Faithful Presence: Why “Hanging Out” Is Vital to Long-Term Development

Adapted from When Helping Hurts, 75-79.

Defining poverty alleviation as the reconciliation of people’s four key relationships with God, self, others, and creation shapes the methods our churches or ministries should use to achieve that goal, with major implications for how we choose, design, implement, and evaluate our efforts. 

Because every one of us is suffering from brokenness in our foundational relationships, all of us need “poverty alleviation,” just in different ways. A middle-class or wealthy person’s relationship to people who are materially poor should be one in which everyone recognizes that all of us are broken and need the blessing of reconciliation. 

Our perspective should be less about how we are going to “fix” one another and more about how we can walk together, asking God to fix both of us.

Think about it. If poverty alleviation is about reconciling relationships, then we do not have the power to alleviate poverty in anyone, regardless of their level of income, education, or social capital. It is not something that we can manufacture through better techniques, improved methods, or better planning, for reconciliation is ultimately an act of God. Poverty alleviation occurs when the power of Christ’s resurrection reconciles our key relationships through the transformation of both individual lives and local, national, and international systems.

People and Processes, Not Projects and Products

The goal is to see people restored to being what God created them to be: people who understand that they are created in the image of God with the gifts, abilities, and capacity to make decisions and to effect change in the world around them; people who steward their lives, communities, resources, and relationships in order to bring glory to God. These things tend to happen in highly relational, process-focused ministries more than in impersonal, product-focused organizations.

Many years ago, when researching a ministry in the struggling urban core of a major American city, Chalmers’ founder and president Brian Fikkert was hoping to understand the formula for their success. This ministry—in the midst of a community with high rates of drug abuse, single parenting, gang violence, unemployment, and crumbling buildings and infrastructure—had developed a suite of housing, health care, education, arts, and job-placement programs and redeveloped hundreds of decaying homes into an urban oasis for the people in the community.

Brian said that all his questions focused on how to start and operate all their programs: “How do you manage your ministry? What are the costs of each program? How do you raise the money? Who is on your board? Where can I read the operations manuals? How did you find the housing contractors?”

The founders of the ministry patiently answered his questions, but they kept trying to redirect his thoughts away from money and programs toward something else—learning the agenda of the community and to living on the terms set by their neighbors. For the first few years of their presence in the community, they didn’t “do ministry” but formed foundational relationships through “hanging out,” maintaining a faithful presence in the community and sharing life together.

Only once they had worked patiently to gain the trust and support of the community were they able to launch transformational programs to meet the urgent needs of the people they longed to serve.

Imagine going to a donor and asking for funds to transform a city through “hanging out”! Yes, buildings, programs, budgets, and boards would eventually come, but all of those were established upon a process that was intentionally highly relational from its inception. As the ministry founders developed friendships with the long-standing residents, they all began to dream together about what could be done to improve the community. 

Once the residents identified housing as a key need, the ministry organized a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity to rehabilitate abandoned homes. Four years after they first moved into the community, they completed their first home restoration. If the goal was to build a house, this was not a very impressive program.

One of the hallmarks of this ministry’s long-term success is that the founders no longer run the programs. Instead, it has continued to thrive under the leadership of community members, low-income people who were empowered by a relational process that focused on reconciling their foundational relationships instead of on implementing projects to produce products.

Moving Forward

What the story of this ministry illustrates so well is the vital importance of doing ministry together with all the stakeholders involved, not a group of well-resourced people doing things for those they perceive to be in need of their help.

How can we avoid the pitfalls of prescriptive, “blueprint” ministry efforts that undermine local people’s dignity, autonomy, and dreams? 

  • Think about your church’s ministries and mission efforts. Are they about people and processes or about projects and products? List some specific actions you could take to improve these initiatives.
  • Remember to listen well before trying any new ministries to make sure you’re hearing from everyone involved. Test your assumptions by what you learn, not the other way around.
  • Be willing to spend a lot more time than you think is necessary to build trust and demonstrate your commitment to the community you hope to serve. Remember that the relationships you are forging aren’t just a means to the “real work” of ministry, but are a crucial part of the work itself.
The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center helps God’s people rethink poverty and respond with practical biblical principles so that all are restored to flourishing.

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