For twenty-six years I evaluated community development programs in Africa and Asia for a Christian organization. I came to believe that all Christians everywhere should understand community development from a biblical perspective. Why? Because loving God and neighbor with all your heart, soul, mind and strength involves community development at some level.
Development of community includes a broad range of perspectives simply because there are different types and levels of community. Reflect on the similarities and differences in these examples: the scientific community, a community of nuns, rural and urban communities, local church congregation, European Community, community of believers.
“Community” refers to groups that range in size from two or three persons (“whenever two or three are gathered in My name”) to neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, nations, clusters of nations, even the population of the world. There are two primary senses of community: a group of people in some geographical area, or a group in which members experience fellowship as they relate to each other around a common interest.
Community development practices vary according to the relative interest in goods and services available in a geographic location, or the sense of fellowship, the desired features of relationships among individuals and groups. I believe that community development from a Christian perspective in a particular location should be focused on creating and nurturing individual relationships with God and interpersonal relationships based on love. It should be focused on increasing awareness of the dynamics of sin and grace in the location, and equipping people to confront sin as they allow God’s merciful grace to flow through them. This is the focus as activities are planned and implemented to improve the economy; provide better shelter, health and nutrition, education; and have justice prevail. The focus of Christian community development is transformation as revealed by God in Scripture and the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus.
Alvarez, Avarientos and McAlpine (1999, p. 57) described transformational development in two succinct paragraphs. Consult their article for additional commentary on shalom and ways of overcoming harmful understandings of development.
Transformational development is an expression of the mission of shalom [“sustainable peace” or “harmony within diversity”]. It is the act of responding positively to God’s call to be partners with God in rebuilding the kingdom. Transformational development seeks to respond to the needs of the poor in a holistic manner. It seeks to follow Christ in the way he went about doing his ministry, encompassing the physical, spiritual, social, and cultural dimensions of personal and societal life. It hopes and works for change in people toward the ideal of the kingdom of God as demonstrated by improved relationships with God, self, others, and the environment.
The strategies and approaches of transformational development affirm the dignity and worth of people as created in the image of God. People and communities are challenged to define their own vision, and manage and own the development process as planners, implementers, evaluators and change agents themselves. Recognizing that the roots of poverty are complex, transformational development nonetheless seeks to enhance people’s awareness and ability to free themselves from the cultural, social and spiritual bondage that causes them to remain in poverty, oppression and unjust relationships. The manner by which this will be done will be consistent with the character and activity of a loving and just God. It will be redemptive, nonviolent and seek reconciliation. Poverty is not simply an economic imbalance but also oppression by principalities and powers holding the poor captive. Not only must interventions employed be technically appropriate, sustainable and of high quality, but we should also rely on committed Christian staff, prayer, Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Consider how you participate in your different communities. Does your engagement encourage transformation? Is God calling you to become more intentional about your community participation so that God can work through you to transform individuals and society as God’s kingdom emerges?
Pause and Reflect:
Consider how you participate in your different communities.
- How does your engagement encourage transformation?
- Is God calling you to become more intentional about your community participation so that God can work through you to transform individuals and society as God’s kingdom emerges?
- Make notes in a journal, or discuss with others.
– Frank Cookingham
Alvarez, Joy; Avarientos, Elnora; and McAlpine, Thomas H. 1999. “Our experience with the Bible and transformational development.” In Myers, Bryant L. (editor). Working with the Poor: New Insights and Learnings from Development Practitioners. World Vision. Pages 56-77.
Christian Community Development Association, http://www.ccda.org/
The Association was established in 1989 through the leadership of John Perkins and like-minded colleagues. “Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) is a network of Christians committed to seeing people and communities wholistically restored. We believe that God wants to restore us not only to right relationship with Himself but also with our own true selves, our families and our communities. Not just spiritually, but emotionally, physically, economically, and socially. Not by offering mercy alone, but by undergirding mercy with justice.
To this end, we follow Jesus’s example of reconciliation. We go where the brokenness is. We live among the people in some of America’s neediest neighborhoods. We become one with our neighbors until there is no longer an “us” and “them” but only a “we.” And, in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, “we work and pray for the well-being of our city [or neighborhood],” trusting that if the entire community does well and prospers, then we will prosper also.
Those of us who orient our lives around this practice we call Christian Community Development (CCD) Practitioners. As Practitioners, we often commit to living in an under-resourced neighborhood for a minimum of 10 years. This is obviously no easy task. But we believe that true and lasting change takes time and requires real relationships. We think this approach is pretty unique.
Community Development Society, http://www.comm-dev.org/
The Community Development Society provides leadership to professionals and citizens across the spectrum of community development. Members have multiple opportunities to learn what’s new in the profession, to exchange ideas, to obtain the most current research and reference information available and to share professional expertise.
The Society publishes a peer reviewed journal, Community Development. “CD Practice” is a web-based publication of the Society that presents innovative approaches, tools, and techniques that can be readily applied by community development practitioners.
Blog on evaluating community development projects as a Christian first, evaluator second. There is material on the blog about the features of transformational development.
Marshall, Paul with Lela Gilbert. 1998. Heaven Is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God’s Creation. Word Publishing.
Overview of spiritual orientation for living as God’s people in God’s world.
Myers, Bryant L. (editor). 2011 (revised and expanded edition). Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Orbis Books.
Comprehensive text on holistic community development.