Challenging Charity

I read an article this evening from Relevant Magazine about what happens when charity turns toxic.  And it’s really quite an interesting read that touches on one of my pet peeves about Christian ministry/ “foreign do-goodery”. Particularly, it’s interesting to think about what effects the American Christian church is having when we are exporting American culture rather than Christ.

And while it may seem somewhat off-topic, one of the charities that bugs me the most with this kind of thing is the popular shoe brand TOMS. While not a Christian organization, it is exemplary of American charity and how we behave towards foreign aid in general. As everyone knows, TOMS is a brand of neat canvas shoes that is priced at double its normal retail price. The reason for this is that when you buy a pair of TOMS shoes, a second pair of shoes is sent overseas to some barefoot child who needs shoes.

Here’s one of my problems with this model, and the relationship it has to the church. Did anyone ever think about if there’s actually a need for shoes for children in 3rd world countries? The founder of TOMS actually based his company off of a trip to Argentina where he saw kids running around without shoes and decided to get a company together to provide some shoes for the scruffy little urchins (sourced below).

Image from Relevant Magazine

When charity turns toxic

Now, before I go any further, let’s just recognize that what he did is a legitimately compassionate thing and TOMS has done a good job of bringing awareness of global poverty to American youth.

But the problem is that when we send shoes (or missions trips) overseas, we are undermining the local economy and/or local church. TOMS basically hands out these free shoes to kids and, economically speaking, inflates the supply of shoes so much that there is no incentive for local shoe makers to make any shoes. So the problem of shoelessness repeats itself. When those shoes run out, they just wait for the next shipment of TOMS to come in. There’s no reason to start your own shoe-making business which would create local jobs and stimulate the economy. It stagnates.

So here’s the tie-in with Christian charity: we often adopt a TOMS-like mentality towards serving our Christian brethren overseas. We think, “Wow! They don’t have a nice house/church/school! This is obviously a huge issue! We must fix it!” And we send boatloads (or rather, busloads) of eager young teens to construct places of dwelling, instruction, and worship. And then those mission trips leave and we are left with a house that the local community doesn’t know how to maintain, or duplicate. And we must ask ourselves, are we really meeting the needs of the community? Or are we just placating some sense of American guilt about having more than enough of everything conceivable?

Now, again, let’s pause to reflect. Should we minister to our needy brethren in other countries? Yes! Absolutely! The Bible is very clear in its command to care for the poor and the widowed in society (Acts 6:1, Matthew 25:31-46). But the method we adopt in doing that is extremely important. As the old maxim goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life.” The point is that all our love and helpfulness in giving to our brethren may not be hitting the target. We may, in fact, not just be undermining the local economy, but the local church as well. If the locals are waiting for their shipment of spiritual nourishment from America, what incentives do the local pastors have to learn more about God’s word in order to feed their flock?

This is an issue that we need to seriously consider and pray about. Maybe we need to change our mission’s model so that instead of building structures in these countries, we are training the locals how to do it themselves and teaching them how to build the infrastructure they need to maintain it.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Is the church missing the mark by providing services that are unnecessary? Or is our current approach to missions working just fine?


PS. Much of my influence about TOMS came from this article and related research sparked by it. It’s a good read.