What is “Community Development”?

When you hear the words ‘community development’, what comes to your mind? Do you think of communities where people are short of food, lack clean water and sanitation and where people are suffering from many illnesses? Or maybe you visualise communities where people are trapped in long-term economic poverty, living under unjust systems, or facing a lack of life choices and livelihood opportunities?

I’m sure that if you are interested in community development, you have compassion for the poor and a desire to do something to help, but maybe you also feel a sense of helplessness and wonder what can you do?

In terms of doing something about poverty, a Biblical response recognises the need to deal with all aspects of life and is therefore truly holistic, integrating the spiritual, physical, and social and learning how to do all things with wisdom, God’s way, and therefore maybe a better terminology is ‘integral mission’.

In Luke 4: 16 – 21, Jesus announces His Kingdom mission and it’s clear that the good news is not just about spiritual salvation, rather it truly is an ‘integral mission’ to transform all areas of life, and in Luke 2: 52, we see how God made sure that Jesus had all he needed to develop fully, in wisdom, physically, spiritually, and socially; this is God’s intention for every individual and every community.

So before we act, we need to understand what God’s intentions are and what His integral mission looks like so that we can help communities understand and follow God’s ways of doing life.

However, we need to be careful here, because there can somehow be an implication that we are ‘up here’ giving a hand-up to helpless people ‘down there’ – the strong helping the weak out of their situation.

But, the reality is that the poor are not weak and helpless, they are people made in the image of God as we are, and they are equipped and able to deal with the challenges they face, even if they need encouragement to do so and may need support in addressing larger systemic injustices and oppressions that they may face.

A Biblical approach to community development therefore sees people through eyes which recognise and appreciate their strengths, abilities, resources and assets, and works alongside them to help them see their potential, realise they can do things for themselves with what they have, and encouraging them in the process of becoming self-sufficient and able to provide for themselves.

This is community empowerment, and it is central to sustainable community development because it breaks the cycles of paternalism and dependency that have held the poor captive for too long.

So instead of handouts and instead of just giving people a hand up, we call people to recognise and use what they already have in their hands….as God said to Moses, we say to communities: “What is that you have in your hands”?

Then we can all work together to discover God’s intentions and articulate the dreams they have for their community, encouraging them to use what they already have to act and move towards the abundant life God wants for them.

This is an exciting process; we are not the heroes in this approach to community development – God and the community are the heroes! The community grows in discovering God’s vision for them and learns together how to work out for themselves how they can change their situation themselves.

And we get to be there as they do that – what a privilege!

Author: Annette Jandrell