Missional Thinking

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Weary donors around the world are searching for what will bring sustainable transformation to the poor. We must always ask, “What works that will last beyond the aid?” From more than 40 years of international work in some of the most distressed nations of the globe, my answer is simple – Local Leader Centered Development.

When local leaders are valued, honored, listened to, and empowered to execute transformational initiatives based on their dreams and visions, on the resources at hand and on the rhythm of their own culture, the change lasts.  The community is changed from the inside-out.  Ownership of the new reality is felt by the local population.  Creativity is fostered.  Diversity in unity is cultivated.  The leaders and people experience the dignity of being masters of their own destiny and stewards of their own resources.

I recently returned from 10 days in rural Zimbabwe, invited to facilitate a change process in this community of many distressed people.  Working with 85 local leaders, we helped them surface their own visions and dreams and grasp the assets that they already possess.  Relational trust grew as together they wrote plans to transform and develop their district.  They created a local development association with this mission statement:  “MAMUDA (Masembura and Musana Development Association) exists to promote sustainable development and empowerment by the local people for the future generations.  We encourage total control and ownership of the resources by the local community.”  Read more about our meeting in the Bulawayo News here.

Check back with me in a couple of years.  My experience tells me that outside-in project-centered development does not last, but inside-out Local Leader CenteredDevelopment does.  What are you practicing or investing in?  Does it last?

Gary Edmonds

After attending the 2013 Breakthrough Partners Network Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Christophe Mbonyingabo shares his reflections on the experience. Christophe left the conference with the goal of uniting individuals together through building trusting relationships to create sustainable, lasting partnerships. Additionally, Christophe now plans to mobilize resources to initiate change from the inside, using what God has blessed their community with, rather than relying on external sources of change.

See his response here:

Last week on this blog, we introduced the Breakthrough Partners Network conference that took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Read that post here. This week, we’ll continue looking at two key themes that arose out of this conference: unity and connection, through the eyes of Breakthrough Partners’ Director of Global Leadership Development Mark Mielbrecht.  

While on the long flight to Africa, Mark suddenly felt inspiration from God. As soon as they had landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he quickly acquired a map of Africa. Mark then tore it into  30 pieces. Later, as he spoke at the opening of the Breakthrough Partners Network (BPN) conference, Mark placed a piece of the divided map in front of each of the eager participants. “Each person had a piece of the bigger picture God was creating for the future of Africa,” Mark recalled. “Not until we put all of our individual pieces together could we see God’s vision for Africa, the place where God has called us to minister .”

After Mark had divided up the pieces, they taped the torn map back together, making it whole again. However, it was missing one small piece. “It was small, but clearly a gaping hole,” remembered Mark. It wasn’t until the last day that the final piece was placed to fully reconstruct the map. “It was clear,” said Mark, “that if even one of us doesn’t step in to fulfill the purpose God has for our life, the whole body will miss that  person’s contribution.”

Each of the leaders brought together in this conference are living into dedicated, fruitful ministries of service in their home communities. As a result of the conference, BPN is nudging these individual ministries to be collaborative, to work together and create sustainability in their work. In particular, the BPN network members are all seeking to create economic  engines so their ministry communities can be self-supporting.  This will enable local  leaders  to better meet the physical and spiritual needs of those they serve, and be less reliant on external support. In order to achieve this, the leaders who had gathered were encouraged to look for what they do currently have, to find what resources and skills they can bring to the table to initiate change. Ultimately, these leaders have promised to turn to each other, to collaborate, initiate, and help support the work of programs and projects being developed in their local context.

This is a movement of relationship and unity; a movement of connectedness and vulnerability to each other. These leaders have united and are seeking to follow God’s plan for their countries, so that true change, new change, will be brought to fruition.

