Film and Book Reviews

Faith must shine at centre of aid work

BookAnglican Overseas Aid CEO Bob Mitchell has a compelling insight into the role of faith based organisations can make a difference

By Steve Bradbury

May 11 2017Faith-Based Development: How Christian Organizations Can Make a Difference, by Bob Mitchell. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2017 $49.95)

Let me be clear from the very beginning – this is not a dispassionate review of a book in which I have little interest. Rather, having devoted 25 years of my life to leading a faith-based development organisation, and another nine years to developing and facilitating a Master-level programme in transformational development, the issues scrutinised in this book really matter to me.

Consequently, I am grateful that Bob Mitchell has provided an informed and thoughtful analysis of the context in which faith-based Christian development organisations currently work. His examination of the challenges and opportunities that confront them is both astute and compelling.

The book is helpfully organised, making it easy to work your way around. Along with a very brief history of development, the early chapters introduce key themes examined in greater detail later in the book, including: the secularisation of development and the implications of this for faith-based Christian development organisations; the relationship between the development agenda and the Gospel which is good news to the poor; the need for a vigilant application of core faith principles into the day-to-day workings of faith-based Christian development organisations.

At the heart of the book Mitchell explores the role of faith in shaping and sustaining Christian development practitioners, and in the organisational life of faith-based Christian development organisations. This exploration is largely based on detailed research done within World Vision internationally, which Mitchell was able to access in his former life as a senior staff member in World Vision. Mitchell’s analysis of these crucial issues would have been enriched had he been able to extend this research beyond World Vision to other major international Christian development agencies.

In recent years there has been a significant increase in the secular development world’s acknowledgment of the significance of religious faith among the great majority of the world’s poor. This has led to an increased interest in the possibility, therefore, that faith-based development agencies could have a comparative advantage when it comes to partnering with poor communities in sustainable development initiatives. Mitchell’s succinct analysis of this is both helpful and constructive. While acknowledging that “the dangers for governments and policymakers of greater engagement with religious organisations are real”, he argues persuasively for deeper levels of dialogue between faith-based Christian development organisations and secular development institutions.

In the final chapter of the book, Mitchell challenges the nomenclature of “faith-based development” and passionately argues the need for Christian development organisations to be “faithfully-based”. They need to be “dedicated and intentional in bringing faith to bear on organisational life. Christian faith should not sit awkwardly and hesitantly on the margins, but should shine at the centre. It must find its expression, not in nostalgic reflection, but in present inspiration and empowerment.”

This is such an important call. Indeed, it is a prophetic call. The faith in “faith-based” can so easily become but an echo of a distant tradition (history is replete with examples), or a tacked-on “devotional” to processes and practices that do not intimately reflect the values and character of the kingdom of God. Mitchell helpfully identifies several of the pressure points, and pleads for a deep penetration of faith into organisational systems and processes.

Faith-Based Development: How Christian Organizations Can Make a Difference is a book for all committed supporters of such organisations and serious students of development. It should be required reading for staff and board members of Christian faith-based development organisations intent on understanding the challenges and embracing the opportunities that confront us in these times. I have already included it in the reading lists for my students.

Steve Bradbury lectures in transformational development at Eastern College Australia and is the former National Director of TEAR Australia.