Between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas, churches across America are focusing on giving charitably to those in need. However, a common dilemma for many of these churches is finding a form of giving that doesn’t just feel nice, but is the best use of the resources God has given their congregations.
Over the past several years, sociologists and economists have been examining exactly this question: When is giving most effective, and when is it well-intentioned, but harmful? The answers could radically reshape the charitable campaigns of some churches.
RETHINKING THE “BUY A COW” METHOD OF OVERSEAS GIVING
In this month’s Christianity Today cover story, Bruce Wydick, a research affiliate with the Center for Effective Global Action at the University of California at Berkeley, questions whether the holiday tradition of buying animals for impoverished families in third world countries is the most effective and empowering form of giving. In a heavily-researched and sourced article, Wydick argues that while there’s statistical evidence that giving cash to impoverished people in America can create entitlement and dependency, this is not the case overseas. Wydick points to multiple studies to back this claim, combined with the work done by Give Directly, a non-profit launched by an evangelical Christian and PhD in economics candidate at Harvard, Paul Niehaus.
What Niehaus discovered is that one year after the poorest families received cash directly, there was a 58 percent increase in household assets, the most reliable way of tracking quality-of-living in third world countries. Recipients started small businesses, or in rural areas, increased the size of their herds, another reliable measure of wealth, consumption, means of insurance and sign of prestige. Niehaus’s work joins alongside increasing statistical evidence that, when done with oversight, direct-cash giving to extremely impoverished people is the most empowering and fiscally responsible way to help.
WHY GIVING FAMILIES CHRISTMAS PRESENTS COULD BE HARMFUL
Charitable giving is being rethought on the local community scale as well. For decades founder and president of Focused Community Strategies (FCS) Urban Ministries Robert Lupton has been exploring effective ways to revitalize poorer neighborhoods and improve quality of life for those in need. In 2012 he wrote the provocatively-titled book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, and How to Reverse It. Lupton’s premise is that many well-meaning attempts to help the poor actually end up hurting them. He recounts a story of a time when his church handed out Christmas presents to families, and one mom was obviously uncomfortable and the dad left the room in shame. Lupton said he realized that what felt like an offering of love to the giver, felt like a sign of their own helplessness to the recipient.
Lupton believes that a literal incarnation, moving into impoverished areas and becoming neighbors with the poor, is the most effective way for churches to empower those in need. In his book he says, “Becoming a neighbor to less-advantaged people is the most authentic expression of affirmation I know—becoming a real-life, next-door neighbor. When connected neighbors move into the struggling world of those who are poor in order to be friends (rather than profit-making gentrifiers), new possibilities begin to appear.”
WHEN CHURCH’S CHARITY COLLIDES WITH THE COMMUNITY
A further problem with charitable giving arises when a church’s attempts at charity are in conflict with their community. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times reports that the community of Malibu, California, an extremely affluent, beachside city, has asked Malibu United Methodist Church to cancel their twice-a-week free dinners for homeless people. As public transportation growth made Malibu more accessible, homeless people attracted to the free meals began making Malibu their new home, leading to complaints from residents.
Some locals raised $460,000 to hire full-time social workers from the People Concern, a Southern California nonprofit social services agency. In a year, the social workers were able to get 24 of 180 people in Malibu off the streets, including finding permanent housing for 11 of them. But Malibu United Methodist is still choosing to shut down their program, with Rev. Sandy Liddell, the church’s pastor, telling the Los Angeles Times, “This is very sad for us; we’ve been enjoying these friends for more than three years.”
Fortunately, there are Christian organizations like Niehaus’s Give Directly and Lupton’s FCS Urban Ministries that are trying to provide creative answers to these complex problems. Christians have historically led the way in charitable giving to those in need. Now they’re leading the way in effective giving as well.