Christmas, Mailbag

The Mailbag: Should My Church Participate in Operation Christmas Child’s Shoebox Ministry?

I lead the children’s ministry in our small rural church, and for years our children have participated in the Operation Christmas Child shoebox “ministry.” It has come to my attention that this program may be quite ineffective in spreading the gospel. In fact, I have read that many missionaries refuse the boxes because it causes such chaos and confusion. I would like recommendations of legitimate world mission organizations [we could donate to instead] that would allow our children to look past our sheltered life here to what God is doing in other parts of His creation.

Wait…what? Christmas? It’s only September!

Yep. Christmas will be here sooner than you think, and your church staff and committees are probably already planning for it. And if your church usually participates in Operation Christmas Child (OCC) but might decide to do something different this year because of the information in this article, they’re going to need some time to get their ducks in a row.

Operation Christmas Child is a ministry of (Franklin Graham’s) Samaritan’s Purse organization, an evangelistic “international relief” outreach. Each fall, churches across the U.S. encourage their members to fill an OCC shoebox with small gifts and hygiene items. OCC collects the boxes, tucks in a gospel booklet, and delivers the boxes to children in various locations around the world. At an OCC shoebox distribution event, an OCC representative shares the gospel with the assembled children and then distributes a box to each child.

There are two separate questions in this reader’s e-mail:

  • Should my church participate in Operation Christmas Child?
  • What are some other good international ministries my church could participate in instead?

Should I/my church participate in Operation Christmas Child?

I want to clarify this question a little bit. I understand what the reader who sent this e-mail means when she mentions missionaries reporting “chaos and confusion” resulting from shoebox distribution, because prior to receiving her e-mail, I had already been reading reports (maybe the same ones she read) of exactly the same thing.

The issue is not that Samaritan’s Purse is doctrinally unsound, or that there’s some sort of false doctrine being included in the shoeboxes or being preached by OCC staffers at shoebox distributions. Although I may not necessarily agree with every point of theology Samaritan’s Purse subscribes to, as far as I know, they are basically doctrinally sound, as are their materials and gospel presentations. The main issue the reader is asking about is whether or not the shoebox distributions are the most efficient, effective, and biblical way to share the gospel and undergird missionary efforts.

So the question is not whether or not participating in OCC is overtly sinful. The questions are: Is this the wisest way to steward our church’s resources – could we get more gospel bang for our buck another way? Is this a biblical model for sharing the gospel? Do shoebox distributions cause problems for missionaries and the communities they serve in?

And for the answers to those questions, I would encourage every church and individual considering participating in OCC to read all of the information at the OCC website and compare what you read to these missionaries’ first hand accounts¹ of how shoebox distributions were handled and how the distributions impacted their work and communities. Then, prayerfully consider whether or not you or your church should participate.

“What happens when the life-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ
is associated with dollar-store trinkets from America?”

“In some places, we haven’t been well-received because the missionaries who went there before us presented gifts….and we have no gifts. When those missionaries left, their ‘converts’ also returned back to their old faith and were waiting for the next gift presenters.”

Opening Up Christmas Shoeboxes: What Do They Look Like On the Other Side?
Sometimes the Starfish Story Doesn’t Work
These articles (the second is a follow up to the first) are both by Amy Medina.


“When Saddam Hussein was terrorizing the Kurds…an American was in Baghdad meeting with the Minister of Health. The minister abruptly said “I have to go – do you want to come with me? I have to do something for our leader’s birthday.” The American goes with him. They go to a warehouse in Baghdad, and there sit piles and piles of Samaritan’s purse Christmas Shoe Boxes. The Minister of Health is supervising minions to deliver all of them to the Children’s Hospital as gifts from Uncle Saddam for his birthday….a bunch of Iraqi kids got wonderful gifts from Saddam by way of Franklin Graham at Samaritan’s Purse.”

13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about the Stuff You Give Poor Kids by Rachel Pieh Jones


…the Operation Christmas Child boxes had reached the warehouse in Ndola and…the Mansa churches needed to come up with eight kwacha per box for 5,000 boxes to receive their shipment. That’s $4,000USD…comments from the pastors ranged from, “We don’t have this kind of money,” to, “Aren’t these boxes supposed to be free?” to, “Next year, let’s just refuse the boxes all together!”

boxing up expectations: reflections on OCC and the church by Bethany Colvin

What are some other good international ministries I/my church could participate in instead?

Whether you’re looking for a ministry to donate to or a way to tangibly serve others, the first thing I would recommend is that you ask your pastor what the needs are in your own church (remember, we serve the needs of our own church members first before serving others). It’s not biblical to overlook the needs of the brother or sister down the pew from you in favor of strangers half a world away.

If everyone in your church is taken care of, your pastor may be able to suggest a local or international ministry that could use your help. Many churches donate directly to various individual missionaries and local and international ministries, and I think you should support your church and its leadership by donating to the ministries they have chosen before looking for other ministries to donate to.

Some of the articles linked above include information on alternatives to OCC.

My suggestion would be to give what people need the most: God’s Word:

Bible League International

Gideons International

Pocket Testament League

Whichever ministry you choose to serve or donate to, make sure to vet its theology, and make sure they are sharing the gospel along with whatever relief or goods they are providing.

