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?