You Feed Them WebYou Feed Them…
The Secret to Empowering the Church in the Developing World
by Mark Mielbrecht

In over 200 years of missions and an average of $20 billion given annually for aid and relief efforts over the past several decades, Africa remains a complicated web of poverty and injustice. Why? Is God powerless to change this? Is money, education, or medicine the wrong focus? What is at the heart of this failure? In the cleared sections of jungle in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in hundreds of other places on the continent of Africa, rusting tractors, abandoned wells, and dilapidated fish farms whisper the sad story to those who have ears to hear: unsustainable infrastructures have been imported and are now in various states of disrepair.

The Thief of Dependency

In our compassion and love, we have unintentionally created an insatiable thief that has robbed many impoverished people of dignity and the desire to dream, initiate, and be creative in finding solutions to the spiritual and economic complexities of Africa and elsewhere. We see the hollow eyes and protracted stomachs of starving children in the
evening news or the late-night aid or sponsorship appeal, and we are driven to help. We give our money, ship our consumer goods, and build wells-all good things, unless this focus on pain alleviation provides no means for finding a real cure. In many ways we have created dependency on Western aid and expertise and have imported church or mission programs that fall apart after we leave. Unfortunately, this same story has been repeated in almost every developing nation around the globe.

Steve Saint, whose father was martyred with four other men trying to make contact with the Waodoni (Auca) people of Ecuador in 1956, has strong words to say against some of our most common missional mindsets. In an article in Mission Frontiers he says, "Our
goal in planting Christ's church where it doesn't exist must be to produce churches that are self-propagating, self-governing and self-supporting; especially where the members come from a background of hopelessness, powerlessness and inadequate resources." He goes on to say, "Financial help that does not develop sustainable, local, financial self-sufficiency is much more likely to create poverty than it is to meet real needs. Until we realize that we can't overcome poverty with handouts, we will never be much help in completing Christ's Great Commission."[1]

Saint realizes that the traditional mission field can become a mission force in its own context and beyond only if it is willing to resist the allure of outside intervention as the predominate solution to its most pressing needs. It is time for a breakthrough in how we think and thus act in terms of helping establish and support the church and impoverished communities worldwide. Although some catastrophic circumstances do merit an immediate aid and relief approach, very quickly we must turn our best efforts to helping local communities develop sustainable solutions to crises.  God has uniquely created people to thrive in their own environments, and we need to help them develop systemic solutions that will meet long-term needs without continual outside intervention. In most cases, being part of the solution requires us to resist the knee-jerk reaction to give benevolently when a more long-term approach of empowerment will foster greater independence and creative solutions in local communities.

Learning from the Savior

In Mark 6, Jesus' ministry had grown exponentially, to the point that he had to retreat to remote places to rest. Still, the masses of humanity found him, and on this day Jesus' compassionate heart to teach the people led to an impassioned appeal by his disciples. They realized it was late afternoon, they were in a remote location, and the people were hungry. As expected, they turned to their leader and asked him to take care of the problem. At this point, Jesus, quite capable of providing the solution to the difficult task of feeding five thousand people, put the responsibility back on them. "You feed them," he said. Incredulous, they explained to him the impossibility of his request. Jesus responded by asking them to find out what they did have, and they brought it to him. After thanking the Father for his ultimate provision, Jesus divided the loaves and fish and the masses were fed, with twelve baskets left over.

Why would a Savior who is so capable of providing the solutions to the most difficult challenges expect his disciples to solve their own seemingly impossible dilemma? Is it possible that knowing his remaining time on earth was short, Jesus wanted them to see and experience the power of God even while offering what little they themselves had as an
answer to the overwhelming situation? By challenging them to look at what they had in their own hands that could be miraculously multiplied and leveraged toward the solution, he was forcing them to become less dependent on his ability to solve their problems for them.

The Journey to Sustainability

As we seek to empower the local church to become sustainable and able to provide the answers to their societal problems, we must help them work collaboratively and creatively to begin the difficult process of community transformation using the resources that they have in their own hands. By believing with local church leaders that God will multiply what they have to offer in faith, their own sense of ownership and personal dignity will grow, and they will be empowered to discover creative and innovative responses to their most pressing needs. Considering our own ministry or missional context, we must ask ourselves some key questions:

  • Is our methodology or mechanism of planting churches, providing aid, or training creating long-term dependency or independence?
  • If we completely pulled out of our current ministry context, would the local people be able to carry on without any future intervention on our part? Why or why not?
  • What systemic changes might we make to our current approach that would help the indigenous leadership foster creative, sustainable solutions to their problems?

Some of us may feel hesitant about building a sustainable church presence in the developing world or struggle to find a new missional paradigm that doesn't create dependency. It has been said that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. As the purveyors of a new paradigm, we have the opportunity to teach a person how to fish and be able to provide for himself and his family. Taking this a step further, we must rise to the challenges that come from training a fisherman who inevitably cannot locate a fishable context-a lake that actually contains fish. Rather than slipping back into the old paradigm of giving him another fish, let's do the hard work of helping him develop strategies to find productive areas to fish, start fishing businesses, and provide for his own fishing equipment. Better yet, let's help him connect with others in his church who, by working together, can form a Fishing Cooperative that can provide a sustainable means to feed his entire community and beyond.

In our compassionate desire to help others, we may have the propensity to step in and be the hero when the going gets tough. But we must not do this, or we may jeopardize people's ability to learn through the process or arrest their growth and dependence on God. This journey from dependency to sustainability is a long and difficult one, but in the end the ability for the global church to rise and provide answers to their own challenges will allow them to become a powerful missions force for the glory of God. Let us pray for the empowerment of the global church and for new missional partnerships that result in a sustainable future and the acceleration of the gospel.

[1] Steve Saint, "Projecting Poverty Where It Doesn't Exist," Mission Frontiers,
September-October 2011,