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Community development: The gospel’s public works

The old axiom that it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish is one of the great principles of missionary work. This timeworn but often-proven expression is valid for the whole aspect of community development ministry.

Development is a relatively new venture for Assemblies of God World Missions. Evangelism and training of pastors have been our front-line mission, with development historically a secondary means of reaching people. While evangelism and leadership training remain at the forefront of our endeavors, we have found development reaches into communities in need and creates opportunities to serve in Jesus’ name and introduce people to the Savior. In many countries of the world this is a primary way to penetrate with the gospel and show the love of Christ in a comprehensive, integrated approach.

We create tools to help people develop not only individual pursuits of livelihood but also a community outreach, using the local church as the center of activity. On its own, community development really doesn’t accomplish much, since the same societal issues that hinder governments — selfishness, corruption and waste — must still be addressed. But when the church is at the heart of development, projects move ahead on a moral foundation that affects people spiritually as well as materially.

To be successful, any development outreach must include the components of regeneration and redemption. Development alone leads to the same black hole of self-centered overuse to which so many other programs have succumbed. Conversely, development established at the heart of the church and led by a pastor and Christian social workers has long-lasting influence. Such outreach presents the gospel to people in a concrete way by showing what the gospel can do in service to the community.

Development requires long-term commitment — in most cases a lifelong calling. Serving a needy community requires more than a “flash in the pan” visit. Too many organizations come to a remote area and start something they can’t finish. This can be worse than not starting at all. It presents a bad testimony to the community, and the credibility of the whole process is put in jeopardy. To effectively serve in development requires consulting with people who have made it their life mission, studying the measures they have taken and learning from their mistakes.

As with any aspect of the Church’s mission, those involved in development ministry must be led of the Spirit. To know God is leading the process and supplying the needs, both in finances and personnel, is just as important as sensing divine direction while standing behind a pulpit or teaching a Bible school class.

The gospel by its own principles lifts people out of the poverty and dire circumstances so many nations of this world suffer. It brings about disciplines and practices that ensure a development program based not only on finance but also the moral guidelines necessary for long-term change and improvement. For example, when a person comes to Christ, money once spent on drinking, tobacco, gambling or other vices can be invested in the welfare of the family and community. When individual life changes are multiplied across a community, the true value of a gospel-based development process becomes clear.

Pervading the entire process is hope. Without hope, it matters little what short-term help people receive; the door remains open to corruption and expediency. The gospel’s gift of hope allows people to live in a manner pleasing to God and beneficial to the community. The hope Jesus Christ brings to our lives transforms what happens in a community. Whether that hope comes through help with clean water, education, micro-enterprise financing or disaster relief, its spiritually transforming reality validates our physical assistance.


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