The local church: the Foundation for health development?

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I know I said I would start a series on a biblical understanding of health with my next posting but I wanted to explore the role of the church a bit further. I have been privileged to begin an exploration with my own local church as to what our “missions” strategy of the future will be. I used the Lausanne mantra as the foundation for our discussions: “The whole church, taking the whole gospel to the whole world.” Our second week discussion focused on the church (or Church) and we acknowledge that the true Church of God, His bride, those who are truly redeemed, is somewhat invisible. But that the local church, those who are meeting in buildings and calling themselves the church, can be seen quite readily still in the US though it is losing its power and influence. But as the local church we are still trying to figure out how we will go about working through other local churches globally.

Some years ago I (Mike) attended a fairly well known Christian conference (not in Louisville) and one of the main focuses was to be a discussion about working through the local church when doing “development” work. There was the normal level of excitement as the attendees became situated and the short time of sharing by the expert began. I think it safe to say that a good argument was made that the local church, no matter its level of maturity, is the means by which God has chosen to work in this world. The facilitator at our table did a good job of getting our table engaged in the discussion but something was missing. No one explained actually how they have been able to adhere to this policy in their own work globally. Most everyone agreed it was the right way to go about carrying out our individual and organizational calling but I wanted to hear how people were doing it effectively. No one came forward to give us such details. After the conference there was an attempt to put together a “best practices” working group to tackle this topic but it never went anywhere.

This blog is about sharing principles we have all learned so that our zeal to do good will be matched with an equal level of knowledge of how best to do it without mucking things up and leaving things worse off than before we started. So is working through the local church, when it exists, really a good strategy? Or is the local church just too messed up to even consider it as the main focus of our health development efforts?

First I hope we can all agree that yes the church is the earthly means by which the Lord has chosen to continue the spread of the good news which Jesus initiated with His ministry and which His disciples and then His Church carried on with various levels of success since then. DeYoung and Gilbert in their excellent work “What is the Mission of the Church” point out that the “keys of the kingdom of God-the authority of that kingdom, the right to act in its name-are given in this age, by the King, to the church! …. to this ragtag bunch of argumentative, self-centered, struggling-for-holiness but gloriously forgiven sinners.” In Ephesians 3:10 Paul explains that the mystery of the gospel was revealed so that “through the church the complicated, many sided wisdom of God in all its infinite variety and innumerable aspects might now be made known to the angelic rulers and authorities (principalities and powers) in the heavenly sphere.” DeYoung and Gilbert continue “The life of the kingdom of God-a life of poverty of spirit, meekness, mercy, purity and peace (shalom)-will be manifested to the world in the church…. and as the world sees and responds to that kingdom life, the church will not only manifest the kingdom, but also bear witness to it.”

Secondly, if we accept the first point as being true, then what are the strategies that we have found that work best to make this happen effectively? If you are working for a Christian college/university and want to give your students the best experience for learning how effective wholistic/integral transformational health development ministry can happen how do you partner with the local church where you are sending your students? If you are a local church in the west wanting to practice biblical principles in working in other cultures how do you partner with small indigenous churches in other parts of the world? How do large or even small Christian NGO’s make this work? These are some question we must answer:

  1. how does one go about finding a “healthy” local church with whom to work? or does it have to be defined as being healthy?
  2. should we focus on working through local church or pastor’s associations instead of just one single church? if you partner with a specific local church I can tell you that you will immediately lose the participation of many in the community because they belong to a different church which probably exists because of infighting among members who used to be friends.
  3. if we find a local church with whom to develop a relationship and hopefully a long term transformational project then what do we use as our guiding principles for developing that relationship/partnership? Can’t we just shake hands and say let’s go for it and let the Spirit lead?
  4. what if there is NO local church but you are instead seeking to reach an unreached people group? How do “work through the local church” in this scenario?
  5. how do you develop the partnership without creating unhealthy dependency? (or we could say unhealthy co-dependency – if you know what I mean)
  6. how do we help to strengthen the local church in whatever form it exists? should this be our highest priority?

When I talk to groups about development I do encourage working through the local church if possible. I use the illustration of a large Greek temple. The roof of the temple is the local community in which the church exists. The pillars that support the roof are what we like to focus on because that’s where we can show results: these are the pillars of justice, economy, healthcare, education, the environment, and we could throw in agriculture. But the huge foundation of it all is the local church! If we are developing programs, no matter how important, but are ignoring the local church and what we could be doing to strengthen local churches then we are not doing our best. Local pastors of poor rural and urban churches are thirsting for more knowledge as to how effectively shepherd their flocks.

I recently became aware of a wonderful effort by TearFund to address this issue. Check it out here. I am waiting to get approval to post to the CenterforHIM website a paper written by one of their country reps. More later. PLEASE GIVE FEEDBACK with methods you have seen which have worked with regards to this theme.