The importance of the church

Christianity has become the most global of religions.  There is no country without a Christian witness and only ten countries without a visible congregation of indigenous believers.  The total number of Christians was reported close to 2 billion in 2000, representing a third of the world’s population.   The most dynamic growth in Christianity has been with the Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic movements – especially in the Two-thirds world (Johnstone & Mandryk 2001)


The church has an enormous outreach.  It operates at grass-roots level, as part of the community, built up from the community, knowing the community.  It has often been there for hundreds of years, rooted in society, playing a central part of its history and future.  Its local leaders have knowledge and understanding of local needs, the needs of the people it serves, the needs of the local environment.   It is able to relate to and serve both the physical and spiritual requirements of the people.  As well as working at a local level, it is joined up at national, regional and global levels.  It comprises an extraordinary network, the world’s largest physical network with the world’s largest common membership - a communion of people, united in a universal belief.


The church has a culture of volunteerism.  People offer themselves to God in selfless service to humankind.  Church members are committed to a culture of giving in cash and in kind – skills, labour, financial and material contributions.  Among the membership, there is a pool of voluntary professional expertise from which the Church can draw for technical services.  Even the salaried staff generally take their regular work as a calling and often go beyond the normal call of duty.


The Church has among its intangible assets the capacity to imbue the poor with hope, a necessary ingredient for them to keep on going until improvement is effected.  The Church lives on faith and hope and it endeavours to infuse hope in all the people it serves.


The Church has an existing structure and mechanisms for initiating new activities.  Its association – women’s groups, men’s groups, youth groups, and children’s groups – serve as effective contacts and vision-carriers among their counterparts in the community.  Generally, physical premises (such as meeting halls) and other facilities are available that hasten start-up processes.


The Church is part of a wider global institutional structure, with extensive interpersonal linkages, resource transfers, and opportunities for discussion, training, and so forth, at international level.  These linkages are reinforced by the image of “the Body of Christ” transcending national, racial, and other boundaries, and can be drawn on when needed for solidarity and support. (Belshaw & Calderisi 2001, p221,222)


At all levels, local, national and global – within local authorities, governments, multilateral agencies, the church has respect, influence, and a voice.   These combined with its resources of people, finances and possessions have over the centuries been used to bring about change in society.   The church and associated faith-based organizations have a long history of social engagement.   An engagement that spans: the abolition of slavery to the abolition of apartheid; the provision of basic health care at village level to the global fight against HIV and AIDS; and the support of community micro-finance to the cancellation of US$100 billion of the poorest nations debt.


The European voyages of world discovery were motivated by religion, commerce, and political expansionism.  The effects of the three motives are indelible.  The indisputably bright part of history is that Christian missionaries brought the message of spiritual redemption and they also ministered to the physical needs of the people.  In many places, they introduced new staple crops and the use of animal power for farming.  In most African countries, formal education, vocational skills training, and modern health care services were pioneered by the Church.   The management of these services subsequently passed from the missionaries to nationals.


Many of the national leaders in African countries were educated in Christian schools.  Nevertheless, in line with Western secular trends, these leaders decided that government can and should run these servicers on its own.  In many African countries, the government took over church schools and hospitals.  The result is well known.  In many countries, when the government took over the schools, the Church stepped up vocational training for youths, for instance by introducing the concept of “village polytechnics.”  The Church has also made a significant contribution in providing safe water to rural communities by means of boreholes, hand-dug wells, protection of springs, and rainwater harvesting techniques.

The leaders of the Church have taken their prophetic role very seriously.  In almost every country in Africa, the voice of the Church has been loud, clear and consistent against the ills in society.  The Church has played a major role in the dismantling of apartheid.  When oppressed by a dictator – military or civilian – citizens have usually looked to the Church to speak out on their behalf.  And the Church has been alert to the onerous responsibility, in some cases at the cost of its leader’s lives.


