Personal Piety vs. Institutional Aid: A Case for a Return to Alms-giving

by Gene Daniels

Daniels suggests missionaries on the field return to personal alms-giving, thereby investing in relationships on a deeper level.

For quite some time, Christians in the West have tended to channel most of their benevolence through charity organizations as opposed to personally giving alms to the poor and needy. There are a number of legitimate reasons for this and it is part of the general trend toward institutionalization in modern societies. What is interesting is that many missionaries are now doing the same, restricting their giving to gifts given through and to relief organizations, rather than personal alms-giving. There are various arguments to support this approach, but a close examination reveals that this trend creates problems of its own and may be driven as much by our personal insecurities as by sound missiology.

First, we should consider that Christians have a long heritage of giving to the poor. Like many things in our faith, its roots reach back to the ancient Hebrews:

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs…Give to him generously and do so without a grudging heart…There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deut. 15:7-11)

This Old Testament command, and many others like it, is rooted in the very character of God, and runs through scripture like a powerful current. Psalm 140:12 reads, “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy.” Proverbs 14:31 says, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” Isaiah 25:4a reminds us, “You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in distress.” Loving the downtrodden is so deeply embedded in God’s character that it was reflected in Jesus’ own sense of mission: These expressions of God’s concern for the poor are like a thrust of divine energy that has propelled followers of Christ into a long history of compassion. From Saint Francis of Assisi to Mother Teresa, from early Christians sending aid to Jerusalem by the hand of the Apostle Paul to postmoderns sending it through the organization Compassion International, Christians have been marked by a profound generosity. Today, there are tens of thousands of Christian organizations whose major concern is helping the poor and needy. I believe this is something that pleases the one who said:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where not thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:32-34)

However, there seems to be a subtle change when we move from the realm of theoretical benevolence to the flesh and blood world of the mission field.

When we think about giving and benevolence, many think primarily about donors back in the sending country; missionaries, on the other hand, are thought of as the physical channels through which the charity of others is disbursed. However, due to the relative wealth of sending churches in the Global North1, many missionaries today have more than their time to give; they also have significant disposable income. When it comes to this kind of giving, many missionaries on the field are following the trend set by their brethren back home, limiting their giving to charities or relief organizations. In practice, this means that a significant number of missionaries seldom, if ever, give alms directly to the poor and needy they see daily.

This tendency to institutionalize Christian charity, even on the mission field, can give rise to strange sights as wealthy Christians from the Global North interact with the impoverished around them. I have watched missionary colleagues, good and kind people, aggressively drive away dirty beggar children, and have listened to others boast of refusing to give a few dollars to a neighbor in need because of certain “principles.” I know missionaries who intentionally refrain from personally giving to the poor around them, yet give generously to the charity drives sponsored by their sending organizations—a strange paradox.

Many explanations are given for this seemingly un-Christian behavior on the part of those seeking to extend the faith. Church planters often talk about alms-giving being bad methodology, potentially creating “rice Christians,” whereas those involved in community development will explain how direct giving “creates dependency.” These are certainly sound arguments that resonate with the experienced missionary.

During our decade in post-Soviet Central Asia, my wife and I have often wrestled with the issues of income disparity and problems related to benevolence. The economic problems, particularly in rural areas, are so overwhelming that no amount of personal giving can ever stem the tide. Furthermore, Muslim authorities constantly accuse new believers of “being bought” if they have received any form of aid. Therefore, it is easy to understand why many missionaries have given up on any sort of personal involvement in alms-giving. They reason that by institutionalizing benevolence we can avoid many of these problems while maintaining a basic Christian ethic of generosity. Nevertheless, I have a lingering sense of unease, for if institutionalizing our Christian charity were the answer, why do dependency and pseudo-conversions still plague our efforts?
Others might feel that channeling their giving through institutions, rather than making their gifts personal, is a way of obeying Christ’s words in Matthew 6:2-4:

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

If limiting one’s giving to charitable organizations represents a sincere attempt to obey these words, then it is truly admirable. However, it is poor exegesis of the passage above if they willingly receive a tax receipt for those same donations!

