How to Get Your Church’s Mission Off Life Support

The Car Model

All sectors of society must be engaged to experience holistic transformation in a given community. Unfortunately, collaboration between different sectors is often nonexistent or ineffective because each of the sectors lacks a clear understanding of their role in the larger framework. We illustrate these interactions between the various sectors using the metaphor of a car.

While the car model isn’t perfect, and we recognize its limitations, we offer it as a starting point—an on-ramp—for discussions about collaboration and partnership. In order for a car to run safely on the road and arrive at its destination, some critical elements are required: wheels and chassis, engine and drive train, as well as additional components (such as a steering wheel, chairs, and airbags).

In addition, you also need a well-paved, safely governed roadway to travel on.

Faith communities are the ultimate grassroots organizations. They are deeply embedded in cultures and societies all over the globe. In many cases, the leaders of these faith communities have a vested interest in the health and transformation of their communities. They are like the wheels and chassis of a car. They are closest to the ground. Without them, you really aren’t getting anywhere. But without the help of others in the community, they are little more than Flintstones mobiles. You have to run fast, push hard, and then hop on board, but you travel only twenty feet. It’s not the ideal way to get where you want to go. Other parts are required.

Businesses tend to focus on efficiency. They are committed to the bottom line: economic profitability and sustainability. They are the engine of the car, providing the drive, focus, efficiency, and financial resources needed to power a collaborative venture. Yet their transformative power is limited to the ways in which they are connected to the chassis of the faith community. A socially conscious business will not simply seek a bottom-line profit for its owners; it will seek the good of the community in which it operates. Without that faith connection, the engine is running on blocks. It may crank out profit for the personal benefit of a few, but it’s not really going anywhere for the community.

For the last two hundred years, external organizations have led efforts in mission and community transformation. As a result, they have become exceedingly efficient in targeting problems and working out solutions. Their dedication to a particular area of focus makes them ideal components to the car, but they are not the car itself. A steering wheel manufacturer, for instance, does not go to Ford and say, “Your job is to make a car that will adequately support and showcase our steering wheel!” Rather, the job of the steering wheel manufacturer is to provide a component that helps the car get where it needs to go. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and mission or aid organizations have a similar function. The car is not there to support their work. Rather, they serve a unique role, as part of the vehicle, enabling the car to get where it needs to go.

What is the role of the government in all of this? We do not believe it’s the responsibility of government, at any level, to implement transformation. It can’t. It’s not close enough to the people, and governments simply cannot facilitate the kinds of relationships necessary to provide for that kind of change. What governments can provide are the conditions that lead to an environment conducive to transformation. Governments have immense systems-building and infrastructure capacity. They can provide leadership, legislation, and enforcement of the law. In short, governments can provide the environment that enables transformation to occur, much like the roads and signs that are needed for safe travel. Roads (governments) make transformational movement easier, marking the way forward so that people know where they’re going and how to get there.

The purpose of the car model is to illustrate how and where everyone’s expertise is most valuable in the process of community transformation. Usually, we have little difficulty defining who is running which component on the ground. Still, you may wonder, “What does this look like in practice?” Let’s consider an example of what it looks like to drive the car of community transformation in India.

Twenty-nine long hours by plane and three hours by jeep will bring you to an unassuming colony of untouchables living outside the city of Kalavaiin Tamil Nadu, India. The people of this colony are of the Irula caste. They are the bottom rung of the ladder in India. A man named Kasi is the head village elder, and he has watched generational poverty grind his people into the dust.

A few years ago, many of the people in the Irula caste in Kalavai were homeless, living under trees or in huts made out of thatch and garbage. Most lived on one meal. They had no electricity or clean water. Disease was rampant. There were no educational opportunities for their children. Men were trapped on the lowest rung of the vocational ladder, working as rat and snake catchers. They were truly a people living without hope.

Today, however, every family in the colony has good housing. The huts they used to live in have been demoted to storage sheds. A new well flows in the village, providing clean water. Electricity runs to every home. The children of the village attend school. Microenterprises have broken the chains of poverty and inspire a creative, entrepreneurial spirit. A new community center has been built.

The village elder, Kasi, describes the transformation as a flower that has sprouted, grown, and blossomed. Where the spirit of the people was dying, choked by the dust and weeds of poverty and oppression, now there is life and beauty: “For centuries, it had been told to us that the Brahman people have sprung from the heads of the gods and the Irula people came from the dust on the bottom of the gods’ feet. Our name, Irula, means ‘People of Darkness.’ Since Pastor Sam and the people of Granger have come, no longer do we know ourselves as the people of darkness. We know ourselves now as the people of light!” Soon after the changes began transforming life in the village, the water from the new well washed over Kasi himself. He was baptized as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Behind this radical story of transformation is a surprising list of partners, a group of incredibly diverse people who united around a mission vision. Over the past five years, that team has included hundreds of people from Granger Community Church, virtually every single community member of the village, many of the people from the indigenous local church, as well as people in the local government, local contractors, local businesses, and some wonderful individuals from international organizations like World Relief and Hydraid. All of these people were attracted to a kingdom vision, the transformation of a little colony of untouchables.

At this point, you might be thinking, “This all sounds great, but let’s get practical. How do you actually build the car? What is the process?” We began by recognizing that the work in India was already underway long before we got there. And this will always be true. Jesus said, “My Father and I are always at work.” The transformational partnership process doesn’t begin with the question, “What can we do?” It begins with the question, “What is God already doing?”


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