Western Christians today are the wealthiest Christians in history, and many of them are very generous. It’s estimated Christians around the world will give $57 billion to global missions in 2017. While we can argue over whether Christians are generous enough, for now let’s agree a lot of money is donated in the name of Jesus, and much of it comes from believers in the West.
Whether it’s small-town churches scrapping funds together through bake sales and car washes for a short-term mission trip, or large foundations funding building projects around the world, Christians want to see their money used for good. Yet too often their donations have an unintended effect.
I want to introduce you to four ways Satan has used Christian charity for evil. I’ve seen these examples firsthand, and there’s plenty of scholarship to back them up if you wish to do further study on your own.
1. Used Clothing That’s Never Used
The secondhand clothing industry is big business—and it destroys African economies. In the United States, you can find used clothes in thrift stores, but these aren’t the primary markets where people buy clothes. In most of Africa, though, secondhand clothing has become the primary means of buying clothes.
Why is this so bad? Because countries can’t form their own clothing lines, and the imported goods hinder stable economies. This alone has led some countries to ban secondhand clothing companies. As a rule, long-term charity hinders economic development.
Clothing is also a popular way to donate when disaster strikes. People assume clothes are needed. (Here’s a helpful report on unhelpful donations.) Humanitarian workers call the rush of useless, often incomprehensible contributions “the second disaster.” Contributions often sit and rot.
2. Proliferation of Faux Orphan Care
The needs of orphans around the world is real. There are between 143 million and 210 million orphans in the world. In the United States, there are more than 100,000 children in the foster system awaiting adoption. In my county alone there are more than 300 children in need of adoption right now. The foster care system is overrun and underfunded. Yet concurrent with a desire to raise awareness and care for orphans worldwide has come a troubling counterattack from Satan.
Most international orphans aren’t orphans. Many—though not all—have living parents who could take care of them. Some parents are just trapped and see no way of caring for their child. In the American foster care system, the goal is always to reunite the family. Internationally, however, it’s not easy to ascertain if that effort has been made, since some families try to place a child in the United States hoping to secure a better financial future. When talking to an orphanage overseas, then, ask if there are children who could live at home if their parents received financial support, and what efforts were made to return these children to their family.
In many cases, parents make their children pose as orphans to play on the guilt of others. I’ve personally been beaten by children on international trips; they were looking for money, and I wouldn’t give any. I once was riding an ATV along the Nile River in Uganda, and everywhere I went there were naked and scarred children with their hands out. I was trying to enjoy a day off, but I felt terrible. Later that night I was reunited with my friend who told me the whole thing was a sham. The parents had beaten their kids to make them better beggars. The grass huts were fake. The kids did have clothes. The parents turned their children into an orphan commodity to manipulate Westerners to give money.
Children are sometimes even trafficked into orphanages. Why? Because an orphanage can bring in money for a community. Well-meaning short-termers have incentivized communities to use children as commodities. The children are subjected to a never-ending stream of volunteers, creating and exacerbating attachment disorders. Let me speak directly about this one.
One of the most popular types of short-term mission trips is working with kids. It’s easy to recruit for—who doesn’t want to hold babies or work in schools with children? But if you really want to care about children, you must be willing to address long-term psychological needs, not just short-term physical needs. Serious questions must be asked: How does your short-term trip, and the ministry you work with, affect a child’s development and ability to attach to loving parents? Is your trip promoting superficial relationship-building and fear of abandonment? As one way forward, consider providing money for trained staff instead of sending untrained teams.
Please don’t hear me say we should abandon orphan care. I’m a foster parent myself. I’ve faced the challenges firsthand. I’m simply saying short-term trips that reinforce abandonment should be replaced by something better.
3. Pastors as Assets
There’s a huge need in the world for well-trained pastors. This is true in the West, and even more so in the fast-growing global church. Churches in the West have tried to address the need in multiple ways. Two ways are giving money either for remedial income or for training. Ministries in the West set up pastor sponsorship programs, and churches send money to people they’ve met. My own organization follows a version of this model.
But there are pitfalls. For example, there are people overseas who present local pastors to Western organizations for funding in hopes of getting a cut of the money. They’ll travel from ministry to ministry, offering to have their pastors funded through the various Western organizations. It works for the Western agency in that it fulfills their mission. It works for the local leader who wants to line his pocket. But guess what happens? The national leader gets four or five ministries on board, all supporting the same pastors, and then takes the money for himself. This happens all the time. And it’s just a micro-level example. In Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton notes an estimated 85 percent of aid money flowing to African countries never reaches the targeted areas of need. People are skimming off the top.
Sponsoring national leaders is challenging. The West, with all their financial resources, sees the massive cost difference between supporting a Western missionary and supporting a pastor in the country the missionary wants to reach. Supporting the national pastor seems like a better investment. But it’s not that simple. Sometimes multiple ministries support the same people. Sometimes pastors funded by Western believers serve in churches that never learn to support their own work. It’s challenging.
4. West-Endorsed Kingpins
I was recently in a “closed” country—perhaps the third- or fourth-most restrictive country in the world. You’d think Christians there would be under such pressure the situation I’m about to describe would never happen. My friends were laboring faithfully when suddenly the attitudes of local pastors and leaders towards them took a major turn. Another missionary couple had labeled them as false teachers. Why did everyone trust that other couple? They had money—a lot of it, more than anyone else. Their house was a castle. For the national leaders, that meant the Western church surely was behind them. Why else would they have so much money?
Missionaries can exaggerate. Those missionaries wrote amazing support letters. None of it matched reality. They’d go out for a week or two every quarter, taking pictures of kids or churches and then blurring out the faces. Money would come pouring in. They were set. Everybody trusted them.
This can also happen with national leaders. Again, some partner with multiple organizations, unknown to the others. Money will eventually pour into persistent national leaders. Christians in the country receiving the funds will often interpret that money as a stamp of approval from the Western church. The leader will then further abuse his power by keeping the money and leading the churches into all sorts of heresy.
So consider carefully who you partner with. I’d encourage churches not to do things by themselves. In my experience, that’s when they’re most at risk of being taken advantage of by charlatans.
To be clear, I’m not out to attack the motives of donors. I’m just hoping to pull back the curtain to expose a naïve view of global missions—and, really, a naïve view of sin.
Satan uses generosity for evil. We shouldn’t be surprised. He masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). May we not be outwitted by his schemes (2 Cor. 2:11), and may we do a better job helping each other steward the resources God has given us.
Let’s be generous, but in helpful ways.