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I went to the mailbox today and pulled out two envelopes designed to end human suffering. Interestingly, as I studied both vastly different appeals, I realized that neither was providing a long-term solution to this human dilemma. The first appeal was to my “need” for a respite from my own pain. A 3-D mailer, a cruise ship literally popped out of the water as I unfolded it. It promised “delights in every detail,” the opportunity to see “wondrous parts of the world” and experience the “the exhilarating allure and bold adventure” of a world-class cruise. For ten thousand dollars I can “get away” from it all for a week, ignore my problems and the hassles of life and experience decadent pleasures beyond belief. Oh, if only it could last!

In sharp contrast, the second mailer didn’t even need you to open it to capture your emotions“On the verge of extinction. No Food.  No Water. How Long Can They Survive?” was the tagline on the front of the envelope. The back had a photo of a suffering child and the phrase, “Imagine your body is so hungry IT STARTS TO EAT ITSELF.”  Motivated by a heart of compassion, this organization claims that your gift of just $27 will be multiplied 5X and will help bring children back from the “brink of starvation.” Who wouldn’t be compelled to answer this bold, gut-wrenching appeal to save poor, helpless children from certain destruction? Oh, if only it could last!

The problem with both appeals is that neither one offers a sustainable solution to human suffering. After seven days of being pampered with the finest food, entertainment and scenery, I will return to the reality of my challenging life. On the other hand, a bag of rice can only stave off hunger for a day or a week. What happens when that is consumed? Another mailer goes out. More money is raised, and more rice is handed out.

The way an outside organization enters a community will determine the way the local people respond. If the organization brings money or goods, the locals will see them as providers of aid and will simply wait for the next hand out. If an outsider enters in order to discuss ways to help the local people become self-supporting, the locals will see them as trainers and coaches encouraging them to develop sustainable solutions. The reality is these are creative, resourceful people who have survived thousands of years in their particular environments without the charity of Western donors. What they really need is to be given the opportunity and the incentive to become change agents right where they have been uniquely planted as “the display of God’s splendor” (Isaiah 61:4).

During a crisis, immediate aid and relief are definitely needed. But to keep people in perpetual crisis by taking away their incentive to discover solutions to their own problems is nothing short of criminal. The amount of aid flowing from Western nations to developing nations is shrinking dramatically as the Global economic crisis deepens. More aid is not the answer! They must be reminded that they too bear the image of a living God; the world needs their strength and dignity as contributors not charity cases. Their own leaders must be given the incentive to lead and the tools and training to maximize their potential to advance the Kingdom of God in every segment of their society. Their soil is rich and needs their stewardship to maximize its yield. The long-term sustainable solution to their suffering can only come from an inside-out approach led by capable, visionary local leadership.

Please feel free to respond to these bi-monthly Breakthroughs in Missional Thinking, we need your voice in this ongoing dialogue about how the Christian Church engages in missions in this rapidly changing world and culture.


Mark Mielbrecht

Director of Global Leadership Development

Men washing stones in a riverLawrence Temfwe, Executive Director of The Jubilee Center in Zambia, offers the following perspective on poverty:

“In Zambia rural poverty stands at 70% with the national rate 60%.  The World Bank believes that with the strength of our economy circling around 5.5% annually, we have the potential to eradicate poverty.  This is a common story in African countries south of the Sahara where oil, copper, diamonds and other natural resources have exemplified the perverse paradox dubbed the ‘resource curse.’

“It is shameful that the massive wealth being extracted from our country is not bringing greater prosperity. Equitable development is nowhere to be found in these nations which are dominated by Christians claiming to be guided by biblical beliefs. There is no reason whatsoever that an average Christian in Africa should be destitute when the very issues the Bible says cause poverty are lived out daily in African churches. To an African Christian living in a poor community, the Biblical narrative may read like an autobiography or a “day in the life.” Indeed, the world the Bible describes consists of widows and orphans, polygamous families, diseases, tribal and ethnic conflict, property rights, corruption, plagues and famine, poverty and unjust systems, all to which the African Christian has grown accustomed.

