Thursday, May 31, 2012

Twitter Exchange

Recently I got involved in this exchange on Twitter:

Person X: Listening to Cliff Christopher. How will we convince a new gen. that the church is the best place for their $?

I responded: Is your problem a lack of evidence or a lack of shared values regarding meaning of "best"?

Person X: lack of being able to make a convincing argument why our mission matters (nonprofits often make a better case)

To me, Person X’s response seemed more like a restatement of the original problem. It’s hard to make nuanced explanations in 140 characters, so I can’t fault X for that. I wonder, however, if X has considered the possibility that “nonprofits often make a better case” because nonprofits have a better case. I don’t know for sure that they do, I’m just saying not to rule that out. That’s what I was getting at in asking whether the problem was lack of evidence or lack of shared values.

I decided to Google “Cliff Christopher” and see what s/he had to say.

It turns out the person referred to is J. Clif Christopher, author of a book called Not Your Parent’s Offering Plate*. All I know about the book I garnered from a review here, and I’m not planning to run right out and buy it. The reviewer begins by saying

Common wisdom holds that younger generations of Christians do not give as abundantly or regularly as their parents and grandparents, but few people offer insight about why this change has taken place and how to encourage better giving in this new environment.

Then she goes on to say,

One of the most important points that Christopher makes is that “people want to be a part of something that changes lives.” (13) The competition for gifts is increasing as non-profit entities multiply rapidly. What the non-profit sector knows and practices—and the church generally does not—is that what motivates people to give is a desire to change lives.”
This raises a question. Is the problem really that “younger generations of Christians do not give as abundantly or regularly as their parents and grandparents”, or that younger generations of Christians do not give as abundantly or regularly to their church as their parents and grandparents do? X’s tweet, the one that sent me off on this whole train of thought, seems to imply that younger people are giving to secular non-profit organizations. Unless of course what her first tweet meant is “How will we convince a new gen. that the church is the best place for their $ instead of Ikea and the local liquor store?” Good luck with that.
Whatever amounts that younger Christians are giving to charity, it’s fair to conclude from what I have read so far that Christopher, Pastor Jennifer and Person X want them giving it to their church or at least to church based charities, rather than to United Way, Red Cross, UNICEF or Partners in Health. The problem is making a case.
So let’s start with the criterion of “a desire to change lives”. That’s where my question to person X comes in. The most obvious way to persuade people, young or old, who prefer giving to secular non-profits to give to faith-based charities instead is to offer evidence that the faith-based charities do a better job of changing lives. The evidence may be out there, for all I know. Certainly some faith based charities, like UMCOR, Catholic Charities or the Salvation Army, have a lot of boots on the ground in countries where disasters may strike and the local infrastructure not be up to handling it. They have the potential for making your dollars go far.
On the other hand, with faith based charities, not all your dollars are going to food, or clothing, or medical care. Some of your money is going to spreading the faith.
For instance, I remember how interested I was to hear a Methodist missionary to Cambodia come speak at our church. I knew from people who had returned from mission trips that there were two big mission projects going on in Cambodia. One was a school to teach young adults to be auto and motorcycle mechanics, so that they could earn a living. The other was the dumpsite ministry. From what we were told, whole families in Cambodia live near city dumps and prowl through them to find items that can be recycled and sold. The children do not have a chance to go to school, so the church is setting up schools near the dumpsites. These sounded like worthwhile projects that I would want to give money for.
Only it turned out that the mechanic school had an interesting curriculum: Bible study in the morning, then mechanics classes and practice in the afternoon. The school wasn’t just there to teach them to be self-sufficient, it was there to convert them from Buddhism. So every dollar I gave would be split between buying wrenches and buying Bibles, hiring mechanics who could teach engine repair and equipping missionaries who could teach theology.
Of course, the people who attended the trade school were adults who could decide for themselves whether to sit through Bible study in order to get the training they wanted, or even to embrace this new religion because it made sense to them.
But the school for children also had religion classes, where they, too would be taught Methodist flavored Christianity along with reading and writing and arithmetic. Their parents would have to decide for them: allow their children to get the only schooling they were likely to have and be trained up in a religion different from that of those parents, or keep them working at the dump. And again, every dollar spent on Sunday School books and Bibles is a dollar not spent on microscopes, globes and computers.
Of course, if you believe that unless you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you are going to hell, my reservations make no sense. Bible study is a feature, not a bug. I'm not here to argue anyone who holds that belief out of it.
If you’re someone whose last rapidly fading connection to her church is that church’s history of care for the poor and dispossessed, the tradition of “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can”, the idea of attaching a price to that good, in the form of converting or at least appearing to, is troubling. Shared values - or the lack thereof.
So if Person X has the stats to show that the money young people can donate will change lives for the better, then lay them out there. If the problem, however, is a lack of shared values, in young people who were reared Christian, then s/he has a bigger problem than how to get a hand in some young adult’s pocket.
*Okay, minor picky point, but this whole “not your parents whatever” meme started, as best I could tell, with Oldsmobile ads back in 1988, when Oldsmobile began using the slogan, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” and customers responded, “Yeah, that’s kind of the problem”. If you were old enough to buy a car in 1988, you may very well be the parent whose offering plate this is not by now.


