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As we head into December, churches across the United States and Canada will be challenged to think differently about their annual Christmas celebrations while living with the reality of the COVID virus. At the same time, they are planning their annual Christmas giving opportunities. These opportunities often focus on helping our youth and young children engage in giving and serving.

While our hearts are in the right place, sometimes we do more harm than good. Christmas giving provides us the opportunity to make doing and giving good—by giving justly. I’d like to offer some QUESTIONS, BEST PRACTICES, and OPPORTUNITIES to both truly serve and teach your children about generosity and poverty, all at the same time.

How do you evaluate if the Christmas giving project you’ve ALWAYS done, is, well, just? I posed 6 questions to help a group of high school students evaluate their annual School giving project. Their responses are combined with my thoughts.

1. Who’s asked for it?

Are the things we give really needed, and even if they are not life necessities, have the recipients of our presents asked for it? Our giving comes from our hearts, but we also need to use our heads. The things we give should be something that has been identified by the person, family, or community as something they want in their life. We might think the toys, trinkets, and stuff we give is just fun—but it has a cost. Giving can help provide more opportunities, create a hospitable environment, and provide joy. It can also be destructive in little ways to people’s way of thinking and feeling about their worth and dignity.

2. What is the impact on the environment? 

Let’s be honest—often the “stuff” that we give is really junk. Giving justly means considering how we are contributing to waste and pollution. Ask yourself: Does it involve shipping things? How far and what impact does that have? Does it involve lots of single use plastic, and where will that end up? Will it be used more than once, or will it contribute to a vulnerable community's waste? What is the quality of the products, are they well made and sustainable, or will they easily break and be discarded? Our giving should be a gift to creation too!

3. Are we doing this so WE feel good or to really help and serve? 

This is a tricky one, but I think it’s really important we investigate our motives. We need to be thinking about the people behind the gift. If we are more interested in doing something that is easy and feels good to us, the giver, than being open to what is culturally appropriate and meaningful to the recipients, we’re not really giving justly.

4. Where’s the dollar going? 

Giving well means considering the whole economy that the gift either helps or hurts. By giving something that could be bought in that community or country, we are disrupting a local economy. Do we really want our gifts to risk putting a local business out of business? We need to want for other communities what we want for our own community—strong, vibrant, and diverse small businesses.

5. What messages do these gifts send? 

Without a relationship between the giver and receiver some mixed messages could be received. Is there pressure to think or act a certain way? Is the Christmas party or gift giving an evangelism tool? Which gets dicey. Think about it: Is attaching the message of Jesus to a cheap present really the transformation in lives we’re looking for? What is it really teaching our children about serving and giving? Joelle McNamara, founder of Badala, said this: “Generosity costs us something and it requires us to be mindful about what the recipient actually needs. The good Samaritan thought of EVERYTHING the man needed at great personal expense, and not only financially. It cost the time that the Levite and the Priest were unwilling to give and it took great humility.” Phew—that’s important!

6. What does this type of giving say about my faith and what does it say about God?

Ouch!! But seriously. We need to examine how our best of intentions actually contribute to greater injustice. If you’ve read When Helping Hurts, or Toxic Charity, it doesn't feel good at first. But let’s be honest—looking at the life of Jesus and living as Christ-followers, I think things like sacrificing, developing relationships, building trust, seeking justice, and living our faith rather than being mini-Santas is what he’s after. I strongly urge you to consider the cost your desire to do something “fun” for “a good cause” actually has in the world. 

Sol if I’m bursting your bubble, or crushing your inner Santa, I say with my biggest WISCONSIN accent, “I’m so sorry!” BUT there is hope!!

You have to believe that WE CAN DO SO MUCH BETTER! If we’re really about transformation, we should do better! So here’s 3 principles and some ideas to get you giving justly. (By the way, I’ve tried them! And I am always looking for more. Let me know your ideas.)

ACT LOCAL (the best way to understand what a community needs is to know the community).  And yes you can act LOCAL both globally and locally. I think your churches should do both!