“Thankfully, the Bible tells us what the ‘righteous’ ought to be doing in those situations and what results can be yielded.  Mordecai was a “preeminent person among the Jews, and was held in high esteem by his fellow Jews because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all Jews” (Esther 10:3). In Luke Chapter 5 we see Jesus heal a man with leprosy. Leprosy had social, spiritual and physical consequences and when Jesus healed him He addressed each one. After he healed him Jesus tells him to go to the temple and have fellowship with the brethren who otherwise would not accept him. His healing was holistic.

“God’s vision is for the church to be an agent of spiritual, physical and relational restoration.  The church in Africa has a great opportunity to disciple Christians to be effective in evangelism and in tackling the social and economic issues such as poverty, corruption and environmental degradation that plague our nations. How is your church helping people become devoted followers of Christ who are making an impact on our culture?”

Here at Breakthrough Partners, we realize that biblical Christianity does not separate a person’s spiritual life from the rest of his life. In the Western World we tend to think of our faith in very dualistic terms which separates our spirituality from the whole of life. It is time to embrace a more robust faith which involves the whole person and the health of the entire community which we all share. Jesus “saves” us for eternity, yes! But He is also interested in the restoration of “all things.” Does your faith embrace the need for societal or systemic healing? Jesus did.

Please feel free to respond to these Breakthroughs in Missional Thinking. We need your voice in this ongoing dialogue about how the Christian Church engages in mission in our rapidly changing world and culture.


Mark Mielbrecht
Director of Global Leadership Development

Many non-profit organizations have good intentions. Compassionate people want to give to the less fortunate, doing their part to “end” poverty, hunger and suffering around the world. The problem is that particularly in the Global North, poverty is seen as simply a lack of material goods or resources. The well-meaning solutions are based on alleviating material symptoms by offering the goods or resources that appear to be lacking. Food, medical equipment, clothes, and money have been shipped to the Global South in staggering amounts. Unfortunately, this has done little to end the cycle of poverty. Why?

Poverty is a very complex issue that often manifests itself as a lack of material resources. Yet, poverty has much to do with the psychological, moral and relational health of a person. In a World Bank report, Voices of the Poor: Can anyone hear us?  40,000 poor people from 47 countries were interviewed regarding the issues of poverty. More than a lack of material resources, the lack of a voice, power and control over their lives, and equality for women contributed profoundly to a state of perpetual poverty. One poor woman from Moldova said, “Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease.  It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one’s dignity and drives one to total despair.”  Furthermore, Bryant Myers in Walking With the Poor recognizes that “Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life…”

I would submit to you that the average homeless person on the streets of America is not simply dealing with the fact that he doesn’t have a home. He has in some way lost the social safety net that most people rely on when they face difficulties. What appears to be the result of a loss of financial stability is likely related to a loss of relationships and the social equity that keeps us connected to those around us. The systemic causes of poverty are very difficult to discern in surface assessments. An honest and perhaps personally invasive assessment of what brought him to this broken place of dependency is needed to bring about systemic change.

We must realize that an aid and relief approach will not end poverty but will only relieve some of the symptoms. In order to provide the kind of systemic solutions that are needed we must also answer some hard questions. If your well-intentioned approach is doing more to keep someone in a state of poverty than it is actually helping, are you willing to change? Is your church or ministry willing to consider the implications of a long term, systemic approach to poverty that includes the healing of the whole person? 

Please feel free to respond to the Breakthroughs in Missional Thinking. We need your voice in this ongoing dialogue about how the Christian Church engages in missions in this rapidly changing world and culture.

Mark Mielbrecht
Director of Global Leadership Development

In a remote African village the children were being ravaged by cholera, parasites, and a host of other water-borne diseases. A medical missions team assessed their situation and prescribed the need for clean water to end these preventable illnesses. An American church soon heard the story and the money was quickly raised to build a well. Within days, blue jerry cans brimming with crystal clear water and the smiling children playing in the flow gave a happy ending to this tragic story. The missions team left, the benevolent givers were happy, and the situation was resolved, right?

