiving end, I was in some of the homes when the gift-bearing families arrived. And that’s when I saw something very troubling.

The kids of course were very excited. The moms were gracious, perhaps a little embarrassed. But if there was a father in the household, he just disappeared. He went out the back door. I realized what was happening—those parents, in front of their own children, were being exposed for their inability to provide. The moms would endure that indignity, but it was just more than a father’s pride could handle. It was as though his impotence were being exposed in front of his wife and children in his own living room. And it was very, very hurtful.

And so we said, we’ve got to change that. That resulted in a new event we call Pride for Parents. We told caring folks, “Go shopping, buy toys, but don’t wrap them. We’ll set up a storefront in the middle of our community as a toy shop, put somewhere between a yard-sale and a wholesale price on those toys, and invite parents to come in and go shopping.” And even if the parents didn’t have money, or were unemployed, we were creating cash flow through the sale of toys: That enabled us to hire unemployed parents, so that they would have money to purchase toys for their children.

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We found out a couple of very interesting things that first year of Pride for Parents. First, that parents were a whole lot more eager to earn, to purchase those toys that would delight their children, than they were to stand in the free toy lines with their proof of poverty and receive toys that others had provided for their children.

Second, we discovered a universal truth—everyone loves to find a bargain. It was a delight for parents to find a great bargain for their children and have the means of making that purchase. And on Christmas morning, parents in our inner-city community had the same joy that most other parents have, of seeing their children open up the gifts that they had purchased through their own efforts.

The principle is this: No one is so poor that they have nothing to contribute, nothing to bring to the table in the community. And so the change from toxic to transformative comes about in finding those talents, abilities, and resources that the poor have, and then setting up systems of exchange, of reciprocity, where everyone has something of value to contribute.

We did the same thing with our food pantry, transitioning from a give-away food program to a co-op, a buy-in club where people can access affordable food and have ownership. Our clothes closet give-away program was converted into a thrift store where our neighbors could find bargains and also work to earn money to purchase clothes. We hired unemployed folks into a retail-training program so that they move into the economic mainstream. It’s a shift from dependency to development.

How can we persuade well-meaning Christians to drop quick-fix, self-gratifying activities, and instead pursue the more difficult work of transformation?

Development is more expensive and time-consuming. It requires longer-term commitment than emergency assistance. The right response to people in crisis is an emergency response. That’s when a tornado blows through a town, when someone’s house burns down, when an earthquake hits Haiti. But when the bleeding stops, it’s time to shift toward rebuilding lives and businesses. That’s a much slower, longer, less exciting process, but absolutely essential if people are going to move out of poverty and put their lives back together.

Emergency assistance is shorter-term, crisis-oriented, easier to fund. It’s understandable that ministries involved in crisis intervention will extend the marketing of that crisis beyond where they should. Development activities are harder to raise money for and require more commitment. In our country we’ve been giving emergency responses to what is clearly chronic poverty, not a sudden, temporary crisis. Look at the way we treat food distribution to people in need. Our food pantries are fish-feeding stations that should have been converted into fishing classes, fishing schools that help people catch their own fish. When you use an emergency response to meet a chronic need, you harm people.

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In the book, you claim that we’re not telling the whole story behind what’s actually taking place in our mission work. What are we not telling, and what’s at stake in being honest about the whole story?

Mission giving is on the rise, and yet giving to full-time missionaries is at a 100-year low. Most missionaries are short-term. We send out about 2 million short-term missionaries in a year, which represents several billion dollars spent on missions. The difficulty is, that money doesn’t generally go into the actual work of alleviating poverty. There’s an enormous misappropriation of kingdom resources.

I remember when Hurricane Mitch swept through Central America in 1998. We rushed in to rebuild homes, building hundreds of homes at an average cost of $30,000 a home. Local Hondurans could have built those homes for $3,000 a home. Much of that added expense was in our own expenditure for transportation, food, and so on.

I remember a group of college students that traveled to Honduras to paint an orphanage. The amount of money the students spent on that trip could have been used to hire two Honduran painters as well as hire two full-time teachers for the school and buy new uniforms for every student.

And then an awful lot of our work is “make-work.” One of our staff women was at an international conference and was asked by an African educator, “There’s something about you Americans that I’ve just never understood. What is it about you that loves to paint so much? In our village when the Americans were coming they’d let us out of school early and tell us to go out and get mud and dirt and trash up the outside of the school because ‘the Americans need something to paint.’ That whole school was painted four different times the three years I was a student there.”

We need to ask the question, “Is the work we do on the ground truly significant work?” We need to ask, “Whose agenda is our mission really about?” And then we need to ask, “Are we really enabling folks to move out of poverty?” The reality is that in most cases we’re not. We’re deepening dependency instead.

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The only thing that moves a person out of poverty is a job. That’s it. So the next question we need to ask is, “Are we facilitating the creation of jobs that enable people to move out of poverty?” The answer is no, we’re not. And it’s because we’re taking the wrong people on mission trips. Rather than taking “servers,” we need to take job creators and business people. Instead of taking mission trips, we need to take investment trips.

How do you bring together ministry-minded servants with business-minded strategists? Or “mission” trips with “investment” trips? In other words, how do we avoid an unhealthy separation between those who care for souls and spiritual growth and those who ask the critical bottom-line questions?

Because the business folk ask the bottom-line questions, sometimes the servers feel like they’re a little hard-hearted. But I see these as essential questions if we’re going to lay the groundwork for legitimate businesses. For example, if we continue to serve and prop up little microenterprises that are not really creating upward mobility, we’re not really helping move people out of poverty. For that, you need scale up to for-profit businesses and create wealth that impacts the larger population.

A friend of mine from Atlanta was in the furniture import business and got frustrated. Most of his materials were coming from the Pacific Rim, and he had shipping problems, quality control issues, and other difficulties. He and his wife decided to move to the Philippines, bought some land, set up a factory, and started manufacturing furniture for their customers. I saw him recently, 10 years since he’d moved there. He shared with me, “We have about 3,000 employees. We set up three different factories in three difference village areas. And those jobs have created at least as many auxiliary jobs.”

He’s now had a significant impact on the whole region. Quality of life is improving, education is improving, people’s lifestyles are improving, and their homes are improving. They’ve planted three different churches, and their spiritual life is improving. Think of everything that missionaries have brought this region over the past hundred years. You could make the argument that one couple, with the vision to do well in business and do good at the same time, is bringing something even more transformative.

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The paradigm of mission has to change if we’re going to see poverty alleviated.

What’s your prognosis for the American church? Is the mission paradigm changing yet?

The good news is the growing awareness among Western churches that what we have been doing historically has not been working. The poor are not moving out of poverty; if anything, they’re getting poorer. We’re beginning to ask the right questions about how to reverse that process. That discussion is going on in churches all over the country and spreading—now on the denominational level as well as megachurches.

Foundations are revisiting their giving and their grants, asking for outcomes rather than just activities. The Salvation Army, Union Gospel Missions, and other front-line organizations are changing their paradigm from “free beds and free meals” to engaging their guests in every aspect of running the mission, from making beds to cooking meals to doing laundry.

I am very encouraged by the movement that I see.

Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results
Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results
208 pp., 13.99
Buy Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results from Amazon