Holistic Approaches to Development

Adapted from A Field Guide to Becoming Whole

Material poverty is complex and not reducible to a single cause. Healthy, sustainable poverty alleviation ministries need to address all five root causes of material poverty—individual brokenness, systemic brokenness, false stories of change, broken and destructive formative practices, and demonic forces. Over the last few weeks, we’ve looked at Ministry Design Principles that contribute to the kingdom community and to God’s story of change, and today we continue examining principles that equip us to replace destructive formative practices. We seek to evaluate and replace our existing practices in favor of those that empower and equip our communities.

Take a look at the next four principles and consider how your own ministry or church might begin to grow or make changes in these areas.

Ministry Design Principle 9: Learn from Existing “Best Practices.”

Because Jesus Christ is actively sustaining the entire creation, there is good all around us. In particular, God enables both believers and non-believers to use their gifts to take care of and to develop His creation. In this light, living faithfully as a member of God’s kingdom includes stewarding what He has already enabled others to discover about His kingdom.

For years, churches, missionaries, and ministries have plunged headlong into microfinance and other technical areas of development, using approaches that are likely to do more harm than good. When best-practice information is widely available, there is no excuse. At the same time, however, there are times when we need to modify (or to reject altogether) the best practices of our larger culture—different stories of change imply different sets of best practices. In short, we should “do our homework” before launching into new ministry endeavors.

Ministry Design Principle 10: Use Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development Appropriately.

Material poverty takes many forms, even if certain problems look similar on the surface—and this means different approaches are needed. Therefore, it is helpful to look at poverty alleviation in three broad categories:

  1. Relief can be defined as the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce suffering from a natural or man-made crisis. After a crisis, relief attempts to halt the freefall and to “stop the bleeding.” The key feature of this category is a provider-receiver dynamic with given assistance and given material. The individual or community in crisis is typically asked to contribute little or nothing toward the reduction of suffering.
  2. Rehabilitation begins as soon as the bleeding stops, and it seeks to restore people to the positive elements of their pre-crisis conditions. This category shifts into a dynamic of mutual action towards recovery.
  3. Development is a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved closer towards right relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. For able-bodied individuals experiencing material poverty, development includes finding employment to support themselves and their families. The key dynamic in development is promoting an empowering process in which all people involved become more of what God created them to be. Development is not done to people or for people but with people.

Material poverty is a complex problem, but here is a general rule of thumb that can be helpful in determining next steps: avoid paternalism, habitually doing things for people that they can do for themselves. Some types of paternalism to watch out for include resource paternalism, spiritual paternalism, knowledge paternalism, labor paternalism, and managerial paternalism. Ultimately, paternalism intermingled with relief undermines God’s story of change and hampers people’s development toward who God has designed all of us to be—priest-rulers who enjoy flourishing relationships with Him, with others, with ourselves, and with the rest of creation.

Ministry Design Principle 11: Start by Focusing on Assets, not Needs.

When considering poverty as a whole, we often first think about the lack of some material resource, which aligns our minds with a needs-based approach. This mindset tends to assume that resources, solutions, and initiative will not come primarily from those experiencing material poverty but from a given ministry.

In contrast, an asset-based approach walks alongside those experiencing material poverty, starting with the biblical truth that we all bear the image of Christ. Brokenness does not negate the fact that all people are image-bearers nor does it negate that we are called to steward our gifts, resources, and abilities. An asset-based approach does not ignore material needs; rather, it identifies, celebrates, and mobilizes. A ministry seeking to use an asset-based approach should provide material resources where appropriate and in such a way that builds upon the use of gifts, abilities, and resources. 

Ministry Design Principle 12: Use Participatory Rather than Blueprint Approaches.

Poverty alleviation efforts should avoid “blueprint” approaches that impose a predetermined plan on an individual experiencing material poverty, which robs them of ownership and dignity and of sustained change. Conversely, a participatory approach asks an individual what steps he or she believes should be taken to improve the situation. This way of thinking is consistent with biblical truth: as an image bearer, the person experiencing material poverty is called to be the primary steward of their insights and abilities.

Individuals are empowered to make decisions about the stewardship of their resources, to act upon their decisions, to evaluate the results of their decisions, and to repeat the process for the benefit of their own lives and of their communities. In this light, participation is not just a means to an end but, rather, the most important end.

Seeking Discernment

Determining the best approach in a given situation—relief, rehabilitation, or development—must be guided by the Holy Spirit. Ask yourself (and your ministry) this question: “If I take this action, will I contribute or detract from the long-term goal of empowering this person to serve as a priest-ruler, living in the right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation?”

Consider best practices, focus on assets, use a participatory approach, and ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom and discernment. Then, move forward humbly but without fear. Jesus Christ is actively present, and He will accomplish His purposes through us, sometimes even in spite of our mistakes.

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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