by Steve Coffey
A case study from Central Asia outlines a four-stage process which demonstrates what true transformation in communities, not of communities, looks like.
God is the God of transformation! From the moment of creation, God brought about transformation of the physical world, making that which was “without form and void” into a place where life could thrive. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, God has continued to bring transformation to humanity corrupted by the effects of sin. One day, heaven and earth will be transformed for the eternal joy of the redeemed (Rev. 21).
In the intervening time, God is in the process of transforming our lives. He defines his purpose in Romans 8:29: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” God uses all life experiences to accomplish his purposes (Rom. 8:28), so that instead of being conformed to this world (Rom. 12:2), we would be transformed to the image of Christ.
This truth provides a framework for understanding the means by which God is bringing about transformation in communities where Christ is yet to be worshipped. We call it the “Cycle of Christ-honoring transformation in communities.” Christ-honoring transformation:
• Is Christ-centric, not human-centric, in that the Church, as the Body of Christ, is the central component of such transformation
• Is accomplished by Christ’s authority (Matt. 28:18)
• Follows Christ’s model for ministry—the servant/shepherd lifestyle
• Is accomplished in dependence upon Christ to do the miraculous. It is NOT to be attempted in one’s own strength. (There are transformations which take place in communities without God’s work.)
The process of Christ-honoring transformation in communities begins with the call of God on the lives of some to leave their homes and cross into another culture where he is yet to be worshipped. It is the Body of Christ sending out from among its own to the nations. It is participating with Christ in his work (Matt. 16:18) in light of the promise that there will be people from every tongue, tribe, and nation worshipping God in eternity (Rev. 5:9).
The means by which transformation is taking place in the world is the Body of Christ. Jesus Christ’s life, sacrifice, and resurrection provide the basis for the consummation of God’s purposes for human history.
Case Study from Central Asia
It is through his local body that God continues to effect his transformational purposes in the world today. Although there are many wonderful examples of this taking place around the world, this article will follow the work of one team in Central Asia.
Stage 1: Being and living as the Body of Christ. The first stage in the cycle is to be and live as the Body of Christ within the context of a local team. It has been said that “westerners read books, Arabs read people.” The same is true in many cultures of the world, whose members have a keen ability to “read” others according to their lifestyle. It is in and through missionary team relationships that the reality of God’s transforming grace and mercy is manifested among those who do not know Christ.
The team in Central Asia consisted of more than ten members. Some were there for most of the twelve years, while others were there for less. Numerous others participated in the work through short-term projects. There were a number of defining characteristics of the team in Central Asia. First, it was intentional. Meeting together for prayer, fellowship, and worship was not assumed, but actively pursued. They committed themselves to learning the local language and partnering and networking with national Christians who visited their city. Second, it was international, with Canadian, American, Malaysian, Chinese, Russian (Tartars), Tajik, and Uzbek members. Third, it was committed to the long-term approach to ministry, knowing that Christ-honoring transformation in this type of context rarely takes place in short periods of time.
Stage 2: Building into the community through professional and vocational skills. The second stage is to build into the community through the God-honoring use of professional and vocational skills which serve the needs of the people in meaningful ways. There are two aspects to this stage. The first is the necessity of skills useful in this work. The vast majority of the world’s least-reached people groups are geographically located from Iran to Bangladesh (including South Asia and Southwest China). “Outsiders” moving into such areas need to demonstrate viable skills that serve the community in some way, whether in education, medicine, business, social services, or other areas deemed valuable by the community.
As workers use their skills to establish themselves in the community, they understand that these skills are the first means of communicating the good news. Workers do not approach “ministry” as separate from their professional skills. We must stand firmly on the command of Christ in Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Such an approach is in obedience to the biblical injunction that “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).
Team members had skills that contributed to its pursuit of being a blessing to the community. The primary work of at least half the team was working with a program for children from broken families. This work consisted of after-school activities, moral instruction, sports, academic tutoring, and vocational training. Another worker on the team was an instructor at a local university.
Stage 3: Proclaiming the good news. The next stage in the cycle of transformation builds on the first. As we live the reality of Christ through our professional skills and in team relationships, and serve the needs of the community, we model Jesus’ ministry as described in Luke 4:16ff: proclaiming the good news and ministering to the needs of those around us.
The priority is and must continue to be on the proclamation of the good news of God’s love and truth as revealed in Christ and the written word of God. Humanity’s spiritual needs are a central component to all other needs.