  • Globally: The local principle applied globally means that we should give, but $$$ is best. And it is truly ok for kids to start learning that early! Give to an organization that works and lives in the local context and has long-term established relationships with people in the community. (See here for a great Giving Catalog from World Renew)

  • Locally: Get involved personally in a local organization. Doing good, right in your community means getting to know whom they serve and how you can be involved by volunteering and by giving. I assure you—they will have MANY ideas!  

I worked at a Christian PK-12 school that participated in your typical giving program. I decided it was time to shake things up and to ACT LOCAL. We asked organizations (locally and globally), “We are interested in partnering with you this Christmas, what would be most helpful to you and the participants of your community?” We bought cleaning and household supplies for refugee families (MS boys definitely like getting the toilet paper!) We provided single mom’s working to keep their kids with books and baby supplies. We gave homemade gifts of art to local seniors in nursing homes, and new games for a local community center. We asked people to share their stories of challenges and hope. Provide transportation costs or start a heating fund. Get creative! 

2. PRESENCE over PRESENTS (Relationships are way better than things).  Relationships will help inform you of real needs and real strengths. The elementary school I worked at decided to forgo the traditional gift-giving in place of visiting. Each class visited a local nursing home or adult day center to sing, play games, give cards, do a craft, and visit with residents. One class even created a 14 days of Christmas. Over three weeks, residents received a gift from a student (Turtle doves - 2 turtle candies, Silver rings - 5 silver kisses, Pipers piping - 11 piped cleaners) ended the 12th day by singing the song and a Christmas party where all the Seniors met their giver. Some of these students continued to visit with that senior over the course of a year! (Contact me if you want information.)

How could presence be acted out with distance this year? Christmas Carol at Seniors’ homes or put on a mini-concert outside of a nursing home (Audio Visual people needed!) Give Christmas ornaments, along with supplies and instructions for a family to make their own. Provide journals or writing supplies to a youth center, homeless shelter and ask the agency if you can share monitored stories back and forth with children your age.

3. GIFTEDNESS over GIFTS (When someone sees me I want them to see my strengths, When I see others, I want to see their gifts, their strengths, not their needs). The Church I worked for slowly transitioned away from the traditional giving (Thanksgiving baskets, Christmas giving tree, etc.) and decided to focus less on the giving and more on listening and learning. Our church was part of a coalition of community members and agencies. Together we hosted a Thanksgiving meal and a thanksgiving cooking class (all materials supplies) for families in a local housing development. It led to cooking classes with Cooking Matters ( including child care and youth activities. This led to an exercise class led by one of the moms, which led to a journaling class, which led to. . . you get the idea. Moving away from giving to sharing helped us discover and build on the strengths of the community and individuals. Our Christmas giving shifted from giving gifts to children, to giving gift cards so families could shop for their kids, to helping transport families for shopping, to setting up a Christmas shop run by the families we worked alongside. So much more empowering!

Again, how to do this virtually! Offer a Zoom cooking class for Thanksgiving or Christmas cooking or cookie making. Swap recipes in your community. Support your local businesses and purchase Thanksgiving/Christmas meals to be delivered to families. If you do put together food baskets AT LEAST make them culturally appropriate. Or create a tool lending library and check out tools to neighbors in your church’s community. You’ll probably discover some pretty handy people that just might be able to share some tips with you. If the weather’s not too bad, hold an outdoor neighborhood concert or exchange art made by local youth. You’ll discover the talent in your community. Host a neighborhood virtual yard sale—exchanging new and used items. 

I believe God primarily uses local people and relationships to bring the deepest and longest lasting change. By how we give and the organizations we support, we can demonstrate that the marginalized, the poor and the overlooked people of the world are most important to changing their own communities. By giving justly, we teach the next generation how to show mercy and give generously with dignity and justice towards God’s creatures and creation.

Zechariah 7:9 Here is what the Lord who rules over all said to his people. “Treat everyone with justice. Show mercy and tender concern to one another. 10 Do not take advantage of widows. Do not mistreat children whose fathers have died. Do not be mean to outsiders or poor people. Do not make evil plans against one another.”


Share away!! I think it could be a great conversation starter for Sunday Schools, Churches, Schools - helping us to think about how and why we give. And I'm always available to bounce ideas off of!


