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01 September 2007



Across the developing world, local churches are transforming and changing their communities, working with development agencies to bring about long-term improvements in their areas. Hazel Southam finds out how...

What's your view of aid agencies?

If you imagine pith-helmeted Brits in safari gear wandering into the African bush with food under one arm and a Bible under the other, you'd be wrong.

Today, much of the aid work carried out in developing countries is done through and with the local church. You're about as likely to find a man in a pith helmet as you are a sunny day at the Wimbledon tennis championships.

So why do Christian development agencies work through local churches abroad, and just how effective a strategy is it?

You know something's worth doing when the biggest development agencies change their strategies. This summer, Tearfund, the sixth largest development agency in the UK, active in 60 countries, established plans that will see it working through 100,000 local churches around the world.

Its aim is to see 50 million people released from what it calls "material and spiritual poverty" over the next 10 years. That means that alongside holding Sunday services, local churches will help those suffering from HIV/Aids, provide water and sanitation needs for communities, help reduce the impact of climate change, and campaign about economic injustice.

It sounds like a big task. But Matthew Frost, Tearfund's chief executive, is adamant that this is the way forward. "Working with the local church is about as important as it gets," he says. "It's the heart of our approach to tackling poverty and injustice."

"Wherever I've travelled, the most amazing work has had a church plumb in the middle of it"

Frost believes that poverty and injustice are to do with broken relationships with God, as well as with others in the community and with creation. "If we want to try to tackle the economic and physical symptoms of poverty, we have to tackle them in a holistic way, or we'll never fix it," he says. "The only way we can do that is alongside, with and through a local community of people who are passionate about the issue of tackling injustice and have deep compassion for people in poverty. Wherever I've travelled in the world, the most amazing work has had a church plumb in the middle of it."

According to Andy Clasper, executive director of Micah Challenge UK, this is because the local church has the best links into all sectors of the community around it and is therefore able to identify where the needs lie and what they are.

"The advantage of the church is that it is a network that reaches out into the very heart of the community and so it can help, inform and direct development projects," he says. "It helps people to empower them to meet their own needs and see transformation. We applaud this model.

Bring them together

Of course, aid and long-term development work weren't always carried out through the local church. Frost is quick to admit that mission, development and church activities have for too long been kept separate both in practice in developing nations and in the work of external organisations. That means that in our local churches at home in the UK, we can see them as separate entities too. That's not healthy, and has to change, he says.

"What has happened in the past is that we've had missionary organisations focusing on proclamation, development organisations working in a different way and the local church watching on," he says. "What we need to do is bring them together to help support and equip local churches that are reaching out into the communities."

What happens when you do this? In the village of Makhai in Uganda, local churches have been drawn together by Food for the Hungry International to help promote and improve education.

Makhai's primary school had never been refurbished since it was built in the 1930s, its staff was demoralised, and children simply weren't attending classes. Worse, because of a strong local belief in witchcraft, it was widely thought that the village's children would never get on well at school because of a dog's head that was buried nearby to scare away development workers.

The churches worked to build up relationships between themselves, the school and parents. The parents made bricks, built a toilet, a school office and finally new classrooms. Food for the Hungry provided everything from cement and paint to skilled labour. Today, Makhai has 13 classrooms, nine of which were built by the community and the other four by the local government. There are 12 teachers, a library and a church.

David Mubooki, former treasurer of the school says, "Makhai was really terrible and unheard of, but today it is a role-model school in our area. It has become a signpost for travellers and passers by. We have unity of purpose. We now work together for the development of our children, unlike in the past."

But Food for the Hungry International didn't always work like this. "We realised that we had left the local church out," says Executive Officer Doug Wakeling. "So a new vision was born. It's about the kingdom of God transforming everything within it. We are talking about far more than physical things. We are talking about the Church becoming God's instrument on earth.

"Previously, our goals would be expressed in terms of the number of wells dug and children at school. Now it's expressed in terms of, 'Is the community progressing? Is the church reaching out? Are leaders solving problems? Are family members caring for each other?' It's less tangible, but more sustainable."

Up to the job

But is working through local churches effective? Don't you have a problem of wellmeaning amateurs who simply aren't up to the job of delivering health care for Aids sufferers or preparing their community for floods?

"When the community works on something some pray, some help practically and others talk to local people"

"The problem of well-meaning amateurs doesn't arise in Africa," says Wakeling, "because we are asking the communities to pray about what they should be doing. It might be reaching people with Aids, the vulnerable or the elderly. When the community works on something some pray, some help practically and others talk to local people about what's going on."

Bible Society is more upfront about the need to overcome the problems of working with unskilled nonprofessionals. The organisation works in 140 countries, entirely through the local church. Training and support are key to ensuring that things go well, says Ian McKay, Bible Society's international director.

Over two years, Bible Society worked with local churches in the planning and execution of a scheme in Greater Manchester this summer, which posed seven riddles from the Bible for the local community to guess. The winner received £7,000 for a church, school or charity in the area.

"We were encouraging and enabling them to see things in a broader context than they would have done otherwise," says McKay. "Some things were fantastic and others were perhaps not quite in the vision, but they all made a step forward and were encouraged by the campaign. For us to be critical of how they did it would be wrong. It wasn't our campaign, it was theirs."

Doug Wakeling recalls returning from seeing an inspirational project in Africa, where much was going well through the auspices of the local church. But he saw a water tank placed in the middle of a field, far away from where it was needed, and indeed from where water was running off buildings.

"I wondered why they couldn't sort that out," he says. "But they are still in the mindset of thinking that they can do nothing, so it takes time for creativity to come. I thought I'd send them a picture of my water butt and tell them that seems to work well," he laughs.

All of this poses challenges for the churches that we attend in Britain. If our compatriots in the developing world are solving serious community problems, then could and shouldn't we be doing something similar here?

The local church in the UK has lost its way, says World Vision Chief Executive Charles Badenoch, and been replaced by "the voices of rock stars and the rich and famous, who are holding politicians to account on the promises they have made to eradicate global poverty".

He adds, "This perceived lack of direction is one of the saddest indictments of a church, increasingly in danger of being seen as self-obsessed and insular, rather than an effective battalion on the frontline of the war against poverty."

Tearfund's Matthew Frost is less emphatic, but believes that the work being carried out by churches in the developing world is "a challenge" to churches in the UK. "We talk about how the Church in the North has got to serve the Church in the South," he says. "It's the other way round. We have so much to learn about the Church in the South, which is doing so many extraordinary things in the name of holistic mission and meeting the holistic needs of their communities - spiritually, relationally and physically. It's deeply humbling."

For more information about the Alliance members mentioned in this article...

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