Return on Investment

“The most readily measurable return on investment for charitable giving comes down to a simple question – activities or outcomes?” – Robert Lupton in Charity Detox Chapter Four

Who do we serve?

Recently I asked our church staff to work out an answer to this question: “Who do we serve?” The discussion that followed was lively as we sought to identify and rank in order of priority five groups that we serve together.  We could agree that we serve God first. We could agree that we serve one another on the staff next. And that’s where our agreement ended. Were church members our next priority? What about reaching the next generation of disciples? Where did serving our neighbors fit into our priorities?

Whether it is a church staff or any Christian group or organization concerned with loving our neighbors,  I believe if we are not clear about who we serve, we will not be fruitful in our service.

Us or Them?

I like Robert Lupton because he says things that I am not sure I can get away with saying. These are his words: “Let’s be honest. Helping the poor to become self-sufficient, though certainly a desired outcome, is generally not our only (or even primary) motivation for giving. Charity is good for us.” Is he right?

I look around at mission efforts I see happening in United Methodist congregations and I think Lupton is raising questions we need to address. Who really benefits from our projects and programs?  Are our ministries primarily opportunities for our members to connect with one another and connect with our congregations? Are our ministries primarily designed as training grounds for growing disciples or as a means of institutional self-preservation? Whose needs are our top priority? Ours or our neighbors?

Once upon a time, a United Methodist leader in Kansas told me, “The church is not ready for justice. We have to work on discipleship first.” She believed what she was saying, but I still do not. God’s call is always both, together, at the same time. At the same moment that Jesus called his disciples Peter and Andrew saying “Follow me,” he gave them a mission, “and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19) How can we fish for people if we don’t love them as ourselves? How can we fish for people if we don’t take our neighbors’ needs as seriously as we do our own?

Activities or Outcomes?

When we are very busy with good activities in the church, collecting cans, giving money, filling backpacks for schoolchildren, and we neglect to ask ourselves, “Are human lives and communities being transformed through our efforts?” we have likely gotten a little murky in our thinking about God’s priorities. If we truly want to be about helping those in poverty move out of poverty, we will need to focus on what all our activity is producing. We will have to look closely at measurable outcomes in the real lives of human beings who are hungry, without homes, unemployed, or facing violence in our communities today. Our charity will have to become good, not just for us, but for others.

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