Unfortunately, the story was far from over. A year or so later some of the medical team checked on the children. To their surprise not only had the water-borne diseases returned, but the village was now further from the well. Unbeknownst to the Western missionaries and the supporting church, this village had been in relational conflict with a neighboring tribe for quite some time. The new well, built as a beacon of hope for the future of the village, had become a weapon in the hands of the more dominant tribe and this weaker tribe had lost all use and benefit of the new water source.

Too often, in our assessment of the needs of a community in the developing world, we don’t take the time to look into the deeper, systemic issues that are much less tangible than digging a well or building a house. What this village really needed was to be reconciled with its neighbor. All the clean water in the world would not solve this deeper issue that was preventing them from using the new well.

At Breakthrough Partners we are committed to walking in relationship with the local people in order to discover the systemic issues and to help facilitate an inside-out solution to their problems. By bringing the leaders of the different villages together and working through these tribal differences, a process of forgiveness and reconciliation can begin to transform the relational landscape. Now, the well can serve both villages equally and the entire region can benefit from this life-giving water source.

As you consider your missional contribution to a community, are you willing to take the time to discover the deeper systemic issues that may make your current ideas for intervention a moot point? Are you willing to walk alongside the leaders of these communities to make sure they actually have the identified needs and the means and knowledge to sustain these projects for their well-being? How will the rest of the community or neighboring communities react to your intervention? We must come with eyes and ears wide open and a listening heart in order to avoid a “war of the wells” situation.

Please feel free to respond to these bi-monthly Breakthroughs in Missional Thinking. We need your voice in this ongoing dialogue about how the Christian Church engages in missions in this rapidly changing world and culture.

Mark Mielbrecht
Director of Global Leadership Development

ManWithSacksIn over 200 years of missions and an average of $20 billion in AID and RELIEF efforts given annually for the past several decades, Africa remains a complicated web of poverty, injustice, faction, corruption, and opposing religious ideologies. Why? Is God powerless to change this? Is money, education and medicine the wrong focus? What is at the heart of this perceived failure? In the cleared sections of jungle in Congo DR 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. In our most compassionate, loving, and Christ-like manner we have created an insatiable thief that has robbed so many impoverished people of dignity and the desire to dream, initiate, and be creative in finding  their own solutions to the spiritual and economic complexities of Africa and other places on the planet. We have created DEPENDENCY on Western aid and expertise and in many ways have created artificial environments dependent on the methodology of our imported church or mission philosophy that fall apart after we leave.

Steve Saint, whose father was martyred with four other men trying to make contact with the Waodoni (Auca) people of Peru in 1956, had strong words to say against some of our most common missional mindsets. In a September 2011 article in the Journal for the U.S. Center for World Missions he said: 

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. The most important aspect of church planting is whatever that fledgling congregation needs most. In a growing number of cases, the greatest need new churches have is to become self-supporting.

Giving handouts creates more problems than it solves. It is like casting out demons with long leases. Break the lease or they will come back and bring more roommates (Lk 11:24–26). Where the Church is being established among people that perceive themselves as powerless, there is a great need for deep discipleship, wrestling with the roots of poverty at the community level rather than concentrating on the individual.

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.” (Click here to read the article)

It is time for a major breakthrough in how we think and thus act in terms of helping to establish and support the Church and impoverished communities in some of these difficult contexts. God has given us amazing hearts to help those in need, and this is so beautiful! In those cases of widespread catastrophe we must first stop the bleeding. But very quickly we must transfer the triage and care to the local community or they will become overly dependent on our solutions and we will become unnecessarily entrenched. 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 bring much more independence and creative solutions to the local community. We must ask ourselves, “What is the potential long-term harm or benefit from our current missional approach?” “Who is in perceived leadership right now?” “How am I raising up indigenous leadership to be fully capable to do what I am now doing?” “How is my approach creating dependency?”

Please feel free to respond to these weekly Breakthroughs in Missional Thinking. We need your voice in this ongoing dialogue about how the Christian Church engages in missions in this rapidly changing world and culture.

