Why Community Development Should Matter to Every Mission Organization

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Last night I sat in the living room surrounded by seven college students. They squeezed onto the couch and two curled up on the floor, while I got out my laptop and a page of handwritten notes. They chatted as a few sipped coffee from small mugs and others scrolled through their phones eager to connect with wifi to their world back at home. When I started talking they respectfully put their phones face down, but always within reach. I didn’t say anything because my phone was no different.

This group of seven students are here for five weeks, our longest group of the year. We watched this 10-min documentary clip from the fabulous work coming out of the Chalmers Center. Then we discussed needs based development vs asset-based development. The previous week we had looked at poverty and why how we define poverty directly affects how we seek to alleviate it.

We (mainly white, western, North Americans) often talk about poverty in terms of lacking material things. And while those may be true observations, people who often live in poverty usually describe poverty first in terms of deep emotional and psychological terms. They feel like their voices don’t matter. They feel forgotten or mistreated. They feel useless and sometimes, alone. When any outside group (missionaries, international-aid workers, NGOs, etc) comes in and single-handedly tries to fix a problem we take away the dignity of very people we’re trying to help.  When we come into a community or a country, and only see what they’re lacking, that furthers the cycles of poverty. The “haves” becomes the dispensers of knowledge and resources and the “have-nots” remain the receivers. It’s a dangerous cycle that in the end does more harm than good.

Students nodded along, their eyes staring at the floor. One guy raised his hand, “So what do you think is a better way to help?”

I smiled, teachers always appreciate good questions.

I explained that asset based community development, flips this process around and asks, “What assets to people here have? What can they contribute to be part of the solution to their own problems? What systemic resources are missing? And how can I or this organization partner with them?

We went on to talk about how mission organizations should be using the best practices of long-term community development. Missions and development should go hand-in-hand. There has been a lot of research about best practices when it comes to community development work, both domestically and internationally. We should be asking the question why do missionaries and community development workers often remain in separate circles? 

I continued, “You can’t even begin to talk about missions, without understanding or studying the history of missions in the developing world.” Sometimes my husband says I can be too tough with my words and opinions, so I tried to proceed graciously and gently, as I shared with them what I have learned through reading, listening and living in Guatemala.

As a Christian, sometimes I think our first step is to acknowledge the horrific things that have been done in the name of the church; populations that been wiped out, people who have been enslaved and forced to give up their culture for the sake of conversion. The church and the whole missionary movement does not have a pretty past. Does that discount the wonderful things that have been done in the name of missions? Of course not. Hospitals have been built, women have been given access to safe places to give birth, kids have gotten education and lives have been changed through feeding centers and job programs. We can celebrate these kinds of programs, but that doesn’t negate the horrible wrongs that have been committed as well. And I think if you claim to follow Jesus, we have to humbly acknowledge both.

I asked if anyone had any questions. No one raised their hand. I took a deep breath. Ten years ago when I was first teaching in a high school classroom in Santa Barbara, quiet pauses would have made me nervous, but I know now it’s a helpful tool to allow students some time to think.

I just gave a lot of information for 20-year-olds to process.

I glanced down at my notes and then up at them. I remember well being a 20-year old at a Christian Liberal Arts College probably not too different from theirs. It was during that time, gosh, now twelve years ago, that my faith and entire-world view was challenged. I learned to think about things deeply and ask questions that I had never considered previously. I began to accept the complexity of history and its’ affects on modern culture. At my college we talked a lot about disagreeing civilly with one another and the great value in learning from and loving people who are not like you.

I finished our discussion by sharing a quote about hospitality. Shauna Niequist once defined hospitality as “when someone leaves your home feeling better about themselves than when they came.” And I said, I think the same could be said for good missions or development; when a Guatemalan leaves a program or a school or community meeting, feeling better about themselves and their unique gifts, than when they came. That’s hospitality. And that’s what I keep working toward, and that’s the message I want to keep sharing with our servant teams. Hospitality, is not just welcoming someone into your home. Hospitality is also how you treat them once they are there. 

I could tell they were thinking. I’ve been a teacher long enough to accept the process. Surely, some were thinking about what was going to be served for dinner or the ding of a text message they had just received, but I know others will keep thinking about the things we discussed.

These are some of my favorite moments with our servant teams, because I get to teach. And for me the best part about teaching is not imparting knowledge or challenging students’ current thinking. For me the best part about teaching is the relationship that develops. I am firm believer like most things in life, learning, growth and development are best lived out in the context of relationship.

P.S. If these topics interest you should check out Craig Greenfield’s post and his new book and watch the documentary, Poverty, Inc for some additional resources!

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2 thoughts on “Why Community Development Should Matter to Every Mission Organization

  1. Wow, Michelle. Your blog took a turn for the deep: beautifully and strongly so! Thank you that was hugely enlightening.

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