I have been serving as a pastor at an inner city church for more than 5-years now.  We are one of those churches who are committed to helping the “least among us” (Matt. 25:31-46).  As such, we hold annual “Free Markets” where we challenge each of our members to give away their extra to the needy.  We also help feed the food insecure every Friday evening.  We welcome drug addicts, prostitutes, the homeless, etc. We have had clearly intoxicated people walk off the street and into our services to attempt to play with the praise band or even preach.  We even bought two houses on the worst streets of our small town devastated by drugs to attempt to “re-neighbor” the area.  We are one of those churches.

But lately I have been re-thinking the whole approach.  I think our church may actually not be helping and may even be contributing to the problem.  It isn’t that I don’t think Jesus’ words about helping the poor seriously, I think he was very clear that Christians have a duty to do so but it is how to best do it that I have been struggling with over the past year.

I first began to question my commitment to traditional means of “social justice” after reading Father Robert Sirico’s Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy (Regnery 2012).  Sirico, a former leftist revolutionary who hung out with Jane Fonda in the 1960′s became a Catholic priest ministering to the poor and began to question if the method of giving people money, food and clothes were really hurting rather than helping the poor.  I had heard inner city missionary Rudy Carrasco state many of the same misgivings a few years ago.

But the final nail in the coffin of the approach I have been championing for the last few years was provided by Robert Lupton in his book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) (HarperOne 2012).  Lupton argues traditional methods do nothing to motivate the poor to improve their situation and often lead them to become dependent on charity.  He advocates an approach that follows these principles:

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.  Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said–unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm.

Lupton, like Sirico and, to a degree Carrasco, argue the only real way to help the poor is to befriend them and help them help themselves.  This is much harder work than just donating cash or clothes or voting for liberals, (whose bureaucratic efforts to end poverty have also produced too much dependence).

I recently spoke with another inner city pastor who had learned local drug addicts were sharing information on how to sell their food stamps for drug money while relying on the local churches and food pantries to eat.  I want to glorify God by helping the poor but I don’t want to be responsible for encouraging reckless behavior.  Jesus commanded us to give to anyone who asks (Luke 6:30) but, as Augustine pointed out, he didn’t say what to give them.  I’m done giving stuff away to anyone except those who will commit to turn their lives around, like those in treatment, etc.  and I encourage you to do the same.