  1. the school for children also had religion classes

    Argh, this kind of aid really bugs me. Yes, the schools are doing good - but I find having the Bible classes as a mandatory part to be... well, disrespectful to the people they're allegedly trying to help. I'd have no problem with them running after hours classes or discussion groups with no expectation of anyone turning up - and who knows, they might even get more people coming along that way. The way it's being run though, it's less extending a helping hand as it is extending a hand while simultaneously making it bloody obvious that they consider the people they are extending the hand to as beneath them.

    It reminds me of one of the stories I heard of in the aftermath of the 2006 Aceh earthquake and tsunami - Christian evangelical groups (predominantly US-based, but not exclusively so) went into Aceh (98.6% Muslim) to run faith-based orphanages and were promptly booted out again. Because nothing says respecting the wishes of deceased parents quite like gloating over the opportunity to convert their children. I'm not sure how Americans would have reacted if an Islamic group (or Jewish or Buddhist or Taoist or even Mormon actually) had decided to do the same thing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but I'm guessing in a not dissimilar fashion (but possibly with more guns involved.)

    There's also for me the issue of interesting people in your faith by actually, you know, living it rather than offering help with strings attached. Bah. I have so much more respect for missions who basically offer help where needed, and keep their praying to themselves unless asked to share rather than making prayer a condition of the help. One reason I will donate to the Salvos Red Shield Appeal is that they don't limit who they will help, and they don't pray over them - they just help them (at least in my city to the best of my knowledge).

    Then of course a lot of the mission-talk for me is tied up with colonialism, which is a whole different kettle of fish again but is probably at least partly why I find the idea of respecting the people you're attempting to help so important.

  2. I was giggling at your Katrina scenario - you are right, guns would have been involved, no possibly about it.

    Yes, I was very disappointed to find out that the schools were pushing religion so heavily. I suspect what it means in practice is that the few Christians, or people willing to become Christians, are served by them and the Buddhist majority are not.

    What's even worse is that the first group who went to Cambodia went there for a youth convocation. From what they said, they are targeting teens for conversion, even though their Buddhist parents may throw their Christian kids out of the house. This in a country noted for sex tourism. I'm not defending parents who turn their kids out over religious differences, but why can the missionaries not wait a few years and target adults who are on their own for conversion? (Well, I know why not; the teens are low hanging fruit.) The really weird thing is that one of the people who went on this trip described Cambodia as "a country without grandparents" because of the genocides. So in a country without grandparents, let's turn parents against children, and as my husband said, give them something else to fight over. I just kept thinking, "Whose bright idea was this?"

  3. "Whose bright idea was this?"

    Someone for whom the only important thing is getting numbers on the board. Living in this world, in this time, in this place is unimportant compared to getting people into Heaven in the next life. Someone who believes that "saving" people by any means possible is more important than providing practical aid, with the longer aim of doing themselves out of a job. Someone who doesn't see the families, the society, the culture as anything more than unsaved numbers, and the damage done to those families as regrettable but essential.

    Someone, in this context, who I'd be surprised to learn actually speaks Khmer (or any of the other languages).

    I find the whole overseas mission trips thing kind of.. well, weird. And very quasi-colonial. And of course very common. The secular version is of course going over to build toilets or count birds or something, which depending on the program running it can be a useful asset to the community or hellishly bad news for the locals. Some communities really don't want or need a group of frequently intoxicated gap year students whose dress sense, moral sense and other senses often clash with local mores cluttering up the landscape. Not to mention that I don't think you can really get an idea of the community you're in when you're only on a short trip and with a group of compatriots - so why not do a year long mission volunteering at the local soup kitchen or in the underfunded public school down the road or some such.

    At least they'd speak the language there.