Developers and Planters UNITE!

by Justin Schneider on April 25, 2013

Many Christians living and working overseas can be put into two categories: church planters and community developers.  During my time overseas, I have primarily worked in the community development side but was introduced to serving abroad by church planters.

Perhaps some of you have noticed that at times it almost feels like there is a competition between the two sides.

“So many at my church have become followers of Christ.”

“Oh yeah.  Well, we’ve worked with a ton of communities who are now released from the grasp of circular poverty.”

As a believer in a gospel that is both physical and spiritual, I recognise how important both of these goals are.  But sometimes frustrations emerge.

I was sitting down with a couple who has spent their professional lives studying best practices and focusing on asset-based community development in Cambodia.  They explained how inept they felt when it came to church and doctrinal issues in their communities, so they often contacted friends in the church-expanding business.  However, they never understood why these same friends would start questionable development projects without engaging them or others in the community-service field.

Have you experienced the tension between church planting and community development?

Sometimes churches are planted and then service projects develop from a perceived need in the community.  One example can be found in Jinja, Uganda, where a church was planted.  In time, some of the members began discussing a micro-business concept, which turned into The Source Cafe, a western-style coffeehouse and internet cafe that specialized in providing job training and funding for the church and community needs.

Other times community projects begin with the main goal of alleviating the cycle of poverty.  During the process and through the testimony of the workers, a desire to plant a church grows and is born.  Some of my friends in Chiang Rai, Thailand are in that process right now.

What church planting/community development collaborations have you seen done well?  What have you seen done poorly?  Can we sacrifice best practice in the name of kingdom expansion?  Is there a right or wrong here?

And now for the unexpected turn of events:

After discussing this topic with a TCK friend of mine, she brought up a very interesting point: Why can’t we all just listen?

In her experience, the worst thing a missionary or aid worker can do is arrive in a place with the sole goal of announcing their arrival and espousing their ideas. The best thing they can do is arrive, willing to sit and listen and learn. Historically, and for obvious reasons, missionaries often take the former path, blazing trails in the short term but burning bridges in the long. It takes more time, and surrender of control, to take the latter path, but I think this path can lead to relationships that are authentic and that transform both communities and lives.

On which side of this fence do you sit?  Or is it perhaps better to straddle this issue?

Justin Schneider —  blog. twitter.

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  • What a wonderful article that asks very interesting questions relating to church-planting and community development. But, I wonder if it has be an “either or” situation. Must one do only church-planting work at the expense of dismissing community development or social justice? And, must one only do development and social justice work at the expense of making disciples? I think not. They go hand-in-hand. I too ascribe to a gospel that addresses both a spiritual and physical need. I once heard from a reputable source that people won’t want to listen to what you have to say about salvation unless they know you genuinely care about their present needs. How true this is especially working among an impoverished people group like the Gypsies of Albania.

    We ourselves are in the very process of looking at what it’s like to balance both a church-planting ministry along with developmental and social justice work. Our primary purpose for being here is church-planting. But, I believe disciples, and eventually churches, can be made through our showing of Christ’s love through development and social justice projects. For the past two years we have been only learners living here in Albania. Learning the native language of the Roma, their culture, their spiritual and physical needs all the while developing new relationships with them. As I see it, equal time can be shared in telling people about the Good News and abundant life through a faith in Jesus Christ, and involving ourselves in taking up the cause of the poor and the oppressive society they live in by advocating for them.

    This is the way I see Jesus doing ministry and the way that we as His disciples ought to be doing ministry. Meeting a physical and tangible need while at the same time sharing the truths of Jesus Christ. I believe evangelism should be done in both word and deed, never at the expense of the other. And, this is something both sides of ministry can get onboard with.

  • I think that in a perfect world, the two (development and planting) would be intrinsically linked in whatever combo/proportion/relationship best serves each unique place and situation. whether that linking is within the same person (and would have to be a pretty amazing person) or through the intentional building of well rounded, specific teams is not the point. i think that often, international workers in our situation are told someone is willing to come – and so we make a place and take whatever is offered without thinking through all of the ramifications. it is almost as though we are so desperate for help, we aren’t selective in our team growing practices. and i don’t necessarily have any clue as to the correct answer – maybe it will be unique for each team.

    and i think that ties a bit into your tck friend’s question. most people who come to do this job don’t see their job or ministry as listening – it is fixing and sacrificing and making things better and sharing what they know to help others… we forget to humble ourselves, come in as a willing servant and student. maybe that’s because we spent so much time and effort just getting here – now we want to get to the task at hand and we trample all over others in the process – local and expat colleagues or anyone else who tries to slow us down. until we learn to come in as Jesus… who literally spent most of 30 years first listening and growing is wisdom and stature with both God and men… not counting equality with the vet missos or development workers or national colleagues something to be grasped…

    great post, and thanks for fraising these questions, justin!

