Real Churches, Real Change
In working for more than 20 years to address the broken relationships that contribute to material poverty, the Chalmers team has learned many lessons. Few have had quite the impact on the work that we and our partners do around the world than these:
- This is the Lord’s work. When we remember that, we start to see a host of ways He is bringing hope and healing to those suffering under material poverty that are beyond our capacity to “ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). This doesn’t mean we don’t work hard, give sacrificially, and strive to follow the best practices for development. Indeed, this is why we exist as an organization! It does mean, though, that every aspect of this work is bathed in prayer, and that we are always prepared to be surprised by the ordinary and extraordinary ways God shows up every day.
- Local churches are the key places God has established for this work of reconciliation to be carried out. This doesn’t mean that individuals don’t matter, or that nonprofits, NGOs, and other institutions can’t be greatly used by God as part of His unfolding plan. It does mean that the local church is the place where God dwells with His people in a special way (1 Cor. 3:16-17). Our corporate participation in a community of worship, love, forgiveness, grace, and laughter there is an anticipation, a real taste of God’s future restoration of all things, breaking forth into the present.
- People have been created by God with dignity and worth, bearing His image, and called to serve Him as priests and rulers. This applies to every person, no matter how rich or how poor. When we carry this framework into our poverty alleviation efforts, we learn that even the most materially poor people on the planet are able to use their God-given abilities and assets to contribute to profound change in their lives and communities.
God Uses Savings Groups to Change Lives
Church-centered microfinance brings these three lessons to bear in powerful ways. Through the Chalmers Center’s Restore: Savings curriculum and our network of trainers and partners, thousands of local churches in the Majority World have been equipped to launch savings groups.
Essentially, these groups function as tiny, community-based “credit unions.” In a typical savings group:
- 10 to 20 people meet regularly to save money.
- Group members name their group, elect their own leaders (president, treasurer, etc.) from within the group, and create their own rules, such as how much they will save at each meeting.
- If they wish, savings groups can give out loans to members from their combined savings. The group decides the service fee for loans that is the best for them. Loans must be repaid before the end of a savings cycle—the time period agreed upon by the group to operate the group.
- At the end of the savings cycle, the money saved by members along with money earned through service fees is distributed back to the savings group members so they can pay for the important things they need.
- The group might then start another cycle, add new members, or split off into multiple groups
To demonstrate some of the possibilities of this ministry, let us share a few stories from Chalmers’ work in West Africa. In several countries in this region, The Chalmers Center’s network of trainers equip volunteers from materially poor churches to be church facilitators for Restore: Savings and to start savings groups as a ministry of their local congregation.
From Savings to Business in Burkina Faso
In Southwestern Burkina Faso, Pastor Jacques Compaoré from the Assemblies of God denomination there has trained several pastors in the denomination to be church facilitators for savings groups.
In addition to starting savings groups in their churches, 10 of these church leaders have gathered themselves in a saving group. After one savings cycle they decided to use their savings to buy some land. They were able to purchase 2 hectares, and decided to begin farming fish there.
After a while, the local government discovered that there was a group of men doing fish farming in their region. The government had been looking for people who had been doing this kind of project, and decided to partner with these leaders to help their farm project grow so that other people in that area could come and learn the business from them. So far they are growing slowly, and have been working on putting in a well to provide cleaner water to make their fish healthier.
Savings Groups and the Gospel
Pastor Jacques also shares about a church facilitator and lead trainer, Emmanuel Mahamoudou Zongo, who is also a teacher. This man has started a saving group in his local church and they went through 4 savings cycles together.
One day, one of his colleagues, a primary school teacher in another village visited him. His colleague said, “Some people in our village sent me to you because we heard that you are doing something wonderful in your church. We want to learn from you and also try to apply the same thing in our community. Please come!”
So the church facilitator went to that village to start a savings group there. At the beginning he said to them, “I know that you are not a Christian, but I have to go through the curriculum and you have to listen well to my teachings and I will have to read the Bible and to pray with you, since that is part of the training.” And they all agreed, and the group was able to get underway. Pastor Jacques reports that, by the end of the first cycle of the savings group, 4 members have given their lives to Christ through this ministry!
Savings Groups Allowing People to Stay Connected During COVID-19
In May 2018, one of our trainers, Pastor Olive TOKI, trained a group of church facilitators in Akpare–a village located in Central Togo. By the beginning of June that year, a church facilitator named Koulahome had already formed a savings group that the group named “Unity.”
The group had continued operating smoothly until early 2020. At that time, as in many parts of the world, the government of Togo announced restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As a result, Pastor Olive could no longer travel to coach Koulahome, and he could not gather the savings group members to meet together.
Koulahome didn’t know what to do. Without meetings, the savings group could fall apart, and the very poor members would not be able to access the savings and loans that are vital to their survival—even more so in a time of general economic crisis. In addition, the savings group members were afraid because nothing like this had never happened in their village. They lacked information about COVID-19, so they were not sure what to do.
With generous financial support from a partner foundation, the Chalmers Center quickly developed a communication strategy to help the trainers, the church facilitators, and the savings group members to stay connected via cell phones. This strategy enabled Pastor Olive to call Koulahome, who also called all the members of the Unity savings group. As a result of those calls, the group members decided to continue their savings and loan repayments. As they could not gather to meet as a group, Koulahome planned a time when each member could come and save or pay back their loan in front of the group leadership. The group was able to stay afloat during the crisis, and the members gathered in June 2020 to get their end-of-cycle payouts and to celebrate what God had done, while practicing social distancing as they’d been taught.
Too Many Stories to tell
Savings groups have impacts in many big and small ways. Here are a few more short testimonies just from the same region of Togo mentioned above. Savings group participants shared these via text message with Chalmers’ Director of West Africa Operations:
- Abotsi Déla, a savings group member, says, “The group has helped me to buy a machine to make tofu from soya beans. My tofu business has grown since I got that machine.”
- Dzegba Komi, an evangelist from a Pentecostal church, says “the saving group program helped us to start an annex church (another parish).”
- Grace, a church facilitator, says, “the saving group I formed has helped two members to buy their own motorbikes.”
- Mr. Mensah, a church facilitator, says, “our group has grown corn in Séve Kpota and the yield was good. When people from a closer village were victims of a fire, we were able to assist them with one sack of corn (about 70 kilograms).”
We could share more and more stories, but the common thread through all of them is the Lord’s faithfulness. In church after church, God is taking the mustard seeds of people’s savings and growing them into a harvest of hope in the midst of deep poverty. We praise God for allowing our organization to be a part of this work, and we are so thankful for the financial and prayer support of so many that make this work possible. May God continue to bless this work for the advancement of His kingdom and the glory of His name.