The Basics of Christian Community Development - Part 1

Doing Community Development Work is In Our DNA 

The church has historically been at the forefront of community development work. It was Jesus and his disciples who preached a radical new equality for society.  It was the early church that was famous for its love in action, both for those within the church and those outside of it.  Throughout history the church has built hospitals, looked after the poor, helped widows and orphans survive and make a living, was leading the fight for civil rights and has provided jobs through social enterprise. 

The Christian church takes a holistic view of community.  In other words, that the people in communities are both physical and spiritual beings and should be treated as such.  It is our view that it is not simply enough to address one or the other, but rather we should seek to better our communities in both realms, the spiritual and the physical.  While many of us would like to think that our responsibility for the surrounding community is simply spiritual in nature, Jesus showed us on numerous occasions that how we respond to the physical needs around us are of high importance.

While this holistic approach may seem common sense to some, as a church we have largely moved away from this practice.  With the rise of public services, many of us who follow Jesus have abnegated our responsibility for the well-being of the community that surrounds us. Also, as many of us have been insulated from true poverty for most of our lives, and as such it is more and more difficult for us to relate to those in need.  After all, we have what we need. Why can't others just work harder and get what they need?

The truth is that, in many communities, the basic building blocks for personal and professional development are simply not there. While we can point to some exceptional individuals who have risen out of poverty to become successful, we have to ask ourselves why this is not the norm? The other question we have to ask ourselves is "What is the churches responsibility for its community?” and “What should be our response?”

As a primer for Christian community development, we should look at a few key points to remember.  The first issue we need to deal with is the root cause of poverty in communities. While there are several possible causes, and each community is different, there are some common themes and issues in underdeveloped communities around the world.

1.    Why Are Communities Poor?

Indeed there are many acute causes of poverty like war, natural disasters, famine, drought, etc.  In these situations the church’s response should always be to help provide for the immediate needs of those affected.  Poverty in traditionally poor communities, however, is normally fueled by ongoing factors that inhibit the individual's ability to become successful.  These factors are both systemic in nature and chronic.  

Major factors leading to poverty in communities include (but not limited to):

  • Lack of skills and knowledge
  • Poor health
  • Lack of opportunity
  • Lack of resources

          Ref: http://www.gdrc.org/sustdev/causes-poverty.html

it is true that not every middle class caucasian is a racist, we also can't deny the fact that many of these poverty factors are due to historical and ongoing inequality, injustice and prejudice.  If the church is going to be serious about addressing poverty in communities, then it also must be honest about the causes and the part it has played in promoting those up to this point. Doing so can go a long way in the church’s ability to actually deal with real issues, and not just those on the surface as seen from our viewpoint.

So why are communities poor?  The first step in community development is to discover the answers for your particular community. Only then can you address real issues that can build up your surrounding community and not just continue to put Band-Aids on the symptoms.  

2.    The Church’s First Response

“They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”  When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”  (Neh 1:3-4 NIV)

The first response of the church when faced with the reality of broken communities should be the same as that of Nehemiah.  We should actually feel something when we realize how broken and under-resourced our communities truly are.  It is not enough to talk clinically about statistics, however, we must be moved to action through our God given compassion. Nehemiah sat down and wept when he saw the broken down gates of Jerusalem, but he didn’t just stay there.  Nehemiah fasting and prayed seeking God’s help for his community.  

An emotional response to the reality of poverty in our community also shouldn’t lead us to knee-jerk reaction just to feel better.  As followers of Christ, we must first seek His will and His help, knowing that Jesus is the only source of all goodness and hope for a better community.

So What Next?

So if we believe that the church should take responsibility for the well-being of it's surrounding community, that there are identifiable causes for brokenness and poverty in community, and that we should seek God on behalf of our communities, what do we do next? 

LINC's Overriding Philosophy

Grassroots Community Development:

Why we operate the way we do at LINC

Many years ago our organization began with a unique approach to ministry.  Instead of continuing to import leadership and resources into communities, we made it our priority to identify and empower local leadership.  This is our approach both in church planting and community development.  We believe that all communities have assets and resources that God can use to grow His Kingdom and improve people's lives.

The Apostle Paul, in his third missionary journey, invested time and energy in people from the local communities where he worked.  When he got to a city, he didn't immediately call for professional leaders to move there and lead the ministry.  Instead, he equipped local leaders to form new communities and carry out the mission of the church in that place.  So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily (Acts 19:20).

This doesn't mean that outside help isn't sometimes needed.  Training, tools, access to resources, knowledge, and skills are all valuable contributions that partners can make from the outside of a community.  The difference in the approach is one of empowerment versus dependency, or asset-based versus needs-based.  An asset-based approach seeks to train and equip individuals to eventually solve their own problems.  In contrast, a needs-based approach perpetually does for and gives to communities in need.

What communities need are individuals committed to building them up through their resources of time, energy and skill.  There are a lot of reasons that people give for not investing in low-income communities.  Many of these reasons are based on long-held stereotypes, past experience, lack of understanding or just misinformation.  Whatever the reason, one thing is for sure,  people often don't act because they don't know where to start.  We suggest that, instead of looking for people to go give things to, compassionate individuals should develop meaningful partnerships with local leaders already in place.

How does LINC do this work?

First of all, we empower local leaders in a community (usually through a local mission church) to identify and meet the needs of their own community.  Leaders in a community are more likely to know what the real needs are.  They are also more likely to know who is truly in need and who is not.