  • Interesting thoughts. I think evangelism and justice/development work have only been popularly understood as dichotomous in recent centuries. Personally, I identify as a Christian, but truthfully I’m not convinced that evangelism is inherently positive in the Kingdom of God (I also realize most Christian disagree and I might be wrong about this). I think Jesus’ building of the Kingdom was social, political, and cultural in nature. It was also spiritual and personal, yes, but not in the “make people homogenous so that someday we can go to heaven” kind of way. I think that’s a misunderstanding of salvation (even biblically).

    I guess my point is that it comes down to fundamental assumptions, such as “What is the Gospel” or “What is the goal of life” or “What is my human purpose”. I don’t think we can start any kind of international work without wrestling honesty and fiercely with these questions. The suggestion of “listening” may help put us on the right path too; it’s an unending process.

    More to the point of the post – every human being knows something I don’t. While that human being may or may not be an arrogant jerk (i.e. the church planter vs. disciple-maker), humility should cause me to challenge that person’s transformation by seeking the image of God in them that may or may not be difficult to see behind their external rubbish (and my own).

    • i’m curious to hear more about what you mean when you say that you aren’t convinced that evangelism is inherently positive… i totally agree with your statement that Jesus’ building of the kingdom was totally NOT about making “people homogeneous…”

      i also love the perspective that even the jerks have something to offer – and the one thing that i can control is my reaction/response and seeking to do so humbly, willing to learn from what any one else brings to the table, even if i find them offensive.

      • Hi Richelle, I realize I’m a little delayed in my response. My apologies.

        I think most people understand evangelism as formulaic (“invite Jesus into your heart to be your personal Savior”) and future-oriented (the goal is often getting people into heaven – and based on deep language and biblical studies, I’m not convinced this is what salvation is about, nor do I think popular perceptions of the afterlife are based on solid theology). So evangelism in the past few centuries has morph from this totalizing, all-encompassing act of redemption of all things (social systems, political power relationships, interpersonal relationships, ecology, economies, physical bodies, etc) – and it has become highly individualized and overspiritualized. We miss the power the gospel has when we do that.

  • I like your friends question, “why can’t we just listen?” Yes, to each other and even more critically, to God. I have been on several short term mission trips and I have seen those who struggle the most as the those who go into it with their own plans, agenda’s, expectations and idea’s and if they don’t go accordingly, there is frustration and often a “shutting down”. Pride. There is only one way to combat that ugly problem. To go into a project with a completely humbled, surrendered heart to the way God wants things to go. That entails much, much prayer. Before, during and after. I have witnessed God’s hand moving mightily when this is done…His way. Planning is important but expectations can kill success. Letting God lead the entire way will always produce beautiful fruit.

  • Kristy Sibley

    I have definitely been on both sides of those fence! I feel strongly that we cannot come into any culture (even our own if we’ve been hiding in church culture for years) with the attitude that we are the solution. I know that seems obvious but I think deep down a lot of my desires in the past to work internationally stemmed from wanting to save the world. But what does that really mean? What does it mean to really love people? I’m leery of evangelism with a physical service attached. I might be cynical and it really depends on the culture but I think Christians having any agenda, even as well meaning as evangelism can be, hurts the authenticity of showing love because we’re human and God’s work in us is to love each other without strings attached, not so I can change, fix or make you just like me. If someone wants to talk to me about my faith, I’m happy to listen to their story and ask them relevant questions, but if I’m building relationships or giving to others in hopes that we can get to the good part and talk about Jesus and salvation, I think we’ve missed the point.

  • Linda Funke

    I am working with the church on the community development side. Recently I was assigned the task of following up with the Village Savings and Loan Associations founded by the church a year ago (before my time). During those visits, I made a disturbing discovery. The church had trained individuals to go into these communities to teach how VSLAs work, therefore maximizing the impact. They used material similar to the VSLA training material of CARE International (it was a CARE International representative that taught our church how to start the program). Because of the similarity to CARE’s program and that the community’s connection was through an individual trained by church leaders, not church leaders themselves, none of the VSLAs I visited actually knew or remembered that it was the Lutheran Church who funded this program for them. Somehow the development work got completely separated from the gospel and mission of the church. I appreciated this article about keeping the two sides of the church connected. My question is how do we keep the two connected in a meaningful way without creating “rice Christians” or promoting prosperity gospel? What makes the church different than other community development groups like CARE International (who are honestly better funded and doing the work better)?

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