Several years ago, a friend shared an interesting story with me about a community development organization in his area, an area with a great deal of poverty and unemployment, but also an area where many people of means choose as a place to retire. The newcomers saw the needs in the community and organized a program to meet them, but in setting up their board they did not invite any long term local residents as directors. They feared that these indigenous people really did not know what was needed to respond to local needs. Of course, my friend noted, who knew the issues better than those who were forced to live with them each day of their lives?
In missions and ministry, Christians have often adopted a paternalistic mindset characterized by a belief that those of us who are the “professionals” and have been doing this longer know what the uninitiated or immature believers need. Fortunately, many mission and ministry strategists are starting to see the need to make those who are the “field” part of the team. The insights and ownership of those who are part of the culture are essential to advancing the cause—winning converts, establishing churches, building houses, improving food production, or providing basic needs.
In the community development area, we see this approach in asset-based mapping or asset-based community development. This methodology seeks to discover and utilize the strengths within communities as a means for sustainable development. As one writer outlines this, “The first step in the process of community development is to assess the resources of a community through a capacity inventory or through another process of talking to the residents to determine what types of skills and experience are available. The next step is to support communities, to discover what they care enough about to act. The final step is to determine how citizens can act together to achieve those goals."
In church development, this is the type approach championed by Neil Cole in practice and in books like Organic Church. The basic idea is to start a new work from scratch, seeking out the “persons of peace” or influence in an area, investing time in them, challenging them to conversion and discipleship, thus winning over those who are part of the culture and are already strategically placed to reach others.
The key concept in both cases is to realize that God is already at work among all people. God has created every person with certain gifts and talents. If properly encouraged, these individuals will take responsibility to improve their circumstances, share the faith, or make a difference in their culture. This approach requires patience, discernment, and love, but it provides the biggest pay-off in people’s lives.