Second, we train local leaders how to impact a wider group.  One of the benefits of local leadership is that they are known and trusted by the community.  They often have dreams of doing something greater in their community, but have access to a limited supply of resources.  We spend a lot of time training local leaders how to obtain, develop, manage and utilize more resources to build up their communities.

Third, we maintain a partnering relationship, but also purposely get out of the way so that local groups can eventually grow without the need for outside help.

Fourth, we connect leadership from one community to train and empower leaders from another community.  This creates an interdependent network of communities and allows local leaders to grow by becoming a resource to others.

How Can You Help?

If you are a well-resourced individual, there is a great need for what you have to offer.  It may surprise you how a different approach to missions and community work can multiply your resources instead of simply transferring them to another community. 

- Mark

First Step in Loving The Poor - Notice Them

A family returns home with bags of items from a local community service center.Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me." Mark 14:7. As everything else in the Bible, this verse needs to be read in context to interpret correctly. Jesus was in no way downplaying the importance of helping the poor. He was reacting to the wrongheaded indignance of those who saw the woman "waste" money by pouring perfume on his feet and worshipping him.

They used the poor as a convenient reason for her not to worship Him in this way.

The woman's display of gratitude and affection made them extremely uncomfortable and they wanted to appear holy while still critizing her actions. I've seen good people use the poor as the reason for not doing lots of things that God is calling them to. Jesus basically tells them, "if serving the poor is so important to you, there is plenty of opportunity for YOU to do that." I'm pretty sure that these individuals weren't already spending a lot of time serving the poor.

Here's what I take away from this story:

  1. My worship of Jesus should at times be extravegant. It should cost me something (money, dignity, etc)
  2. I should never let religion get in the way of how God calls me to serve Him right now.
  3. There are people in need all around me, and I have a daily opportunity to love and serve them. I should recognize this and seek ways to do so.

The problem is that we often don't even recognize the poor among us. Their needs become invisible to us because we can't relate.

This excert from an Economist article helps tell the story of America's poverty.

WHEN Barack Obama first ran for president, Emma Hamilton was part of that politically crucial cohort, the white working class. A tall woman with tawny hair, broad shoulders, a firm handshake and a forthright, direct manner, Ms Hamilton worked as a loader at a factory in Sumter, a modest city of 40,000 in east-central South Carolina. In July 2008, however, after seven years on the factory floor, she mangled her hand between two heavy rollers. The accident was to leave her unable to work.

She lost her house three years later, in April 2011. She, her 20-year-old son and her dog moved into her teal Chevy van, where they have been living ever since, collecting metal cans during the day and sleeping in a grocery-store car park at night.

Most of us would meet this woman today and probably make assumptions about her character.  It's difficult to relate to someone who has literally lost everything due to an accident and is now homeless.

In a poll by the Salvation Army, it was confirmed that many Americans don't understand poverty.

Almost three out of five people surveyed said poverty is a trap some people just can’t escape no matter how hard they try while more than half believes it’s not possible to eliminate poverty in our society. About a third said there is “really nothing much I can do to help poor people.

The reality is that most Western Christians share the same views on poverty as non-Christians.  Jesus saw past the outward appearance of people and the stigma that society put on them (poor, sinner, drunk, prostitute, insane, sick).  He saw human beings made in the image of Himself, and he touched them.

HOW TO RECOGNIZE POVERTY AROUND YOU

(taken from a document from UK's Children's Workforce Development Council)

  • Malnutrition/poor health.
  • Lack of adequate clothing.
  • Lack of training or qualifications.
  • Lack of adequate housing.
  • Lack of childcare.
  • Unemployment.
  • Poor access to transport.
  • Being in receipt of benefits.
  • Not having a bank account.
  • Spending more than 10% of income on energy bills or not being able to afford household bills (fuel poverty).
  • Being in receipt of free school meals.
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs.
  • Being in rent or mortgage arrears or debt.

While the above aren't all exclusive to the poor, they are good indicators that someone is living without adequate resources.

What are some common indicators of poverty that you have observed?

What have you done about poverty when you've recognized it?

Mercy Without Justice

Few people would argue with the need to help those who can’t help themselves. You may have a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality or you may believe that not everyone has the same opportunities to be successful and should be supported through various means until they can support themselves. Regardless of your viewpoint, there is a difference in showing mercy to someone and working for justice.

As a follower of Jesus, I am compelled to show compassion to those who are suffering and hurting. It really doesn’t matter if their suffering comes from their own actions or from someone else’s. Jesus showed compassion to sinners even though they weren’t worthy to receive it. So many times, we look for someone who we feel is worthy of our help because it makes us feel better. We want to know their story and know that our aid went to someone who really deserved or needed it.

Micah 6:8 says that we should “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before your God.” The issue of showing mercy without mentioning justice is a really sore spot for me. Basically, it’s like helping people out of a pit, and then leaving that pit open so that they falling into it again. There are reasons for poverty and suffering that go beyond one’s personal ambition or responsibility. There are social norms, laws and systems that make it nearly impossible for some to get out of their bad situation. In some communities, those forces working against the individual are so pervasive that when they take one step forward, they get knocked back three steps. Poverty, health, crime and low-quality education and lack of opportunity all add up to stack the deck against whole communities.

As people of faith, when we either fail to recognize these issues or refuse to address them, are we really showing mercy? It is uncomfortable when we begin to realize that the very social system that we benefit from actually harms others. What action are we supposed to take when our eyes are opened to this reality?

Doing justice is not only doing what is right, but also working to make things right. We can’t solve every problem and issue, but there are things collectively that we can do that will make a difference for the underprivileged in our society.

Mercy is good, but not enough. God also loves justice. Do we?