Three Approaches to Poverty, Part III: Seven Characteristics of a Transformational Development Approach

In the previous two posts, I surveyed two approaches to poverty: charity, and development.

Now, I’ll introduce a third approach. It uses the tools of both charity and development. What is distinctive about this approach is that it is a thoroughly Christian one. It’s called transformational development.

Here are 7 Characteristics of Transformational Development:

 1. The Kingdom of God is the Goal.

What makes the transformational development approach Christian? It’s not that there are distinctly Christian things that Christian development practitioners do. Transformational development is not evangelism, and we don’t have to ever say the name “Jesus” to do things in a Christian way. The difference is the goal–the Kingdom of God.

The “transformational” part of this approach is an acknowledgement that all true change comes from the Holy Spirit; all true change flows from and points to the Kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit also works in us as those who give and work to fill our giving and working with faith, hope, and love. That is what makes it a Christian approach.

 2. Community-Based

Most development work now strives to be truly community-based. But how? Dr. Chris Sudgen of Oxford gives one suggestion:

Communities operate through institutions. We cannot access the community as a whole without working through entities and institutions. These institutions are rooted in the culture. They belong. NGO’s are not mediating institutions.  The Church is a mediating institution, part of the community landscape, committed to the community, rooted in the culture.

This is even truer in Egypt, where the indigenous Church is the only living institution that carries forward the music and language of ancient Egypt. It bears some of the deepest cultural roots for Egyptians, so any development project working with the Church will also be deeply community-based.

That leads us to the third characteristic.

3. Church-Centered.

So far, we’ve looked at two realities: human cultures, and the transforming Kingdom of God. The Church is where the two touch.

How should development organizations work with the Church as a mediating institution?

First, that’s where Christian Non-governmental Organizations (NGO’s) come in, led by the Church’s laity. The Church nourishes them in the Kingdom of God and so equips them for the work of service. (Ephesians 4:12) They, in turn, release the clergy to do what clergy are called to do, and keep church resources from being diverted to immense needs. (Acts 6:2) Second, those NGO’s must make sure their missions support the mission of the Church. Laity who bring the Kingdom of God through these NGO’s have to do their work in such a way that Christ, and the Church, gets the credit.

4. Person-centered

If the rights-based approach is person-centered, then transformational development is even more deeply based in personal dignity because it sees Christ–and one’s eternal potential in Christ–refracted in every person.

Transformational development thus sees the human person even in dimensions that secular development approaches overlook, like the spiritual one. That leads us right to the next characteristic.

 5. Holistic

Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Capabilities and rights are the spaces that society can carve out around the human person so they can flourish, but they are all outside the human being. Transformational development also pays attention to what no human society can reach: what’s inside.

In an informal survey of more than a dozen randomly selected families from a variety of villages I visited during 2008, I asked them: “what’s the biggest thing that has changed for you since becoming part of Not Alone?” The answer of 80% of these families surprised me, and was essentially the same: “before, we felt alone and cut off from Christ and the Church, but now we felt like we have been brought near to Christ again, and are part of the church.”

That made a bigger difference in their lives than greater access to education, health, food, and clothing. But feeling again connected to God through the love of their Coptic Orphans Reps helped them make the best use of all of those other things, too. It changed their whole lives. That’s holism.

 6. Mutually Transformational for Poor and Non-Poor Alike

If transformational development focuses on what happens inside the human person just as much as what happens outside, then the non-poor are just as “needy” for transformation as the poor.

We need freed from the traps of materialism, from our own version of hopelessness and apathy, and from everything else that keeps us from reaching–or even seeing–our real potential for the highest form of living. That’s why so many of our volunteer workforce in Egypt–and our volunteers, donors, sponsors and staff outside Egypt–say that they receive more than they give.

As Serve to Learn volunteer Jimmy Bebawy says,

I went in thinking that I was happy, but realized that I actually wasn’t. My idea of happiness was a widescreen TV and an X-Box 360. They have a heavenly happiness I couldn’t wrap my mind around. My idea of happiness was turned on its head.

 7. Contagious Across Generations

The development approach is often sustainable. A community that fosters rights and capabilities will see new generations with higher capabilities than the ones before. Much the same happens when development is done in the name of Christ; yet when the Kingdom of God breaks in, there is also  something different that happens.

Joy spreads like wildfire, and love, too. I don’t have space to explain this more, but it’s also better experienced than explained. The best way to understand this characteristic of the transformational development approach–and the other six, for that matter–is to come to Egypt and see it in action. Hundreds have already.

About Nathan Hollenbeck

Nathan joined Coptic Orphans in 2006. It was his response to a call to help return Egypt’s hospitality to the Holy Family on behalf of Christ Emmanuel and the Theotokos, after they changed his own life as a youth. He has a passion to fulfill God’s command to “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17, ESV)