Today, there are 844 million people around the world without access to clean water; 2.5 billion do not use a toilet to manage their waste. And 3.4 billion people are unreached with the gospel.
The intersection of all three of these is predominately rural villages dominated by animism and other folk religions. What should be our priority as Christians? Provide communities with access to clean water and improved health, or proclaim the transforming truth of the gospel?
As the leader of a Christian water organization, I’ve struggled with this dilemma for years. I firmly believe that we must serve the whole person (body and soul), and I also believe that Christ must be central to all our efforts. If we solely preach the gospel, we ignore their basic physical needs. If we only give them water, teach about hygiene, and build toilets at schools, we feel like we’ve neglected the Christian nature of our work.
How can we meaningfully address people’s physical needs while fulfilling the Great Commission? Here are some guiding principles we have found helpful:
First, clarify our categories.
I don’t believe drilling a well, installing a pump, and teaching people to wash their hands fulfills the Great Commission. It is important work worthy of our support. It can drastically improve people’s lives. However, by itself, it isn’t what Christ commissions the church to do.
I also don’t believe preaching the gospel while ignoring the crisis and hurt people are experiencing is consistent with biblical ethics. Jesus makes it clear that we have a responsibility to help the person who has been attacked by robbers and left for dead (Luke 10:25-37). To simply walk past is not consistent with the teaching of Jesus to his disciples.
Keeping these categories distinct is extremely important. The disciples kept these categories distinct in Acts 6. They felt the need to make sure widows were being cared for while also maintaining a firm commitment to the proclamation of God’s Word. They weren’t willing to sacrifice either, and nor should we.
People are hurting, vulnerable, and in crisis around the world. Whether it is their health, personal safety, or economics, the average person living in a rural village lives in the midst of hardship and loss that we can’t begin to fathom.
As the church, we cannot act like these crises do not exist or that they lie outside the scope of the church’s mission. Moreover, we cannot ignore the spiritual darkness which often perpetuates and underlies these issues.
Second, keep the local church central.
The local church in villages around the world is in the best position to serve people in crisis and introduce them to the hope of the gospel. Faith-based community development organizations like Lifewater are just part of the supply chain for the local church. We do not specialize in gathering Christians for fellowship or preaching and teaching the Scriptures.
Rather, we are part of the global church who can come alongside churches who want to address the health crisis in their village.
Western Christians cannot (and probably should not) be the face of humanitarianism around the world. Rather, the local church and local believers should be the hands and feet of Jesus to their neighbors. The church was there before clean water and will be there after it arrives.
If a local church doesn’t exist, the humanitarian work becomes a strategic opportunity to plant a church in that village.
Parachurch organizations are at their best when they become contractors for the local church. As westerners, we use contractors to do things which are beyond our competence or capacity. The local church is often not skilled at handling job training, drilling water wells, improving sanitation, or disaster relief. We should not expect them to do so.
Likewise, parachurch organizations are not “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). Humanitarian organizations need to know their role as contractor and treat the local church as the true owner.
What should a local church do when they encounter a village with a health crisis due in part to the lack of clean water? They should maintain their focus on gathering and equipping the saints while also partnering with a Christian organization that is skilled at addressing complex health, hygiene and water issues.
The local church is God’s plan for transforming the world. It always has been and always will be. As the local church carries out its mission in villages around the world, it will encounter people in crisis. As they seek to address the various needs of people in crisis, they will have to draw upon the wisdom and work of parachurch organizations.
Third, integrate everything.
Although parachurch organizations do not preach and baptize, we can still integrate the gospel into every aspect of our work. It starts with our vision statement, permeates our corporate values, influences our hiring decisions, and becomes a measuring stick for our success.
We must not be ashamed of the gospel as we go about our work of helping each and every family improve their health. It is the motivation and goal of our work.
How can we integrate the gospel while provide access to clean water? Here are some examples of the ways we have found to integrate the gospel into everything we do:
Hire only local Christian staff. This one is becoming increasingly difficult as we serve further and further into remote regions. Shared mission is an important element of our work, and misalignment of values will result in compromised priorities and results.
Practice corporate prayer. At our headquarters and in our field offices, teams gather together to pray for the communities that they serve, and the hardships that they face–every day. This is a discipline that I plan for our organization to retain for generations.
Share your experience. We thoughtfully equip local believers to teach their peers about improving their health through proper water, sanitation, and hygiene practices. As they establish meaningful relationships with their neighbors, they are invited to respectfully share about the God who loves and cares for them. These materials must be culturally appropriate and accessible to even those who are preliterate.
Host Bible studies. The Bible is filled with stories of people in crisis and how God cares for them. We invite people to Bible studies at the local church to learn more about God’s concern for their welfare—here and now. As we train village residents in proper sanitation techniques, we integrate principles and stories from Scripture. Many whom we serve think of God in a negative sense or as removed from their health concerns. By incorporating Scripture into sanitation lessons, it introduces people to God’s lordship over all aspects of life and his desire for his creatures to flourish.
Produce quality and professional work. Water wells that break down after 18 months because of poor craftsmanship or engineering are a poor reflection of Christ and his Church to an unbelieving world. Trainings that don’t result in meaningful changes do not strengthen our witness. Parachurch organizations should be at the forefront of their practice, and should provide services that are so good that the poor communities would pay for if the had the means.
Clean water or the gospel? Yes. The answer is both. Like the Good Samaritan, we cannot ignore the crisis people are experiencing. Like the apostles in Acts 6, we cannot abandon the preaching of the gospel while addressing people’s crisis. The apostles found capable people to make sure the widow’s needs were met.
Today, local churches can draw upon parachurch organizations to help address issues in their local communities.
Justin Narducci is the President and CEO of Lifewater International, the oldest Christian WASH organization in North America.