Jesus’ model of ministry views the physical, emotional, and social needs of the community as a vital part of outreach. They are not treated as secondary, but as a means through which the good news of God may be proclaimed. It is through this full approach to the person’s and community’s needs that we demonstrate the reality of the grace of God. They are
…authentic expressions of neighbor-love. For who is my neighbor, whom I am to love? He is neither a body-less soul, nor a soul-less body, nor a private individual divorced from a social environment. God made man a physical, spiritual, and social being. My neighbor is a body-soul-in-community. I cannot claim to love my neighbor if I’m really concerned for only one aspect of him, whether his soul or his body or his community. (Stott 1975, 16)
Although there was sufficient benefit to the community in the educational and social activities in which the team was engaged, they were not content to leave it at that level. The team was faithful in connecting their ministry to the people of this city with the good news of God’s love. Witness among students would take place outside the context of the classroom. Witness to the younger people was more direct during summer camp activities.
Stage 4: Bearing fruit. The next stage of the cycle is totally dependent upon God’s miraculous work of grace in the lives of those we serve. It is the stage where living and proclaiming the truth of God, which flows from communion with God (John 15:4-7), bears fruit to the glory of God (John 15:8).
Bearing fruit has numerous implications in the life of the believer. The fruit for which we are trusting God in this context is that of men and women placing their faith in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, and thus being born into the family of God (John 3:1-21). Using our skills and gifts does not stop at being a social blessing to the community. There is a faith goal, trusting God to see people born into the kingdom through the intentional proclamation of the gospel (Rom. 10:13-15).
Interestingly, although the witness of the team members was clearly evident in the educational and social responsibilities, people who were not directly affected by them were also responsive to the message of Christ. The service to the community was a viable means of living out the message, but the impact was not limited to those relationships. The testimony moves beyond the immediate sphere of influence.
As men and women place their faith and confidence in the redemptive sacrifice of Christ and his miraculous resurrection, they are gathered together to worship God in their own language and in biblical and culturally appropriate ways. This is the work of Christ. He promised that he would build his Church (Matt. 16:18).
As the Body of Christ, we are God’s co-workers in the fulfillment of the work of Christ. The establishment of communities of faith, called the “church” by Jesus, is not the work of humans, but the work of Jesus. It is the natural outflow of people who gather to worship him corporately.
By God’s grace, the small number of believers in the city began to worship together with men and women on the team. Believers were baptized in the context of the local fellowship. Leadership emerged and training progressed. The outreach of team members was not the only work taking place. National believers began to accept more responsibility, especially as difficulties with local government authorities began to surface.
Transformation in the Community
As the local group of believers grows in their personal and collective faith in God, we trust God for another transformation to take place: believers embracing a biblical worldview (John 8:32; Rom. 12:1-2). As the Bible is taught and understood, attitudes, practices, rituals, and life in general are understood through the lens of biblical principles. In time, the truths of scripture produce unnatural responses to life and pain (1 Thess. 5:15; Matt. 5:39; 1 Pet. 3:9).
A significant indicator of the transformation taking place within the community of believers includes what Dallas Willard describes as the “radical goodness that progressively subverts and replaces the radical evil in the fallen human soul, social and other environments” (Willard 2002, 74). In the place of revenge for injustices suffered, there is mercy and grace. In the place of selfishness, there is giving. In the place of deceit, there is integrity.
Such Christ-honoring transformation does indeed impact the surrounding community. God is not limited by the size of the local group of believers in accomplishing his purposes. The last two workers of the team in Central Asia were recently expelled from the country. As they were being interrogated by the police in the capital, one of the interrogators stated, “Our colleagues in ____ (the city where they were working) tell us that half of the city has converted to Christianity and the other half wants to stone you!”
The reality is that there are about thirty known followers of Christ in the city (worshipping in two fellowships), yet God is at work! In spite of being relatively small in number, the testimony of the fellowship is exceedingly powerful. This is the reason for describing this process as “transformation in communities,” and not of communities.
Although the local church may be relatively small in respect to the size of a local community, Christ-honoring transformation does take place. Jesus did not promise that whole communities would believe. He said that the road to destruction is wide and the road to salvation is narrow.
As this cycle continues, the new communities of believers send out believers who move into new areas which do not have access to a church in its own language and culture, and the process begins anew. May God be honored and pleased to accomplish his transformational work in and through us.
Stott, John. 1975. Walk in His Shoes: The Compassion of Jesus. London: InterVarsity Press.
Willard, Dallas. 2002. Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress.
Steve Coffey is international director of Christar. Before returning to the U.S. in 2001, he and his wife, Beth, served in Sudan and France.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 186-190. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.