Friday, August 27, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: What Gives?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Once again, Christianity Today has the sort of article everybody who serves the Lord Jesus and loves the Body of Christ should be reading and thinking about. I don’t agree with everything they have to say by a long shot, but they regularly provide a starting point for serious discussion of major evangelical issues. Kudos to them for that.

Tom: In this particular piece they’re talking about missions and what makes that whole thing tick. Immanuel Can, did you find anything CT had to say interesting?

Immanuel Can: Oh, plenty. This is something I know a fair bit about.

Reduced Support and Personal Involvement

Tom: Very good. Do tell.

IC: Oh wow … where to start. Well, how about with this comment, from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship vice president Greg Jao:

“I had a church tell me, ‘We love supporting you, but we’re going to reduce your support because we can find no way to volunteer and actively serve alongside you … We want to have a deeper partnership with the people we are supporting.’ ”

Tom: Okay, that works. So funds that were previously going to one group are siphoned off to another. Was this an ideological thing?

IC: No. I think it’s actually a positive thing, in a way, and CT thinks so too … at least in part. It means that people are less interested in just giving money, and more interested in involving themselves in some actual way with the people they’re serving. That could be really good; because the natural way to do charity is to unite giving, acting and relating. Just think of the “Good Samaritan” parable.

Tom: Agreed, yes, if there’s a level of practical involvement built in to that new relationship, it seems like a positive thing for the church doing the giving and for the people they would now be giving to. Not so much for InterVarsity, of course …

IC: No. And that’s the point: there are some things that work if you give on a personal-involvement basis, but some things that can never work that way. And some of the things that do NOT work that way are still very good things.

Discouraging Trends

Tom: Okay, so personal involvement in giving is one way that up-and-coming Christian donors are trending, and all in all that’s probably not a bad thing. But there are other trends noted here that are not so encouraging. One would be a significant movement away from sharing the gospel and making disciples, and toward humanitarian work and education. These are not bad activities to engage in, of course, but they’re not the core mission, and there are other people doing them.

IC: Yes. And there are a number of other concerns, such as the falling overall number of people who give to charitable causes, the amounts and proportions of income they (fail to) give. The CT report doesn’t really deal with those issues.

But the “personal involvement” angle also has a downside. This appears in the so-called “mission trip” for young people, in which, rather than sending financial support to locals and native churches, Christian parents unload wads of cash to fly their own children half way around the world, to the latest media-covered disaster/poverty location, to perform tasks that locals can easily perform for themselves, such as digging, building and painting. Or sometimes these teen “missionaries” try to serve in ways in which local evangelists, teachers or aid workers could serve far more effectively. Maybe the children of these “givers” get a transformative experience (or just as often, a really cool poverty-sightseeing vacation) but the waste of resources and the ineffectiveness of this strategy are horrendous. But they won’t give to the location if they can’t send their kids there.

Tom: Seriously?

IC: I guess they figure that there’s nothing a suffering, poverty-stricken area needs more than a cursory visit from an untalented, unacculturated and spoiled North American teen.

Tom: Things have really changed since I was a teenager.

Millennial Control Freaks

Now, one of the major concerns the article raises is that millennial donors are increasingly resistant to giving in ways they can’t control, which means charitable organizations are having greater difficulty covering their own office, advertising and admin costs, and some are even closing down. I see good and bad aspects to that.

IC: By doing that they’re punishing the good organizations and creating incentives for the bad ones to lie to them. What I mean is that the good organizations are those that send the highest percentages to the “field” or area of service. The bad ones would give low percentages, and keep the majority of donations to service their own needs. Fair enough?

Tom: Depends on the purpose of the organization, I suppose. I would imagine certain charitable causes require more admin than others. So for an organization of one type to send 60% of everything they receive to the field might be running a tight ship, while for another, to send 75% might leave them with a fair bit of room to maneuver. The one organization with which I’m most familiar is able to keep admin costs down to about 8%, I think, but they use a lot of volunteers to accomplish that.

Running a Tight Ship

IC: Well, the good charities are always tight for operating funds, because they’re focused on the field. So they cannot afford to publicize their work with expensive ad campaigns, excessive travel and marketing, and lavish donor events, and they may even have trouble finding money to function day-to-day. In contrast, larger organizations that manage to conceal how little they actually send to the field have much more for everything from publicity to buildings to staff salaries. They can put on a much better show, and a wider public face.

Tom: Right.

IC: So by despising the idea of giving to operating costs — to things like basic business expenses, salaries and overhead — donors are actually putting the good charities at a continual disadvantage, and rewarding those organizations that are less forthcoming about their real use of funds.