Mark Mielbrecht
Director of Global Leadership Development

FeetI am sure we all resonate with the words of the prophet Isaiah “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News…”  However, in this world of so much political, economic, social and ideological unrest, the question of how we bring that Good News must be re-visited. Is a traditional missional approach based primarily on proclamation evangelism, still putting our best “foot” forward?  I think we need to take a hard look at how we can win the right to be heard in cultures with a spiritual ideology very different from our own.  What does it mean to develop long-term social credibility so that your proclamation will one day be welcomed and your thoughts and ideas embraced, because you have established the trusting relationships of the community at large?

In the remote, impoverished and civil war-torn region of Ouelle, Ivory Coast, one of our indigenous partners gathered 870 women from twenty-one different villages and began a savings and credit association. They were able to help each other with micro-loans and many small businesses began to flourish.  Through Dominique’s leadership these women developed a business plan to purchase, use, and maintain a grain mill which cut their manual labor of grinding grain from five hours down to five minutes per day.  With this dramatic increase in available time, these women can now sell excess flour, provide for their children’s medical needs, and begin a literacy program where 600 illiterate women and their children are now learning to read and write using the Bible as their textbook.

The astounding fact is that only 2% of these women were Christians when they first gathered.  63% were animists, and 35% were Muslim.  They came together because they all shared the same real physical needs, and this new community gave them very tangible ways to not only survive, but to learn and grow, and to seek the peace and prosperity of those around them.  They are all now reading and hearing the Good News on a daily basis and have experienced Christ, incarnationally through Dominique and the other believers whom they are now in relationship with.

As you consider your own ministry context, what would it look like to enter your target community in an incarnational way?  How beautiful are your feet to the community in which you are ministering?   What is your “lead foot”, and how are you winning the right to be heard?  This is obviously a long-term approach, and doesn’t make for impressive evangelism statistics, in the beginning…  However, I believe wholeheartedly that the eventual results will be immeasurably more than we can possibly imagine and the Kingdom of God will advance in ways that are truly transforming the entire community!  

Please feel free to respond to these weekly Breakthroughs in Missional Thinking, we need your voice in this ongoing dialogue about how the Christian Church engages in missions in this rapidly changing world and culture.

Mark Mielbrecht
Director of Global Leadership Development

HeartLiving amongst the terrible tragedy of the Aids epidemic, a South African pastor began a ministry to mobilize many communities to train and educate their vulnerable young people about the consequences of HIV, unprotected sexual activity, and pregnancy.  After these programs had been established the rate of pregnancies and sexual relations actually increased.  In disbelief, the founding pastor asked the question, “Haven’t they been educated!?”  He started interviewing the kids as to why the problems had actually increased with the provided training and was struck by one young girl’s reply.  “There are no jobs, no housing, we have no hope for a better life… Even though we know better, there is no reason to do anything different.  Maybe if I get aids I’ll get out of this hell-hole sooner!”

When people live in a state of despair and without hope, they often move to a state of despondence and fatalism where they don’t care about the consequences of their behavior.  In these kinds of desperate environments a missional approach of simply training, educating, giving money or establishing programs will not produce long term results.  Only through the establishment of trusting relationships and genuine friendship and love can these systemic issues of despair and hopelessness really be addressed resulting in measurable improvements over time.  When the local Church is empowered to really act as neighbors, and fathers and mothers to these vulnerable populations within a given community, it can stand alongside those in need as “oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:3b)

As you consider your missional approach to providing training, education, or in funding programs overseas, how are you empowering the local church to be in loving relationship with the beneficiaries?  How is your aid and relief approach connected to indigenous agencies who have established relational approaches for walking long-term with the recipients of your aid?  What changes in your approach might be needed at this point to ensure that trusting relationships and hope will be there long after you are gone?     

Please feel free to respond to these weekly Breakthroughs in Missional Thinking; we need your voice in this ongoing dialogue about how the Christian Church engages in missions in this rapidly changing world and culture.


Mark Mielbrecht
Director of Global Leadership Development

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