How Giving Christmas Gifts to Under-Resourced Families Could Be Hurting Them

And the One Change That Could Make a Huge Difference

Let’s get one thing straight: Christmas is about the gifts.

Ask any child what Christmas means to them and they’ll tell it to you straight. But ask an adult the same question and you’re likely to hear things like family and friends, cherished traditions,  and making new memories. Some of the more intentional among us might even say Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. And all of these responses are true. They’re just not true enough.

Make no mistake, Christmas and gift-giving are deeply connected. As well they should be. Christmas is about remembering the Savior who was not just born, but was given to us. And we celebrate this gift by reflecting divine generosity through our own gift-giving. So yes, Christmas is all about the Gift and the gifts.

But what does that mean for those who do not have the resources to provide gifts for their loved ones? And what are the implications for those individuals and churches who want to help?

One church has been wrestling with that very issue. Church at Charlotte has a long history of engaging the community at Christmas. In the past, one of their main initiatives involved distributing free gifts to families in need. These gifts would be purchased and donated by the congregation, matched with a family, wrapped ahead of time, and delivered on or before Christmas Day. But over time, they began to wonder if their efforts to help might actually be causing harm.

Can No-Strings-Attached Generosity be More Harmful Than Helpful?

Bob Lupton (author of Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life and Toxic Charity) has written about this very thing. Though well-intentioned, this kind of no-strings-attached generosity can actually foster an atmosphere of dependence. What is more, it diminishes the dignity of the parents. As “saviors” show up with bags full of gifts, parents are exposed for their inability to provide—right in front of their kids. And then they watch as their children open pre-wrapped presents, having no idea what they are giving to their children. They are passive observers, completely cut out of the process.

Church at Charlotte saw this problem for what it was and they sought to address it head-on. Starting in 2011, they decided to host a Christmas store in partnership with an income-based housing development located 2.5 miles from their church campus. Congregants would still donate gifts, but rather than giving these gifts away for free, they would be available for residents to purchase at a fraction of the retail cost. The proceeds from the sale would then be reinvested back into the community.

A New Approach to Generosity and Dignity

This new approach accomplishes the original goal of providing Christmas gifts for under-resources families, but it also gives parents the gift of dignity. They were given the dignity of choice, selecting gifts that they knew their kids would love. They were given the dignity of hospitality, as they shopped with a warm cup of freshly brewed coffee. They were given the dignity of contribution, paying for the gifts out of their own resources. They were given the dignity of responsibility as they wrapped their new purchases at the gift wrap station. And on Christmas day they were given the dignity of joy, knowing they had provided for their family. They were no longer passive observers, but active participants in the process.

In the years that followed, other churches in the Charlotte Metro area have adopted a similar model. There is now a group of churches who partner together each year to host the Christmas Village Toy Store, with three store locations hosted by various churches across the city. Each partner church collects gifts, distributes invitations, and recruits volunteers to help run the store. In addition to these volunteers, some Christmas Village Toy Stores hire staff from the community they are seeking to serve. This not only helps facilitate the store, but also further instills a sense of dignity and further invests in the local economy.   

The website describes their mission as follows:

The Christmas Village Toy Store merges benevolence with a free market system that preserves dignity. A free market enterprise allows buyers and sellers to conduct a value exchange. In our culture we traditionally view benevolence as a one-way value exchange: benefactors give and the poor receive. Ironically, this runs counter to the Christian idea that “it is better to give than to receive.”

…[T]he Toy Store provides both the buyer and the seller with an opportunity to give and receive value. Benefactors from the community who donate toys and volunteer their time, and shoppers who purchase toys both contribute to store profits that are reinvested into the local community. Therefore, even the recipients of the charity are “paying it forward” into their own community.

At Christmas, we celebrate the ultimate gift given to humankind: a deliverer who came not only to save us from our sins, but to restore us to the fullness of the image of God. Far too often, our benevolence efforts can focus on the first (saving souls) at the expense of the second (restoring human dignity). Perhaps the greatest gift you could give this Christmas is not a pre-wrapped present, but the open-handed offer of unmitigated dignity.  

Topics: Christian Life, Church and Ministry, City Engagement, Generosity, Mission & Outreach

About the Author

Dave Huber serves as director of leadership development at Made to Flourish.  He received his Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is ordained by the Evangelical Free Church of America.