Thanks John!  So good to see your name. I'm planning on hosting a series of conversations/webinars starting early December about different "diaconal" topics including ways churches give/serve with justice, and DMC always has great stuff. Look for the information on The Network. You're right - we need to keep talking!

Jodi, thanks for this. Our church had been buying presents and distributing them to families for years. After reading When Helping Hurts, we decided that it would be more just and affirming for families needing some extra help at this time of year to purchase gift cards for local grocery and department stores. The deacons decide which families receive them and how much. The cards provide families with the opportunity to choose for themselves what they need most, and provide parents with the dignity to give gifts to their kids that the parents themselves chose. 

Great to hear Mark,the organization our Church supports has used the same idea for the past 15 years by giving people in our community food cards that can be redeemed at local grocery stores instead of having a food bank.We used to have The Christmas Place where people that were less fortunate could buy new donated toys at a reduced price.We always wanted to moving away from this idea to giving gift cards like Your program.Because of Covid we have finally made the switch to using gift cards.Our Deacons also used the book When Helping Hurts for study material at our Deacons meeting.

Yes Mark, thanks for that response. Gift cards are so much more empowering. The store when run by people from the community, became a community-led effort and community-focused, not church-led and church-centric. In whatever we do, how are we breaking down the server vs. served mentality? How are the things we do moving towards community-led efforts? Are we trying to control things? And why? We need to keep asking ourselves hard questions as we plan what on the surface seem like helpful things.

It seems like such a shame that for years organizations would run a "shoebox program" that is potentially harmful and then have it suddenly disappear once churches adopt these principles you lay out Jodi (which we fully endorse!!) - what impression does THAT leave with the children and parents in those countries? (Although I am sure many will still use that program so it won't disappear overnight, but you know what I mean.) I pray we/churches can own any unintended harm we may have caused in the past and pray God will turn all things for good somehow.

But ultimately, if churches can move toward this more holistic, helpful and sustainable way to support others in their city and beyond, this is a win!


Thanks Erin. I think that challenging ourselves and churches to think more about what truly changes communities and lives gives the impression that the church is in solidarity with those facing poverty.  I think it challenges those creating the easy projects to help their constituents engage poverty more justly and to take a longer term view.  I think it shows that rather imposing "our idea" of Christmas or helping ON people, we really want to listen and learn FROM them. Although I wasn't speaking in particular to "shoebox program", it is an example of something that I think needs to be examined a lot more closely. Found this quote helpful: "In the end, when churches and faith communities reconcile with the fact that engaging poverty will be extremely difficult and possibly not produce any immediate visible results.....they must finally be willing to leave their bubble, especially the one created projects like it. If they can leave that bubble....they can always find people and organizations that are truly engaging poverty and building relationships that empower communities in need." See article by Blake Tommey, Stuffing shoe boxes for the world's poor? Maybe you should reconsider, Baptist News Global) I think the impression it leaves is that we care more deeply when we take the time to challenge our ways of thinking. I want to keep learning.

I'm curious, Erin, what YOU think the impression of suddenly stopping a giveaway program would give to parents and children.

Through our North American lens, it might seem heartless and cruel. Taking away Christmas.

Through the recipient community lens, it may be a relief. Not having to figure out what to do with or how to pay for random boxes of things that may or may not be appropriate for the children in the community (and that often come in July, not Christmas); father not having to explain why someone in North America gives his kids things while he can’t.

One alternative is a global partnership such as those offered through World Renew. Perhaps they could send Christmas greetings to each other. In one of these church partnerships, the churches send letters to one another. These letters have been kept and read and reread over the years. During COVID, they have also attended each other’s church services online.

Perhaps they could take the money that would be spent at big box stores here and instead send it to the local church to provide a special holiday meal for the families in their community, allowing the local church to be the hero in their own story of transformation. Or, perhaps both the North American church and the church in the developing community could both do a community meal at similar times, sharing ideas and experiences for outreach and how to share the gospel in word and deed.  

The impression? Wow, our brothers and sisters in Christ value us.

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