In the second half of chapter 11 of When Helping Hurts, the authors give some practical advice for effectively partnering with communities in the majority world. We love their suggestions. We asked our friend Celeste Brown de Mercado to add her perspective as well, since she was part of a team that facilitated church-community partnerships in Bolivia with Food for the Hungry.
The thought of doing more harm than good nearly paralyzed me when I first moved to the developing world. It’s a risk that must be taken into consideration. And yet, God’s call to relationship originally drew me to Bolivia (though I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time). Being faithful to His call changed how I see the world and my relationship with God. The risk, put into God’s hands, became something beautiful. It also allowed me to witness wonderful partnerships between the church and the most vulnerable.
We were created to be in relationship. The richness of life is experienced in and through our relationships. God designed us this way—to be in relationship with Himself, ourselves, creation and with others. Whether it is a relationship with a loving parent, a best friend, a thoughtful neighbor, a kind store clerk or a polite stranger, there is joy to be found in interaction with others. And while this is true for us as individuals, it’s particularly true for the communities that we are a part of.
Think of the first disciples. How different would their lives (and the history of the church!) have been if they only had individual relationships with Christ and were not drawn to be in relationship with one another? No doubt forming a community as disciples made them more effective. As a community of believers, the disciples were tasked to preach, heal and give (Matthew 10:5–8) to a greater community, Israel, and eventually the world. This serves as a model for the church, that is also tasked to serve communities, both near and far.
There is a richness to be found when a group of believers, say a Western church, effectively partner with poor communities, the most vulnerable. And while relationships—the backbone to partnerships—are a blessing, they are also complicated and can become downright messy. Learning to understand each other and meet one another’s needs is a process.
There are many ways to respond to God’s brazen call to be His ambassadors. It is oh-so-easy to enter a relationship with a know-it-all or I-am-here-to-save-you mentality. Just like in our relationships with other individuals, this posture is destructive in partnerships. I have seen church partners arrive to a developing community with ‘the’ solution to the community’s problem, only to leave a wake of new problems that are more complex and more challenging.
The partnerships that succeed most are those where individuals relinquish their preset agendas and embrace what the partner actually has to offer. This is particularly true when churches partner with communities of the most vulnerable. Management of expectations is paramount to having the relationship not only survive, but thrive. Preset agendas by the church tend to create expectations in the community that can thwart growth, not only in the relationship, but in the community’s development as well.
I have seen people so filled with compassion for the most vulnerable that they brought conviction to my heart and tears to my eyes. I have seen churches understand the importance of relationships more than a project and mentally shift (over a number of years) from giving handouts to giving hope. I have seen church members rejoice because they’ve successfully helped their partner community overcome poverty and yet brokenhearted because it’s time for their partnership to end.
I have seen the most vulnerable waiting with baited breath to receive their North American brothers and sisters. I have seen the most vulnerable part with wealth in the form of sheep to express love and appreciation. And I have never seen a visitor depart without having received food specially prepared by their host.
How can a church engage in a meaningful partnership? These are the common characteristics I’ve seen among successful partnerships:
- The lead pastor humbly participates in the relationship and is a key advocate.
- Teams embrace what naturally unfolds in the relationship and relinquish preset agendas.
- Both the church and community acknowledge that the partnership is between two (or more) broken entities, made up of broken people.
- All seek to have Christ, not the church, shine.
The disciples had to learn to die to themselves to advance the kingdom. And though their faith physically cost them their lives, dying to self in church/community partnerships is just as crucial. Will you die to yourself in favor of an amazing partnership with the most vulnerable? Remember, these partnerships aren’t really about the church or the most vulnerable. In the end, they are about God being glorified and having Him be known.
Celeste Brown has worked with Food for the Hungry since 2002. Approximately ten of those years were spent in Bolivia, South America. Her husband, Joel, a Bolivian, has ensured that Bolivia will always remain near and dear to her heart. Celeste and Joel currently live in North Carolina with their 8-month old son.