Addendum: After the original publication of this article, most of the feedback I received was thoughtful and positive. However, I was shocked at the number of nasty, enraged comments and e-mails I received – from professing Christians, mind you – that seemed to elevate participation in OCC to an idolatrous level. What you prayerfully decide to do about participating in OCC is between you and God, but if you are angered by the information in this article to the point that you strike out at me or one of the missionaries who has simply stated her honest experience with OCC, you need to check your heart against Scripture. You are idolizing OCC over loving your brothers and sisters in Christ, and you’re acting in a way unbecoming of a professing Christian.

If you are considering responding to this article with nastiness or rage, please save yourself some time and don’t bother. I will not publish comments like that anywhere on my blog or social media, and I will immediately delete (without reading, and certainly without responding) any such emails.

OCC Shoeboxes: Answering the Arguments

¹These specific articles are provided for their attestation to experiences with OCC, only. I do not endorse any of them which deviate from Scripture or my theology as outlined in the “Welcome” and “Statement of Faith” tabs in the blue menu bar at the top of this page.

If you have a question about: a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or contact me. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.

17 thoughts on “The Mailbag: Should My Church Participate in Operation Christmas Child’s Shoebox Ministry?”

  1. Thank you for presenting this commentary AND the back-up sources. For years, our church has been participating in OCC, and several of us have said that it is a waste of our resources, especially when there are many fine local ministries (such as our homeless shelter and the local crisis pregnancy center) that desperately need our continuing support. In addition, several people in our community say they “send a shoebox” every Christmas and that’s their “Gospel outreach” instead of witnessing. Nope, that’s their woobie blanket to cover up a refusal to share the Gospel.


  2. Thank you sister Michelle for this very timely article and links. My daughter was just telling me about some of the things you blogged about.


  3. I have been wanting to donate to this organization this year. I’ve prayed about it and the money we had expected to have for it ended up going to an unexpected medical expense.
    I saw our church will be participating this year and I was excited! I was thinking God may be reminding me to get involved.
    I think I need to pray more on it. I don’t think coincidence s happen. Usually if something keeps coming back etc. it’s a God thing.


  4. Unfortunately, this same concept of “gift-wrapping the gospel” is also how we approach evangelism right here at home. We are so afraid that the saving message won’t attract crowds, so we wrap it up in barbecues, Halloween candy, carnivals, and other goodies that we think will attract people. Then when we think we’ve snagged them, we club them over the head with the message of Life. But we forget that this message is foolishness to the world, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. I appreciate your call to meet the needs in our own church families first. After all, Jesus said that this was how “all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  John 13:35. Now I need to pray for courage to share this information.


  5. Regarding your statement above [“Although I may not necessarily agree with every point of theology Samaritan’s Purse subscribes to, as far as I know,…], have you detected something in their theology that I haven’t noticed? I contribute to them & haven’t discerned anything amiss, unless I’m missing something. I would certainly appreciate knowing & understand if that was just a disclaimer…of course you may email me personally if you prefer not to post this. Thanks.


  6. Thanks Michelle and the original asker of the question. We supported the ministry a few years running to teach our kids generosity and now I feel horrible I didn’t do my research. Great opportunity to teach the kids to do their own research too and not everything is as useful/wonderful as it appears! We will be focussing on our own congregation/community this year. Thanks for the reminder!


  7. In Sri Lanka too I have heard of confusion. many look for the gift. some who recieve the boxes to be distributed have asked for money apparently to pay customs duty. some have opened the boxes and removed items considered “valuable” for themselves and given the rest of the stuff in boxes to the “poor recipients”!! If it is effective then I have not recieved ant “testimonies” . only ones being the testimony of people who will natuarally be pleased to recieve something free!! Gospel impact?? minimal I suppose, from the “testimonies”!!


  8. We offer many ministries in which people can choose to participate, as they are led, from local to international. I have witnessed OCC shoebox distributions in Haiti. Many children would not be able to go to school unless they had clothes, shoes, school supplies, and items from shoeboxes. The boxes are used well in very impoverished areas to show tangibly our “love of Christ in a shoebox” with a letter of love and Bible verse. These children may never receive a gift, and struggle daily to survive, thus the joy from these shoebox gifts. The follow up Bible lessons and gift of a Bible are another key, then local pastors continue the training and evangelizing in various ways. Yes, this article presents one perspective, and there are many others to consider. Please provide balanced perspectives that affirm our diverse callings to different ministry options.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Please provide a Scripture reference or references for the idea we are to take care of our local church needs before contributing to causes overseas.


  10. Our missionary friends in Peru and Zambia have found these shoeboxes to be incredibly effective in sharing the Gospel as they allow them to meet new people who they are ultimately able to not only share the Gospel with, but even disciple. It is sad that in some places they are not distributed in a way that follows the guidelines Samaritan’s Purse has set in place. Personally, I will continue to pack and send them because I have heard way too many firsthand accounts where they have been highly effective in helping to share the Gospel and ultimately reach entire families with the Good News of Jesus, and even in building relationships with families who continue coming to church regularly after the distribution event. But I will definitely pray fervently that every box I pack is guarded from any wrongdoing. It’s sad that a few bad experiences would discourage anyone from the eternal good that can come from a simple shoebox. So I will continue to pack and pray and fully trust God with the rest.


  11. Thank you for this article. I am familiar with the Shoebox project as a church I formerly attended is very involved in this program in our city every year. I appreciate your information, your viewpoint, and the linked articles. I am also familiar with the book on missionary work, When Helping Hurts, and I would definitely recommend it. Thanks again, Michelle.


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