I am sure there are other reasons why missionaries feel compelled to institutionalize their charity. However, I would still argue that personal alms-giving is needed on the mission field as an authentic expression of Christian piety. Perhaps it is not a complete replacement for institutional benevolence, but it should be a significant part of our Christian witness. I take this position because there are many situations in which personal alms-giving is a better model of charity than the institutionalized one that is currently in vogue.

In many parts of the world, corruption is a “normal” part of many bureaucracies, whether they are large or small. A bribe here, a little personal profiting there—corruption in its many forms is often the grease that makes the organizational wheels turn. When Christian giving is institutionalized in this setting, it too moves under this ugly cloud. Because NGO corruption is so widespread and such common knowledge, people assume that organized Christian benevolence operates in the same way.
A professional beggar, with whom I was building a friendship, once asked me if I could find some charity fund that would help his little village of professional beggars. Although he was a serious Muslim and knew I was a devout follower of Jesus, he made the following suggestion: “If you can find a fund that will help us, you can take twenty or even forty percent off the top for yourself. There would still be enough left for us.”

Whenever our personal giving is connected with the “aid bureaucracy” that many in the Developing World have come to know, we are unwittingly aligning ourselvesand our message with the corrupt practices that are taken for granted as part of that “industry.” Consequently, if we want our giving to be an expression of God’s character, of his love and compassion for the poor, then we have to break out of this mold.

How different was the response of the same beggar as he learned, over time, that my alms to him were taken from our personal budget, that they were an act of personal devotion and faith in Jesus. One time he even said to me, “I know you have your own family to support, your own needs. Yet you have given a lot to my family. I hope I have not offended you by asking for help too many times.” In the more than five years that I professionally handled “aid,” not once had anyone seemed worried that they had asked too often.

When our giving is part of the institutionalized model, people assume our lifestyle is supported by what we are skimming off the top of what they imagine a limitless fund. But in the personal piety model, whatever alms I give are understood to be coming out of my personal budget. Therefore, since the source is obviously limited, the alms are more precious and perhaps more appreciated.

A good example of institutional charity going wrong comes from my field of service, post-Soviet Central Asia. Because a major economic collapse coincided with the opening of the region to foreign presence, many missionaries came to Central Asia working with humanitarian aid or development programs. This, coupled with the institutional model of helping the poor, sent the wrong message to many local people. One local Muslim-background pastor explained it this way:

Through aid programs and employment in your NGOs, missionaries have become to us what the Soviets were our providers. We look to your organizations now instead of the government, instead of to God. The system seems the same to us, only the faces have changed.

By tagging our missionary identity to institutional charity, such as the NGO model, we unwittingly conformed to the Socialist model in the minds of those we came to reach. In contrast, had we practiced personal alms-giving, perhaps we could have retained our professional identities (even if those happened to be in relief or community development), yet kept our acts of compassion connected to where they should be—our faith.

Creating dependency on the mission field is an issue of significant concern. Families and communities can become so accustomed to handouts that they lose whatever motivation they once had. I wholeheartedly agree that we should think long-term, developing people’s potential rather than locking them into cycles of dependency. Unfortunately, people in need simply do not have the luxury of time in many cases. A child falling ill, a sudden inflation in the price of winter heating coal, burial expenses for a neighbor—these kinds of daily crises often haunt the life of the poor. These crises are not primarily about dependency, but about survival.

When it comes to questions about creating dependency, sometimes I wonder if our real worry is that someone might become dependent on us. To put the question another way, “Are we really troubled about the harm dependency causes poor people, or are we anxious about the problems it might cause us?” This is, I believe, the greatest resistance to personal alms-giving is what I call the “personalization factor.” Moving away from institutional charity means becoming open to building one-on-one relationships with impoverished people, and this can be very challenging. Not long ago, a Central Asian friend said to me, “You missionaries have a really hard time befriending poor people, don’t you? Most of you don’t know how to handle their overwhelming needs when you are so much richer.”

If we are honest, we know my friend is right. We subconsciously use institutions and organizations to distance ourselves from the multitude of problems that go hand-in-hand with absolute poverty. It is easier to say, “The budget for that has run out” than to say what we are really thinking: “Your overwhelming neediness is making me feel stressed out and I just cannot deal with you right now.”

