The Church's Calling: Community Transformation

A few years ago Tearfund embarked on a big gamble, putting its reputation, its ideas, its way of working at risk.


Tearfund invited a research university to design a study, to test the real impact of our model of empowering local churches (what we call Church and Community Transformation, or CCT). After all, there are other models of community development besides Tearfund’s⏤sometimes outside organizations work directly with community members, bypassing local churches. Or they use the local church is a kind of staging area for program implementation, where local churches are invited to participate in but not be in charge of the development work.


Tearfund’s model is different. The local church is empowered and inspired to drive community development, learning to read and map their own history and situation. They discover that they are the experts in what their community needs, and that they have their own local resources to deploy to meet those needs. They can make their own decisions and not become dependent on the initiative and funding of outside organizations.  


But does it work? Can churches become change agents in their communities, and is there a measurable impact on the poorest of the poor? That’s what Tearfund asked the research university to find out.


They picked a very risky study design. 


The university recruited and trained interviewers to go into villages in Uganda where Tearfund worked and into villages where Tearfund did not work. The interviewers were to ask very basic questions about what life was like in the village, what changes people had seen in recent years, and what they thought caused the changes. 


But the researchers were not told they were working for Tearfund, or even which villages had experienced Tearfund’s model of community development and which hadn’t. The villagers did not know either. A “double-blind” study prevents researchers from trying to please the sponsors of the study, and it keeps participants from giving researchers the answer they think they want. 


What they discovered was surprising. 


People who lived in villages where Tearfund had deployed a CCT model reported big improvements in overcoming material poverty, better relationships with each other, a recognition that they now had hope, confidence, and a stronger faith. They reported that their mindsets had changed, that they saw their own ability to change their lives. 


What did they attribute the changes to? 


Not Tearfund.


Everyone talked about the local churches, the ones that Tearfund and its partners had worked to inspire. People talked about the teaching, the workshops, the Bible studies, and the relationships at church that enabled them to live a new life. 


That’s another feature of working through local churches, and coaching them to lead the local community in a process of transformation. Tearfund is behind the scenes, a catalyst for change, stepping aside to see Jesus’s church lead the way in the gospel work of restoration and reconciliation. 


There are probably three and a half million churches in the world. When those churches are inspired and empowered to realize what God has created them for, the world will change. 


They have been commissioned by Jesus to go and make disciples everywhere, to reconcile people to God, and to teach them his ways. They are the agents of change in the revolution that Jesus began, who inherited the mission he announced in Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry:


The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind, 

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.


God’s plan for the world is to announce this good news everywhere, and to use churches to do it. They are the experts on the issues their communities face, they know their neighbors, they understand their fears and sufferings, their hopes and dreams. 


The church exists in places that many NGOs can’t go, or won’t go. Churches are already in place when disasters strike, they stay put through the worst, and they remain after the emergency relief trucks pull away. 


Putting the church at the center takes time because it involves personal transformation for church leaders first. It means investing in discipling and training church members to see themselves as God’s agents of change in their communities. Often it takes three years to see a church fully embody their calling to be restorers and reconcilers in their community. 


We think it’s totally worth it. 


If you’re a leader in a church in the US and you’d like to read the full research study from which this article is drawn, download Flourishing Churches, Flourishing Communities.