Posts Tagged ‘Toxic Charity’

How the Church’s Charity Became Toxic

October 8, 2014

Who needs mercy?
The Church’s charity became toxic through a fundamental misunderstanding of the world’s most famous story about helping others – the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” The prevailing summary of the story recorded in Luke 10:25-37 is “be helpful to people in need, like the Good Samaritan.” While the parable does teach that, this is absolutely not the central lesson that Jesus sought to convey. Making this lesser point the main point has placed its hearers in the role of being or becoming a hero – the ugly seed of our toxicity.***

Interpreting parables is aided by emplacing the initial audience in the story. Who are they? What happens to them? What should be learned from their experience? Answers to these questions tell us what the parable is fundamentally about and how to apply its teaching to our lives.

The initial audience was a lawyer who wanted to justify himself. Jesus would not have taught him anything had he simply said, “be nice to strangers.” This man’s specialty was Jewish law. He knew that one already. And Jesus was smarter than that.

The hero of the story that Jesus tells happens to be a Samaritan. If Jesus wanted to emplace the lawyer in the story as the Samaritan, it would have stretched the lawyer some. Generally speaking, first century Jews hated Samaritans and vice versa. But, at least he would have been the hero in the story. Certainly that would have softened the blow a little.

But the lawyer is not the Samaritan. Jesus tells the parable in response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” And after Jesus tells the story, he repeats the lawyer’s question but he flips it around by asking, “So who was a neighbor to the man?” This is the key to understanding the parable.

The lawyer answered that the one who showed him mercy was his neighbor. This answer reveals who the lawyer is in the story and unveils its central teaching. He’s the battered traveler lying by the side of the road half dead. He’s not the Samaritan. He’s the guy the Samaritan helps. He’s not the hero. He’s not the one who has it all together and is able to show mercy. He’s the one who needs mercy.

The central teaching of the parable is, “You need mercy, brother. You are lying half dead by the side of the road. But God, in his mercy, will send you some help. You just may not like who he sends your way.”

The battered traveler gets the help he needs. And the help that God provides is through the efforts and means of someone the lawyer surely looked down on. While it might be difficult to give help to someone you look down on, that can also just reinforce the sense of superiority. It’s an entirely different experience altogether to receive help from those you look down on. No greater path to humility has ever been laid out. And it sets the stage for us to embrace the deepest implication of the story.

Jesus is the Good Samaritan. He’s the hero. Which means we don’t get to be the hero. Ever. Our over zealous applications of the Good Samaritan parable have led the Church to embrace the role of hero. We have played God for others and encouraged a type of dependence on us that should be reserved for God alone. We have refused to receive help and learn from those in distress, trumping their skills and hopes with our resources and plans. Our efforts have led to a toxic codependence which has resulted in tragic cases of burnout, resentment, and shame.

We like to play God. We like to be the hero. But Jesus came saying, “Good news: You can stop playing God. It’s killing you. I AM HERE. I will pick you up off the side of the road and take care of you. I am the hero.” We killed him for that. Now we just ignore him. And we do so at our peril. For he alone can meet our deepest need.

None of us want to need mercy. But we do. We all desperately need mercy. Whatever has you half dead, don’t let it stop you from accepting the mercies of Christ and the help of those he sends to be a neighbor to you.

[***The term “Toxic Charity” comes from a book by Bob Lupton. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s time. It’ll help you understand this phenomenon more broadly. This post outlines what I believe to be the source of the problem in the Christian Church – arguably the world’s most charitable organization.]

Phil Hissom

Phil Hissom is the Founder of the POLIS Insitute and the primary author of Dignity Serves. He can be reached at

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.


I Stopped Going to Church

November 6, 2013

By Dan Crain

ATLANTA – Recently I had a conversation with a neighbor who lives on the streets in our community. I invited my friend to our church’s Sunday morning service.

He informed me that he had stopped going to church six years ago. He had grown weary of the politics and people looking down on him. So he stopped going.

I then told him that I had stopped going to church, too. He gave me a very curious look, as he knows that I am one of the pastors at the church in our community.

I shared with him that the version of church to which he was referring is most likely what many people call the “institutional” church. Such churches care more about their programs, their building and looking cool than they do about being a force for good in the specific community where they find themselves.

I am more interested in recruiting people into God’s kingdom than trying to fill the pews of our small urban church. I believe that if people see God’s kingdom, they will meet the master of the kingdom, Jesus. Then they will understand that Jesus has wired them to be in community around Him. And then ideally they will understand that for some reason this king has tasked the church to represent him here on Earth.

When I think of “church,” I think of a group of individuals called by Jesus to gather around the preaching of the word, taking the sacraments, share in community together, and moving out toward our neighbors. I think of people who I know and they know me, and the common bond we share in Christ. I think of people who know my junk and call me out on it. I think of people who know of the image of God that I bear and how God glories in me.

I rarely think of a building or even place. It’s not that I am against building or precise locations to worship, but we as North American Christians have grown too consumed with bricks and mortar and their upkeep. I believe that having an extremely nice place to meet unintentionally feeds a little bit of the need for control and security that so dominates American culture.

I was a part of a church for four years, which had what the pastors called “gray chairs.” These chairs were plastic and not very comfortable seats. The pastor continually reminded the congregation that the gray chairs served as reminders that the action was not “in the building,” in was out there beyond the four walls. The action was in the community, in the neighborhood, and among people experiencing distress.

Bob Lupton’s book “Toxic Charity” defines the difference between churches, which are “church-centric” versus “community-centric.” Church-centric congregations do everything to build themselves up. Community-centric congregations do everything for the benefit of their community. I personally believe effective loving on behalf of Jesus require both/and. A church must exist to benefit the neighborhood around it. If a church is doing its work properly, people will experience reconciliation through and in Christ and will be a part of the church.

So, I have stopped going to the institutional church and instead I gather with people who are committed to Christ, myself and loving our community in the best ways we know how. We are humbly learning what it means seek the good of our neighborhood through Christ. If our church were to move or stop meeting, I would want our neighborhood to grieve and plead with us not to abandon meeting and blessing this place. I would want our neighborhood to genuinely miss us because we no longer would be there.

I hope and pray that this becomes true of the church of North America. I hope and pray we all stop going to the institutional form of church and instead join God’s movement of called-out individuals to seek Christ’s kingdom here and now in order to bless the place we find ourselves in.

Dan Crain and his family in Atlanta.

Dan Crain and his family in Atlanta.

Dan Crain is a liaison/trainer for Polis Institute. He and his wife Adrienne and their family live in South Atlanta. He can be reached at

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.