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?