by Jim Yost
A tribal church in Irian Jaya fell into a trap that missionaries should avoid.
All missionaries who go to the field to meet the spiritual needs of people soon find that they cannot close their eyes to their physical needs. Everywhere they look, people are in need.
There is no way they can deny help to those less fortunate than themselves. Indeed, both the example of our Lord and the teaching of Scripture urge them to perform good deeds. "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:15). "Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share" (1 Tim. 6:18). "And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased" (Heb. 13:16).
Literacy, education, medical aid, and agricultural projects all have value and need to be done. The question is not whether to do them or not, but how to balance physical aid with spiritual aid. In this article I do not deal with the question of whether or not we should be involved in good works. Rather, I show that when physical aid-at least community development-gets out of proper proportion to spiritual aid, it inhibits the growth of the church. This confirms Donald McGavran’s research.
In the interior of Irian Jaya (Western New Guinea) there’s a group of villages called Comoro. Made up mostly of Sawi tribespeople, Comoro has a population of around 1,200. Prior to 1976, they had virtually no contact with the outside world. Even today they remain quite isolated.
Comoro has a strong church of more than 400 professing believers who are quite evangelistic. Although it is a fast-growing church now, there have been times, when it was stagnant. The church has always grown numerically, but if you calculate the growth rates for each year and plot them on a bar graph, you find where the church has been declining in rate of growth even while membership was increasing. (See graph below.)
In 1978 the church grew dramatically. But growth dwindled down to near nothing in 1981. Since 1981 it has started to climb again. What made the difference? It’s my conviction that the introduction of community development programs was the major reason for hindering the growth of the church.
I began community development projects in 1979 and continued them for the next two years. The projects included planting fruit tree seedlings and nursery stock, animal husbandry, and fish net weaving. I pushed the program and it was eagerly accepted by the people. It was a successful project. Fruit trees are producing everywhere; animals are being raised in the villages; diets have improved.
But success for the project was not success for the church. During that time people continued to believe on Christ, but not at such a great rate as we saw in 1978. Perhaps the decline could be attributed to the fact that the community’s attention was diverted to bettering people’s lives physically.
Following our furlough in 1981, I decided not to push community development anymore and eventually phased out all programs. I felt they had accomplished their purpose. Whatever continues results from the work of the people themselves. As the diagram shows, the increase in the growth rate of the church over the last two years corresponds to the phasing out of community development.
The conclusion I draw from my experience in Comoro is that community development must be handled very carefully and instituted with great discretion. If not, it can definitely hurt the growth of a local church. I would like to propose three reasons why this is true. Community development can hurt church growth because (1) it distracts the people, (2) it promotes a false missionary image, and (3) it confuses the missionary’s priorities.
First, community development distracts the people. A common saying is, "A hungry man can’t hear the gospel," which is taken to mean that if we only take the gospel to those who are physically hurting, they will not listen to us.
I believe the opposite is true. Those who are hurting are very much aware that they need help from a supreme being. They are the most open to the gospel. This is especially true of tribal people in Irian Jaya, who have a worldview oriented towards the supernatural and spiritual.
But on the other hand, people who become satisfied physically tend to feel no need spiritually. This principle is clear in the more developed countries of the world, where many people are so comfortable with the luxuries of life that they feel no need for God. In the poorer countries, if we put too much emphasis on community development, we will distract the interest people have towards God and contribute instead to their desire for physical satisfaction.
Many factors influenced the dramatic growth of the church on Comoro in 1978.2 The people were ripe for the gospel. Their attention was focused on their spiritual needs. A people movement began, but the full extent of this movement will never be realized because it was inhibited and finally brought to a halt by the emphasis given to community development. Not that community development in itself was bad, but in our case it was ill-timed.
Unknowingly, we diverted the attention of the people towards their physical well-being. Fortunately, we have regained some momentum for church growth since the phasing out of development projects, but we will never know what could have resulted if we hadn’t interfered.
To avoid this division from spiritual to physical concerns, we must create great spiritual interest while a development project is going on. We must work to keep the community’s mind on spiritual matters. Possibly an evangelistic campaign or deeper life crusade would be in order. Whatever form it takes, the spiritual emphasis needs to overshadow whatever is being done in the way of development projects.
Second, community development promotes a false image of the missionary. Our image is very important, because what we make our priorities the people are likely to make theirs as well. If we spend our time preaching, teaching, and in church-related affairs, they will get the idea that our purpose is to explain the way of salvation and help establish the church. They will see us as church missionaries.