The only way to overcome this emotional distance is by intentionally acting against it. Even the simplest acts can have a huge impact: learning a beggar’s name and asking about his or her family, or taking the time to really listen to someone’s sad story, despite the natural urge to protect ourselves from such utter hopelessness. In addition, we can attempt what is perhaps the hardest thing to do—offer to pray for people when we give them alms, thus clearly binding our charity to our faith.

Once we begin taking these important steps, a marvelous transformation occurs before our very eyes: “the poor” become real people who just happen to be poor. Their needs remain, but the stigma is gone. Not only do they change in our eyes, but we change in theirs as well. We begin to subtly project a different signal, one that says people have an intrinsic worth that is rooted in their humanity, not their economic status. They begin to receive from us an affirmation of their basic human dignity, something that society often will not, and institutionalized charity cannot, offer.

The final reason many missionaries do not like personal alms-giving is because, at a subconscious level, it hits too close to home. I am not referring to the important and related area of missionary lifestyles; rather, I am talking about the idea that missionaries are themselves the recipients of other people’s alms. This idea may sound mistaken, even repulsive, to some of my colleagues. We prefer to call our supporters “partners” and talk of people “investing in our ministries,” terms that better fit the new self-image of the missionary as a respected professional. But in the terms historically used by the Christian Church, faith-supported missionaries draw their living not from “investments,” but from acts of personal piety by other Christians.

Not long ago, my family went through a severe trial, a health crisis that threatened to take the life of one of my children, as well as ruin us financially. The need far outstripped our resources—and those of our generous supporters back home. With the life of a daughter hanging in the balance, God met our need; however, he did so through the personal benevolence of strangers.

I distinctly remember my feelings the night the air-ambulance arrived at a hospital in a strange country whose language I did understand. Despite being engulfed in a fog of parental fears about my daughter’s health, I was still quite anxious about how I would handle the tables being turned. Everyone in this small hospital had heard about “the sick little missionary kid” that was flying in from some remote country. All the doctors involved knew we were “the charity case”; they would not bill for services.
In other words, I was now the beggar standing at someone’s gate. I had suddenly joined “the poor” because it was my daughter who would soon die unless someone risked “creating dependency.” We did not need “ministry partners” that dark night; we needed a huge measure of Christian charity. Tears still well up in my eyes as I remember the extraordinary love we received as these brothers and sisters not only met our needs, but also welcomed us into their personal lives and did so while upholding our dignity despite our relative poverty.

Therefore, if I were to paint a picture of alms-giving in the life of a missionary, I would sketch us in as those who can give because we know what it is to have received. I believe this image makes it easier for us to be led by the Holy Spirit in our giving to others, instead of rigidly adhering to theories. Of course, we need a great deal of wisdom to avoid inadvertently harming those we would help, but simply realizing that we too are on the receiving end of personalized giving will help change the way we view it.

Despite my confidence in personal alms-giving as a model, I do not claim it to be problem-free. Fundamentalist Muslims and nationalist Hindus will certainly accuse us of “buying” converts, and we can be sure that some people will abuse our generosity or become dependent upon us. However, these things can happen with any model of giving. Furthermore, much of our resistance to personal alms-giving has more to do with us than it does with the poor: our fears of being taken advantage of, our inability to relate to people much poorer than us, our insecurity about being on the receiving end of another’s charity.

Finally, the most compelling reason to return to personal alms-giving, as opposed to institutionalized charity, is that it binds our giving into relationships. Yes, relationships that involve money can be complicated, messy, and risky; but relationships often are. Yet by giving in the context of relationship, we anchor benevolence to an environment in which authentic ministry can take place. Evangelism, church planting, and discipleship are not programs; they are the result of deep and meaningful interaction, something that is very hard to develop with impoverished people unless we are also willing to bear some of their burdens.

1. I use the term “Global North” to refer to not only Western societies, but also to other industrialized countries, such as South Korea.


Gene Daniels (pseudonym) and his family have been serving among unreached Muslim people groups in Central Asia since 1997.

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