Tom: That’s a danger, certainly, but only if donors are not doing their due diligence before giving. And one of the things the CT article brings out about millennial donors is that while there may not be that many of them, they are more likely to research an organization than their parents, probably because they’re at ease with things like search engines and websites that audit and report on the performance of charities.

Trust, But Verify

IC: Yes, and they should do that. We ought not to give to causes the value of which we do not understand. That’s basic stewardship. But this too presents a problem. Ask yourself this: if I hold out my hat and say, “Would you give to a worthy cause I can quickly describe to you as very worthy,” are you more likely to put your hand in your pocket than if I say, “Go and research a good cause, and when you’re done, give to it?”

Tom: For me? The latter, by a long shot. But Christians generally? I’m not sure.

I think my parents’ generation largely took for granted that when someone came to their church and pitched them on a cause (be it feeding orphans in Venezuela or printing Bibles in Urdu), well, it was likely to be something worthwhile. There weren’t as many organizations competing for the Christian dollar, for one thing, and those that did exist were usually known quantities.

Today, I’m boggled at the number of pitches the average church receives, and it’s important to understand that no church or individual can even begin to fill the black hole of need that these organizations promote and expose.

The Personal Connection

With that in mind, I don’t respond to requests for money. Never, without exception. I turn down everybody who asks me for anything, because I refuse to make decisions about giving on the basis of emotion or convenience. That’s not to say I don’t give, because I do. But when I do, it’s to people and organizations with whom I have a personal connection, and it’s in a context where I’m not pressured to do anything at all, and most of my giving is accompanied by a good deal of prayer. Probably not enough, but a fair bit.

IC: I actually think that’s a pretty good policy. I would advocate giving to a very limited selection of causes, and only to those that a) you know are being managed very responsibly from a fiscal point of view, and b) that are doing something you know for certain that the Lord values highly.

In short, give generously, and give well. Don’t give to everything that comes along. To pony up for every slick person or cause that comes along, well, that’s just not good stewardship. And not to give at all, that’s not an option for a Christian.


  1. Thanks chaps! Some very helpful ideas and analysis re. giving and stewardship. Props.

    Though part of a much larger topic, which I am sure youze two have dealt with before, allow me to take issue with the following, in my own mind, false dichotomy:

    "Tom:... But there are other trends noted here that are not so encouraging. One would be a significant movement away from sharing the gospel and making disciples, and toward humanitarian work and education. These are not bad activities to engage in, of course, but they’re not the core mission, and there are other people doing them.

    IC: Yes.... "

    In simple terms, we as followers of Christ have been called to "mission" in the same mode in which Jesus was sent and operated while here on earth: "As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." As a first take of what was recorded in the gospels, he seemed not to make a huge difference between what he did (healing, helping, caring) re. peoples bodily needs and what he taught re. morality, sin, eternity, souls needed to be saved etc. Therefore I am not sure do well to bifurcate the social vs. spiritual aspects of the gospel. Jesus ministered to the whole of what it means to be human and created in Gods image. So should we.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Russell.

      I quite agree that the two things (body and soul) go together.

      I should probably have specified that by "core mission", I mean "make disciples", baptize and teach them "to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19). Everything else we may do as part of our mission in this world (giving, hospitality, etc.) is really in service of that end.

      Because my own resources are limited, I choose for the most part to give to believers who are pursuing that core mission. I don't doubt that in the course of pursuing it, they also share with people in physical need regularly. In fact, I know it to be true.

      But purely as a matter of stewardship, I would balk at putting a lot of time and money behind charitable organizations whose mission is purely social and whose end goal or actual practice falls short of taking the gospel clearly and verbally to people in need of it.

      There are plenty of organizations doing that already, and plenty of people, including Christians, supporting them.

    2. Yes. It's certainly true that the Lord, during His time on Earth, did things like healing, helping, and caring. But the way He did them, and the reasons for which He did them were very different from what our social assistance and international aid organizations do them. His miracles were signs, not so much focused on the relief of temporal maladies as on pointing to His identity, so as to identify Him as Messiah and as God's answer to ALL deep, human needs. Had He wanted to sort out society, or to solve social ills, He certainly had power to do that, and He could have done in more broadly with a mere wave of His hand. But He did not.

      The central mission of His whole life was to point mankind to God through Him. In that mission, temporal maladies were a means, not an end in themselves. No doubt the blind were glad to see, and the lame delighted to walk; but the days would come when those same eyes would close forever, and when those legs would never walk again, unless they were to be resurrected to eternal life through the salvation in Christ.

      That's also our central mission. If we offer people mere healing, mere food, mere help, but without Christ, then we have failed them eternally. So like Tom, I will strategize to invest the Lord's resources in the work that does not fade or fail, the work of bringing people to eternal life. To lose that mission is to lose everything, really. And I'm sure you agree, Russell.