But on the other hand, if we spend a significant amount of time doing community development projects, they view us differently. It’s our visibility that counts. What do people actually see us doing each day? If they see us building water storage tanks and planting fruit trees, as I did, then they think: "Our missionary believes community development is more important than the church. That’s what we see him doing. That’s the reason he came to us. He’s a community development missionary. That’s what we will give ourselves to also."
They will follow our example. We may believe our priorities are different than what they perceive them to be, and we may even try to relate to them that our work actually is within the church realm. But what counts is what they see. We must take a real objective look at how we spend our days. What image are we portraying to the people?
At this point, a word needs to be said about a particular problem in Irian Jaya. As missionaries have pioneered the interior, they have set up "tokos" (stores) for the poor. People have earned money working on the construction of airstrips and buildings, but since they have little or no contact with the outside, they have nothing to buy with their money. The missionaries bring in goods to sell or trade with them. Down through the years it has been concluded that "tokos" are a necessary evil. It’s been said,
"You can’t get by without them, although you wish you could."
Well, four years ago I did the impossible and closed my "toko." It hasn’t reopened since. Why did I do it? One day the church elders came to me and requested that I discontinue the store.
That was no easy decision for them, because it meant they would have to paddle by canoe two days (one way) to reach the government outpost where they could buy things. But they were willing because my image was being misinterpreted by the community. They told me how many people thought my main purpose for coming to the Sawi was "to do store." Others felt that to become Christian meant to receive goods.
The elders indicated to me that I should discontinue my link with bringing goods in and work solely with the church. The move came as a great shock to the community, but the people have adjusted and the results have been significant. Not only did I have more time for the church, that I previously spent doing inventory and selling, but now my image in the community is solely that of a spiritual missionary. Now people come to my door with spiritual questions rather than requests for certain goods.
Let me suggest that no church-planting missionary involve himself in community development unless he absolutely has to. If you want a development project in your area, bring in a development specialist to do it. Don’t risk confusing your image with the people.
The same principle applies to the image of the mission board as a whole. If a mission organization assigns a development expert to a certain area, then it should also assign a new church-related missionary to that area. Keep the balance on all levels. If a development specialist is allocated to a tribe, but not an evangelist or church planter, what does that say to those people about the mission’s priorities?
In some cases there is no development worker to help, and you may feel you must do a development project. If so, then be prepared to put in proportionately that much more time in church work. If you start by putting one or two hours a day on project work, then add that much more time to what you already spend doing church-related work. This little rule of thumb will surely limit you in what you can do in development work, but it will also help you maintain a healthy image with the people.
Third, community development confuses our priorities as missionaries. Missionaries get involved in community development projects for many reasons. Sometimes it’s because of government pressure. Sometimes it stems from success in evangelism. Sometimes it happens because of a lack of results in their present work. It’s this last cause I’d like to discuss.
Meeting someone’s physical needs is very tangible. In like manner, community development projects bring relatively quick results and the satisfaction of being able to see something accomplished. On the other hand, our labors in the spiritual realm do not always produce immediate, tangible results. It often takes years before we see rewards from our efforts. So, to avoid discouragement, missionaries often are tempted to do something that will produce results they can see fairly quickly.
What better way than through community development? We can actually do something that will improve lives almost overnight. This appeals to our ego. It lets us say, "I accomplished something."
However, the danger arises when we become more and more involved in meeting physical needs rather than spiritual ones. We begin hiding behind our development projects. Our reports tell of all the literacy, medical, educational, and agricultural advancements we are making, but little about the growth of the church. Our priorities become confused by our own desire for accomplishment. We needed to see results.
Perhaps this happened because the people were unresponsive. Perhaps it started when we weren’t making progress in language study. Some development projects require little or no language ability. Whatever the reason, when we lose sight of spiritual objectives, we trade eternal benefits for temporal ones. Satan would like to blind us to people’s spiritual needs by getting us to focus on their physical needs. He would love to have us effective in the unimportant.
There is a process by which missionaries sometimes enter into what I call the trap of community development work. It’s a trap because they go into it unaware of what the final outcome will be. There are five steps in the process.
Step 1. We are here to serve the nationals. We come to the field with very pure motives for wanting to help them.We feel that we have so much and they have so little, so naturally we want to share. We want God to be glorified in the service we render. But as we continue our giving, we move into the second phase of the process.
Step 2. Christian nationals soon believe they have the right to receive education, medicine, money, and goods. If we provide these services for very long, they become obligatory. The believers come to expect this, just as they expect us to lead the church. In their opinion, the gospel not only brings spiritual benefits, but also physical benefits and social advancement.
