Recently in a panel discussion at a Union Presbyterian Seminary.  One of the students asked me this question:

“I really appreciated your two articles about the need for paradigm shifts in the way churches work with their communities. The church I’m serving is very much still in a “we” serve “them” because they “need” something we have mode. Very few of our ministries involve forming relationships with other people. In fact, I was even told that the yearly mission trip “isn’t about meeting other people, it’s bonding time for our youth.” So, my question: is it better for churches to serve poorly, or better not to serve at all? Where is the line between “at least we’re doing something” and “toxic charity?”

I am so thankful I received the student’s questions in advance because this is a deep and challenging question and one I get asked indirectly all the time.  Usually it sounds something like this:

“If people are hungry, shouldn’t we just feed them and think about their other needs at a later date?” 

My answer to the student’s question and similar questions is this:

If we can’t find a way of serving with dignity,

we should not be serving.

The first question we need to ask is, “Is this a chronic issue for this individual or is this a one-time emergency situation?”

If it is a one-time emergency, such as in the case of fire or sudden job loss, then we should simple meet the emergency need.  There is little risk of harming the person with a one-time gift.

If however, it is a chronic issue that the person has experienced over time, we have to consider the long-term impact of our efforts.

If it is a chronic need we have to ask, “Are we robbing people of their dignity?”

Approaches that provide assistance to the same recipients over an extended period of time and do not seek to engage the recipients in the process either by inviting them to help serve or to help shape the process in some meaningful way, are likely slowly eroding the recipients of their sense of value and ultimately their human dignity.

Imagine that you are one of the recipients in whatever program you are involved in; how does it make you feel to be on the other side?  If words like ashamed, embarrassed, unvalued come to mind, you need to stop and figure out how we can tweak the program to limit that experience.  From my experience, less than 30% of those who are receiving assistance are willing to engage in the process but 100% benefit by at least being invited to contribute in some way.

Often it is a very simple shift.  For example, a local church that had historically prepared food at their church for homeless individuals, began inviting the homeless individuals to help plan the menu and to cook alongside them.  That was a simple way to honor the gifts of their guests and give them dignity and voice into the process.  The homeless guests loved it!

A local social services employee took a traditional backpack program where the churches packed the backpack and students received pre-loaded backpacks, and instead took the students into a “school supply store.”  They set the room up like a store and the students got to go “shopping” with their parents.  The parents were asked to pay $3.  That social services worker said the level of pride that those parents had when they paid their $3 was amazing but what was even more amazing was watching the joy in the faces of the children when they were allowed to pick their own supplies, many for the first time in their lives.

When I ran the furniture bank, I would invite every family who received furniture to come back and shop with the next family who was in need.  It was a healing process for many and the relationships that formed out of that simple invitation were remarkable, with many becoming long-term volunteers and important leaders in our organization.

We get so caught up in our “programs” that we totally forget about the people and begin to view them as “recipients of our services” instead of “partners in God’s mission.”

As Christians, we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard even when it is harder and more uncomfortable.

I think these quotes say it better than I can,

Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton

“When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.”


“The challenge for those of us in service work is to redirect traditional methods of charity into systems of genuine exchange.”

When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

“While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, hopelessness, depression, fear, social isolation and voicelessness.”


“Until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low income people is likely to do more harm than good.”

The Hole in our Gospel by Richard Stearns

“Giving things to the poor does much more to make the giver feel good than it does to fundamentally address and improve the condition of those in need.”


“The greatest mistake commonly made by those who strive to help the poor is the failure to see the assets and strengths that are always present in people and their communities no matter how poor they are.”


Often the programs that our churches are volunteering in are run by other organizations and the church has little or no control over the way the program is shaped.  In our Shift Training, I help churches do what we call a “Ministry Assessment.”  Through this process churches are able to clearly see which of the ministries they support are “one way giving” models and which are engaging their participants in the process.  Sometimes participation of the recipients is built into elements of the program that the church cannot see so it is important to look at the entire program and not just one small element.  For example: any program that includes case management has built in participation of the recipient.

If this is a topic you would like to read more about, check out

“Is our Charity Toxic?”

“Spare Change or Real Change” 

“Please stop Serving” 

“Doing With”