We are happy to post, in four installments, a paper by our Disciple Nations Alliance colleague, Dwight Vogt, on a subject of vital concern to our readers. Go here to read Dwight’s excellent paper in its entirety.
The Unique Role of the Local Church in Developing a Flourishing Community
This paper is addressed to those who have a heart to bring hope and healing to broken communities and believe that the local church has an important role to play in this endeavor. It is particularly aimed at those who work cross-culturally to alleviate chronic poverty and bring development change to communities.
This paper is written to encourage us to take a step back and ask, “What is the unique strength and role of the local church in helping its community to develop and flourish?” And also, “How can we best equip and support the local church in fulfilling its strategic role?”
[Continued from parts 1, 2 and 3.]
It is important that the church participate in development efforts initiated by community leaders or others, but there is something particularly energizing and impactful when followers of Christ initiate actions on their own with their own resources to help their neighbors and community develop and flourish.
For one Christian husband and wife in northern Uganda, this meant committing on their own to pay the school fees for the daughter of a nearby widow so she could go to school and develop her mind and gifts.
No change occurs without someone initiating or taking action. But to initiate means to take a risk—it takes courage. This is why God told Joshua several times to be strong and courageous as he led the people of Israel into the promised land. This command applies to all those who follow Christ. God calls the church and its members to initiate acts of love and activities that will help develop their community. This does not mean the pastor or a church member needs to be the community leader. Often, you can initiate by being the first to support a good idea and the first to offer to carry it out.
However, not everything is done through a community effort. One of the best-known stories Jesus ever told was that of the Good Samaritan. It is the story of a man who sees the need of another and acts on it. As followers of Christ and members of the local church, we are called as individuals and collectively to initiate a response with our own time and resources to help others overcome difficulties and develop.
How can the outside visiting church team, Christian development organization or wholistic mission help a local church to initiate? Too often this partnership is characterized by the outside group doing something for the local church or having the local church participate in and support efforts designed or developed by the outsider. Careful thought needs to be given as to how to help the local church take the risk to obey God’s call and initiate a response of their own design, with their own resources, on their own time, and in their own way to help others and promote development in their own community.
Recently, I visited some churches and communities in Africa where no development agency or mission was involved. The only outside influence was several months of training for some of the local churches in the four areas mentioned above, delivered by trainers who lived in the area themselves. Church members told me about their activities in the community. One church had launched a new savings and credit scheme. Another member started a small business. A group of women rented land and collectively farmed it to provide a widow’s fund. Another church built a home for a widow and started a new poultry project.
On their own initiative, they had envisioned these activities, planned and organized them, found the technical resources, and identified and applied the expertise. Not surprisingly, they were doing all these activities with no outside financial resources.
They clearly had a new vision for their role in the development of the community. They were participating in its development by promoting truth and new ideas that fostered development, taking risks, and initiating with their own resources and time.
Interestingly, the result they talked most about was a new sense of unity as churches and members of the community worked together and shared in the training.
These were all things they could have done five years ago. Why not then? Why now? From what they shared it was because they had a new understanding of God’s purposes for the life of their community and their own lives. They also had a new understanding of their role as a church. These new understandings made the difference. To use a previous term, they had new metaphysical capital on which to build and act.
Will this new way of thinking and living last? Is such change sustainable? In the case of the Watoto Church of Kampala, Uganda, it has lasted. The nature and function of this church is still impacted by training received 12 years ago. The result then was a changed paradigm—and changed paradigms last as they are a change in worldview and all the implications that flow from it.
What are we to do?
If this is the unique role of the local church in helping its community to develop and flourish, then what are we to do to help them? How can we best equip and support the local church in fulfilling each of these four critical roles?
What are we doing to help the local church and its members to:
- Carry vision? To understand and bring God’s vision for development to the community and its people; to discern what it means for God’s kingdom to come, his will to be done, in their personal lives and in their community; to see their community through God’s lenses and purposes; to be the stewards of God’s vision for the thriving and flourishing of their community? How are we helping the church members know and carry this vision through their personal lives and daily work into every sphere of community life?
- Promote truth and confront lies? To see and understand the underlying worldview-level truth that creates the conditions for flourishing lives and communities and to counter the underlying worldview-level deceptions that lead to brokenness, suffering, and all forms of poverty. How are we helping the church members promote truth and confront lies?
- Participate with others? To be the first to join and support the good ideas and good work initiated by others that contribute to the development of the community and its people. How are we helping the church members participate with others in the development of their community?
- Initiate? To see an unmet need or opportunity and initiate a response with their own resources, in their own way, on their own time-frame that will help others flourish as God intends and bring positive change to their community. How are we helping the church members initiate in this way?
May God help us in these amazing and challenging times to continue to think critically about how we can best serve him for the benefit of those he loves.
- Dwight Vogt
Dwight Vogt serves as the vice president of international programs. Before coming to the DNA, he worked for 27 years at Food for the Hungry, including field-based leadership roles in Bangladesh, Peru, Thailand and Guatemala. Dwight is the author of Footings for Children: Imparting a Biblical Worldview So They Can Thrive. He earned his master’s degree in intercultural studies and missiology from Biola University. He has three adult children and lives with his wife, Deborah, in Phoenix, Arizona.