Step 3. Non-Christians then think that becoming a Christian means getting something done for you. The difference between steps two and three is seen in the receptor. In step two, the receptor is Christian and thus truly recognized the spiritual benefits of the gospel. In step three, the receptor is non-Christian and sees only physical benefits.
We come back again to the issue of image. What image are we portraying to the community as a whole? When our image is set in step three, some time might go by before entering step four, but without a doubt, eventually it will come.
Step 4. As numbers grow, or as our funds decrease, benefits decline. In the beginning it is relatively easy to serve people, but as the church grows and we expand the work into new regions, it becomes impossible to serve everyone. There isn’t enough money to meet everyone’s needs. When this happens, step five is already emerging.
Step 5. The Christians and non-Christians alike are disillusioned and dissatisfied. They may blame the missionary for deceiving them. They do not understand that a missionary has limited resources. By his actions the missionary was promising the same benefits to all in the future.
If the people do not blame the missionary, then they will blame themselves. Somewhere along the line they angered the missionary. At some time they lost the key to his love. They may even try to appease him in various ways. But when the situation doesn’t change, they will become truly disillusioned.
The process just described can happen anywhere, but it is especially apparent in Irian Jaya. All tribes on this island are to some extent inclined towards a cargo cult mentality. We saw such a nativistic movement in Comoro and we learned much from it. But it is not confined to certain areas of the islands where it visibly emerges.
I saw this very vividly recently. I was visiting an isolated village in the Auyu tribe, where I had placed a coastal Bible school graduate as an evangelist. As we were discussing the work there, he mentioned that there was much talk of a cargo cult among the villagers. This surprised me, but he explained, "It’s only natural for them to have a cargo cult. There’s cargo cult thinking in every tribe in Irian Jaya, even mine at the coast. We’re all inclined that way."
I tend to agree with him based on my experience in the Sawi, Asmat, and Auyu tribes. For example, one entire Asmat village once moved to Comoro. The leaders went to a lot of trouble to get official government permission to move, also to change the village’s "recognized religion" to Protestant. After having moved all the people into their new houses in Comoro, the village headmen came to my house to collect all the goods they were expecting to be given. They were quite disillusioned when they got nothing. Within a week they moved back to their old village site.
How can we help our brothers in Christ without spoiling them? How can we meet valid physical needs while still retaining our image as a spiritual witness? There is no magic answer, no easy way out. We must find a balance and then maintain it. However, we must give priority to the work of reconciling people to Christ and incorporating them into his body, the church.
Sometimes this may mean phasing out an existing community development program. But normally we can find this balance not by cutting back all physical aid programs, but by doubling our spiritual aid programs. While we continue to help people in literacy, education, medicine, and agriculture, we must put an even stronger emphasis on teaching the Bible, teaching how to pray and give, involving people in worship, and leading them out to witness in their community and beyond.
Finding this balance is the responsibility of each individual missionary, as well as that of the mission organization. In either case, we need some hard re-evaluation. During that time of reflection, the following questions may be helpful in guiding our thinking.
If you’ve already begun a large community development program, then monitor its impact on the church. How was the church growing before the project began? Has that trend continued, or changed? Are Christians being diverted from reconciling unbelievers to God? Is the church involved in the development project? If so, do nonbelievers look on the church as a social change agent, or as a fellowship of those desiring communion with God? Should the church release all contact with the project in order to re-establish its proper identity in the community? How much missionary time is being spent on the project? Should that time be decreased for the sake of retaining a spiritual image? Is an institution being established that cannot be reproduced on the fringes of the tribe?
If you are thinking about starting a community development project, first find out the felt needs of the people. Will nationals start the project, or must it be pushed by the missionary? How will your involvement in the project change your role as viewed by the people? What is the smallest possible project and shortest possible time that will produce the desired results? Should the church be involved in the planning and execution of the project? What specific efforts will you take to create a spiritual climate during the time span of the project? Are you prepared to discontinue the project at any time when it appears to be hurting the growth of the church?
Community development and church growth are not mutually exclusive. A growing church can advance socially and economically. A community involved in physical advancement can have a healthy church. But great care must be taken with regard to development projects, especially where churches are growing.
May we not be guilty of hindering the work of God because of our desire to help people physically. Let us also not forget that the chief purpose of development projects should be to help the existing church disciple receptive peoples. The apostle Peter’s words in Acts 3:6 remind us of what our priorities are wherever we serve. "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk."
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