Civic education and election monitoring are recent additions to the work of the Church in many countries, and they have been proving so effective that unpopular political leaders have realized that they can no longer mislead and exploit the populace. (Belshaw & Calderisi 2001, p223,224)


The gospel is the most powerful antidote for domination that the world has ever known.  It was that antidote that inspired the abolition of slavery, the women’s movement, the non-violence movement, the civil rights movement, the human rights movement, the fall of Nazism, Fascism and Communism, the break-up of apartheid.  (Jorgensen 2002, p224)


It is recognized though that it is an engagement that hasn’t been without its difficulties.  The church has its strengths, but also its weakness and has sometimes gone off track – which from time to time has marred the overall church effort and caused some to look at the church with reservation.  However, as the church has engaged in the transformation of communities, she too is being transformed, and the church today is larger, stronger and better equipped and supported to make a difference in society.


The church’s role in society, in bringing about sustainable change is recognized by both the faith-based development community and the wider development community, including numerous bilateral and multilateral agencies.  Working together in partnership will hasten the end to poverty, a common cause sought by all involved.


Faith groups have a unique and important role in making poverty history. You don’t need me to tell you that churches and other faith groups are often poor people’s most trusted institutions.  They are often the first to which the poor turn in times of need and crisis, and to which they give in times of plenty.  As a result you are closely embedded and committed to local communities...  Faith groups provide crucial services to the poor. They often run the only schools and health clinics in rural communities. In Sub-Saharan African, faith groups provide more than 50% of all health and education services. You can and do reach poor people largely untouched by other institutions.  (Benn 2005)


With networks that reach even the most remote villages, many faith-based organizations and community-based organizations are uniquely po­sitioned to promote HIV/AIDS stigma reduction and prevention messages, as well as to provide counseling and testing, home care, clinical services, and antiretroviral treatment. These organiza­tions also have the ability to influence the attitudes and behaviors of their community members by building on relationships of trust and respect. These attributes make their partnership a valu­able asset in the fight against HIV/AIDS. (PEPFAR 2007)


The World Bank has focused on a faith-development dialogue for five main reasons. Faith organizations have earned high levels of community trust. Faith institutions also work directly on development, most significantly in education, the environment, and health. Faith institutions not only fuel many conflicts but also work through a myriad of peace-making channels, sustaining communities and spearheading the rebuilding and healing process. They often promote links among communities across national boundaries.  Faith institutions also spur people to grapple with ethical issues ranging from corruption to equity. And they promote public support for development assistance, and help forge consensus around hard choices. 


Faith organizations play major roles in communities and together constitute the world’s largest distribution system. Poor communities around the world also trust faith leaders and institutions more than many other entities.  Given their centuries of engagement in many dimensions of people’s lives, development groups need to hear the views of faith-based groups and draw lessons from their experience. Religions also give hope and bring meaning to the lives of millions of people, and vast religious teachings on core values are essential to human relationships.  (Marshall 2005, p9,10)

We increasingly recognize the role of civil society as a key network for environment and development programs. However—and with some notable exceptions—the potential of faith communities and faith-based organizations has not been fully explored. Yet in almost every country in the world, the faiths have a wider network on the ground than any other element of civil society. They also have centuries of experience, and in many places provide a substantial part of the educational, medical, and welfare structures and personnel in the country. They also often have larger followings than many political parties, across much wider social ranges. The faiths actually are the oldest, largest, most respected, and deepest-penetrating NGOs. They share with us an agenda of promoting wise environmental management, even if this has been somewhat lost during parts of their history. (The World Bank 2006)


Where faith and development institutions have combined their efforts and work to common ends, remarkable results have been achieved. The experience suggests two conclusions: first, that the engagement of faith communities in the fight against poverty is vital to success in achieving the Millennium Development Goals; and second, that there is great scope for new and different forms of partnership that work to the respective strengths of the different communities. Yet these efforts are too little known and the lessons, good and bad, have engendered too little reflection.  (Marshall & Keough 2002, p14)






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