Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development by Bryant Myers. Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 1999. 279 pages with index; soft cover; ISBN: 1570752753; $22.00.
Reviewed by Daniel Eyler
At the Lausanne Congress in 1974, John Stott and others reset the global missions agenda by calling evangelicals to broaden their view of missions to embrace concern for the whole person as a part of what it means to make disciples of all nations and to be representatives of the kingdom of God on earth. Evangelical missions have come a long way since that time. While some esteemed mission leaders, such as David Hesselgrave, rile against the concept of holistic missions, it has been broadly embraced.
World Vision has been a leader in this area. As Vice President for International Program Strategy at World Vision International where he has worked for over 25 years, Bryant Myers has been actively involved in developing the theology and practice of evangelical community development. Walking with the Poor comes from these many years of faithful service and rich experience.
Walking with the Poor follows the example of Charles Kraft (Christianity in Culture, 1979, also published by Orbis) in integrating bold, yet evangelical biblical exegesis with the best social science research. The book contains eight chapters, moving from a definition of poverty to biblical and theological bases for development, to models of development including how to assess community development work, and concluding with a chapter on the integration of witness into development work.
Myers describes the community as living a story. The development worker comes into the community with his or her own story. Development is not the development worker imposing his story on the community; rather, he or she is to understand the local story and become a part of it. The person then becomes an agent of change from within and as a part of the community’s ongoing storynot in competition with it. Both the development worker’s story and the community’s story will be influenced by each other.
Although this book is thoroughly evangelical, Myers’s definition of witness as “doing development in a way that evokes questions to which the gospel is the answer,” would feel weak to people with the gift of proclamation evangelism. Myers puts witness and proclamation in the broader context of what it means to live in the world as ambassadors of Christ in all aspects of community life. He has attempted to steer us clearly down the path of how to understand poverty, how to improve the lives of the poor, and how to engage in sustainable community development in a way in which the gospel is also boldly proclaimed. This he has accomplished very well.
Myers is critical of a “management by objectives” approach. He considers it to be too easily driven by the objectives rather than by the process of growth and transformation that is taking place in the community. This sounds ideal, and I can report from experience that without a set of goals or objectives, the development worker may grind to a standstill. Overwhelmed by the inertia of the community, or lack thereof, he or she has no influence at all. I have known of a few workers who eventually left at that point as they felt their presence had no positive impact and was not worth the investment of life and resources.
Having said that, Myers has struck a sweet and important chord in his commitment to real participation in the community as the key to successful community development and transformation. He describes the process as one of “learning our way toward development.” This humble and realistic approach is a needed antidote to the current euphoria over short-term missions as a cheaper and easier way to bring the gospel to the world.
Myers devotes an entire chapter to the causes of poverty, including several sociological and biblical models. His contention is that poverty is ultimately because relationships do not work right, people’s relationships with self (illness), with God (spiritual), with others and with the community (social) and with the environment (pollution, overused land). He argues convincingly that there are many causes of poverty and no magic bullet to solve it.
“Appreciative Inquiry” is an approach to analyzing a community that assumes the community members’ own perspectives and descriptions of their community are the most accurate and the necessary starting point for working in the community. The development worker is expected to help the poor describe their systems and survival strategy using their own categories, not trying to fit their descriptions to the theoretical categories introduced from the outside. The process of development then involves building on what is good and successful rather than on solving problems. The goal is to achieve lasting outcomes, not to accomplish program objectives, which while accomplished, may not bring lasting change to the community.
One helpful comment in this book that caught my attention was, “Church planting is not the final objective of mission, it is the beginning.” I am familiar with many churches worldwide which, although they have been “planted,” are not thriving or healthy, and they certainly are not testifying to the fullness of God’s kingdom in their community. While this book’s main purpose is evangelical community development, it has implications much broader including issues of what is means to be the church in the community.
This book is rich in resources. It contains 57 figures and tables, any of which could be used for a group discussion on a team working in community development, which we have done. There are eight appendices well placed throughout the book, two of which list biblical texts pertinent to development work. It has a bibliography and index as well.
The book is somewhat idealistic. Having worked in this area, I am aware of how difficult it is to apply theory to the real context and get the kind of results one is hoping for. In particular, the level of interest of members of the community in participating in the process of improving their community varies greatly. In some cases, desire for individual gain takes precedent over any interest in bringing benefit to neighbor, the community or even the environment.
Increasingly mission is being accomplished in the world through nontraditional means. However, missions’ literature and strategies for mission have not kept up so old models are being imposed on new contexts. This book is truly a book on missions and is a necessary tool for the thousands of workers around the world whose stated purpose in their host country is to engage in some form of development or assistance work. I also recommend that readers interested in this area consider subscribing to the journal Transformation which comes out of the Oxford Centre for Missions Studies in the UK (www.RegnumBooks.com).
Myers’s book has raised the bar for what can be considered truly Christian community development. Walking with the Poor is must reading for anyone working overseas in the areas of health care, agriculture or community development. I highly recommend it for both personal reading and group discussion.
Image credit: Children in China by Nick Hogarth, CIFOR via Flickr.