How it all began
This story is not really about us or what we did, but about God and what He did. Our passion is twofold: to see the church strengthened, and to see people free from all forms of poverty. In 1996, I began working with an organization whose vision is to “end physical and spiritual hungers worldwide.” An audacious vision, yes, but one that I was excited about. Because I was working in a country that limited Christian ministries, we were unable to have much involvement with the church. While we celebrated many successes, we were not seeing lives transformed or communities moving out of poverty. The Bible seemed to promise so much, yet my experiences were less than dramatic.
In 1999, I attended a Vision Conference. This conference, now directed by Disciple Nations Alliance (disciplenations.org), introduced me to a new set of ideas about how we address poverty. Some key messages introduced at the conference included:
- The importance of the local church
- The impact our beliefs have upon our behavior and our level of poverty
- The understanding that God is concerned about every area of our life and wants every part of our life to be lived in obedience to Him.
After attending the conference, I spent four years searching scripture and seeking answers. Can people overcome poverty simply by understanding God’s truth and living in obedience to Him? Scripture seemed to indicate it was true, yet when I asked around nobody could name any examples.
In 2003, I decided to test these ideas. My hope was to find ten churches that would partner with me. After a number of setbacks and much prayer and fasting, God eventually provided a volunteer to teach the churches what is now referred to as Module 1 (our first training). After I trained her to be our trainer, we were unable to meet for several months to discuss the results of her trainings. To my surprise, when we finally connected she had already taught 160 churches, rather than ten! Chaos, in the positive sense of the word, had broken out and many were pleading for further training.
After more prayer, we decided to employ six trainers from the various regions where our first trainer had taught. Our goal was to equip each of them to train the churches in their own area. Because I could not go to these areas for security reasons, my original trainer was responsible for traveling and selecting the new staff trainers. I was somewhere between shocked and horrified when I arrived to train the new staff members only to discover there were sixteen⎯not six! What had started as an experiment with ten churches⎯something easily contained⎯was now, within a few short months, more like an out of control fire.
The week following our first staff training, my spouse and I retreated to the beach. As I swam laps, I begged God to show me what to do. I did not have the budget for 16 staff (or six for that matter), I did not know what I was doing, and I had no idea if it would work. For a person who likes high levels of control, this was anything but. It was at this point I realized the project really was going to be all about God. If He did not turn up and if His Word was not true, then we were on our way to a disaster.
Thankfully, God is real, much more faithful than I can imagine, and very true to His Word. With God’s help, we continued to write trainings, and the program continued to expand rapidly. Some trainers, not understanding (or choosing to ignore) that we only wanted each of them to work with a maximum of ten churches, trained more than 50. Others complained that their areas had more than 120 churches, making it problematic to work with just a few. To help meet the demand, we added 16 more staff within eight months of launching the program. We now had over 300 churches receiving our training. It was terrifying.
Every time we met together as a staff, we would hear stories of churches acting on the training they had received. Many churches were reaching out to show God’s love to their communities through what we call Acts of Love. We heard some incredible stories of how God had multiplied those simple acts of obedience to bring results none of us could have ever imagined. When I first started the program, I envisioned the church would do what they could with the resources they had. When the churches ran out of resources, we would come alongside them and help. I compared it to Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish found in Mark 6—start with what you have and see it increased. But as we were now working with more than 300 churches, it became obvious we did not have the resources to be the multiplying factor. I used to worry about what would happen when the churches ran out of resources. In my lack of faith, I had missed an important part of the story—it was God who multiplied the loaves and the fish. He was capable then and is still capable today. It was God who made great promises to the poor, and He is still faithful to those promises.
For the next few years, we developed and wrote more trainings, prayed fervently, listened to amazing stories, and worried about how these communities would ever move out of poverty. In the areas where we work working, when we first started trainings the community typically only had enough to eat for 6-9 months of the year. Now, just a few years later, we were asking them to give and share with others. We had not brought anything to the communities except training.
I was still questioning how this would turn out when, at a leadership meeting, one of the leaders started their update by saying: “In my area, the communities have been transformed and moved out of poverty.” My initial desire (in case you were wondering just how little faith I had) was to assure her that it was impossible. After all, transformation takes a long, long time and probably will not really take place until Jesus returns. Fortunately, I managed to swallow my doubts long enough to ask her for further details.
She shared how there were no more poor people in her area. Everyone now had enough to eat all year long. They all had stable houses, latrines, wells and vegetable gardens. All children went to school and most people attended church. The people were passionate about God. They had strong, loving marriages, were no longer chronically sick and they knew how to treat most common illnesses. Since there were no longer any needs in their community, they served surrounding communities and helped them with projects. I knew many of the stories from this area. There were times when they had prayed and seen miraculous provision, but also times when storms had wiped everything out, forcing them to rebuild houses and clear roads.
With time, we heard more and more similar stories of communities declaring they were no longer poor. We would even hear people talking on buses about the areas where we worked and how they had moved out of poverty.
As we have tried to learn from what happened, we have become more and more convinced of the importance of wholistic discipleship. Wholistic discipleship is about learning to walk in obedience to God in every area of life. It means recognising that your land belongs to God, so you farm diligently. It means understanding that your body is was made by God, so you need to practice good hygiene. Biblical truth provides the why of making a change. Building on those truths, we add skills in things like agriculture and hygiene practices–the how.
As His people learn to walk in obedience, we’ve seen God lift them out of poverty. He uses the natural result of their changed behaviors, but also often intervenes for them in miraculous ways.
If you go to the many villages that finished the training, you will see that they are continuing to apply all that they learned. They continue to serve their neighbors, work diligently, send their children to school… If you ask them why they do all of this, their only reply is, “Isn’t this what a Christian does?”
In that statement—Isn’t this what a Christian does?—lies the secret to the program. It’s not about helping communities move out of poverty, although we certainly hope that happens. Instead it’s about teaching people to live as Christians should, recognising that the God who designed earth and mankind also knows how we best can live. The principles He has put into place do cause us to flourish.