We asked Dave Davis, one of TEAM’s experts on the Muslim world, to share his thoughts on the importance of community development in missions, especially in Muslim contexts. This column appears in the summer 2014 issue of Horizons magazine, which hits mailboxes starting next week.
We talk a lot about holistic outreach and cooperating agencies. But is it just different, or is it better? The answer is yes!
That South Asian mountain village will never be the same. They now have an eight-foot-wide road to their village, which should help them rebuild their earthquake-destroyed homes. How do I know? I measured that 5,280 feet of road our staff had built with a 100-foot tape measure, picking it up and setting it down 53 times. Now the villagers can drive supplies right into their village. Did we save one soul of the 100 men who worked with picks and shovels for 113 days to build that mile of road? Not that I know of. But we opened their hearts to visits from our development project staff. They were inaccessible, and today they are open to us. We helped them with a real need, and now they are ready to listen to us.
It is not just a different way, but a better way. I’d been a missionary most of my life, but I was converted in 2007. In my early years of work in a Muslim context, I was able to openly and actively distribute Scripture and publicly engage in conversations about faith. I had always felt that my gifting and calling was to preach and teach. Other people — those “social gospel” people — could “fill their stomachs,” but I wanted to fill their minds and hearts with the teachings of Jesus. However, 18 years after leaving the mission field, my wife and I were back overseas and serving in a development-type project. The Islamic context in the country had radicalized and would not tolerate activity such as open evangelism or Scripture distribution. The only way into a village was to do something; we had to meet some of their felt needs. They knew we were followers of Jesus but weren’t interested until we met a tangible need in their village. We jumped out of our comfort zone of spiritual giftings and right into assisting schools and training teachers. We started corn test plots in two villages to teach better planting and fertilizing techniques. We improved clean water systems and dug several wells, and only when the moment lent itself would we share Bible stories that applied to life at that moment.
Church planting is the spiritual stuff of missions, and development work is the secular stuff, right? I’ve been converted to a lifestyle that does both. All the time. Helping the whole person with education, water, food, or a skill is the way to build relationships. Then, through that friendship, faith kernels can be planted (if you will pardon the agriculture reference). People are open to hearing about faith if they’ve seen you care and demonstrate concern for the needs in their lives.
Development work is new territory for many missions organizations. Fortunately, we don’t have to figure it out on our own. They say it takes a village to raise a child. In missions and development, it takes partners and cooperation.
Our development project was heavily assisted by around 10 other agencies to meet the needs of local people. We didn’t have the resident expertise necessary in many areas. We needed help. Many people gave money to provide seed, pipe, training manuals, and rent for test plots. Grain experts gave and taught methods and techniques to do things cheaper and better. Rows of corn were planted straight to increase yield. Lesson plans were introduced to help improve student exam grades. It took a ton of cooperation and coordination to help villages, but it was a better way. Agencies cooperated to meet real needs, and the door swung open for sharing our faith. So, have you been converted yet?