Analyzing the diversity of faith-based development NGOs

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Despite predictions of the inevitable advance of secularism, the world remains strongly religious, as evidenced by the resurgence of politically and socially active religious identities in many parts of the world. Many observers have also argued that Western secular-rational models of development (whether neo-liberal or socialist) are failing. As a result, development actors and scholars are examining the relationship of religion and development as well as the role of faith-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in development efforts. Yet such analysis is no simple matter, given the diverse approaches adopted and roles played by faith-based organizations. Faith-based international NGOs like MCC have long wrestled with how faith and religion, on the one hand, and development and social action, on the other hand, should be related, both theologically and programmatically.

In this article I contribute to this discussion by, first, summarizing and critiquing common typologies of classifying faith-based development organizations. Alternatively, I then propose a three-fold typology of faithbased NGOs, describing the differing theological positions undergirding these three types of faith-based organizations. As with all typologies, this framework for understanding the diversity of faith-based NGOs can be
accused of over-simplifying, yet I hope that the typology might nevertheless generate productive reflection.

Development scholars and actors have proposed various classifications of faith-based development NGOs. Almost all of these approaches adopt a ‘more-to-less’ continuum, categorizing organizations by the (declining) degree of integration of religious belief and development approaches (see, for example, Berger, 2003; Sider and Unruh, 2004; and Clarke, 2008). Such models implicitly follow a type of secularization theory, which assumes that since religion is separate from the rest of culture, it can simply be removed to leave the rest intact.

Countering such models, other writers argue that a continuum approach follows an overly narrow definition of religion, an argument I find  generally persuasive. Rather than defining religion exclusively in terms of belief in a deity or spiritual reality, these scholars contend that traditional religions are only one type of foundational belief system or worldview (e.g. Deneulin with Bano 2009 for a discussion specifically related to religion and development; Naugle, 2002; and most broadly, Calhoun, Juergensmeyer and VanAntwerpen, 2011). All cultures and people-groups hold to certain ‘fundamental agreements’ on what the purpose of human life is and what it means to ‘live well’ (and so become ‘developed’). Thus, all definitions of development (and therefore the goals and purpose of all development organizations) are rooted in faith-like commitments and
traditions. Some of these convictions undergirding differing understandings of development are held through traditionally religious faith, and others are now held through modern secular warranted belief, but all are a type of belief system. The diversity of faith-based and secular development organizations should therefore, these scholars contend, be analyzed as embodying different (religious) beliefs and commitments rather than along a spectrum of more-or-less religious belief.

As my contribution to the ongoing work of analyzing religious actors in development, I propose a conceptual grouping of (Christian) faith-based development NGOs into three categories (faith-based humanitarian, missional, and transformational), with NGOs in each grouping reflecting underlying theological understandings of the world that shape the divergent ways these NGOs approach development. I developed this typology in part based on my research over many years into different faithbased NGOs operating in Haiti.

Faith-based humanitarian NGOs understand their development work as a witness to or expression of God’s love and justice. They draw inspiration for action from religious teachings, but their programming is largely similar to other development organizations. Following the humanitarian aid principle of independence (i.e., that aid should be independent of any political objectives), these organizations do not attempt to directly create any type of ‘religious belief’ change in those they assist. Serving those in need or suffering injustice, for these NGOs, is their Christian witness, their response to the experience of God’s love and Jesus’ incarnation. Service (deed) and evangelism (proclamation) are separated into two separate spheres and roles. This separation of service from evangelism can arise from missiologies that view service as a sufficient witness to God’s love, with evangelistic proclamation of Christ viewed as inappropriate or
exclusivist in a pluralist world. Others view such separation as necessary in order to guard against un-Christ-like conditional assistance that takes advantage of vulnerable and marginalized peoples.

Missional NGOs also separate service and evangelism, but to different ends. [I recognize that some people use the term missional differently than I do here, employing it to describe what I call transformational, viewingthe mission of faith-based organizations being the integral and radical transformation of all life.] For such organizations, service ministry is important, but primarily for its role in preparing the way for the ultimately
more important evangelistic ministry of accompanying people on the path to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. This flows out of a more dualistic body/soul theology. Even when such agencies do not engage in explicit proselytizing, agency staff are expected to be able to testify to their gospel hope when beneficiaries (project participants) raise ‘spiritual’ questions and concerns.

Between these two positions, transformational faith-based NGOs reject dualistic approaches to human life, grounded in the conviction that all areas of life are and should be shaped by foundational Christian commitments. Faith cannot be set aside to make way for purportedly neutral humanitarian efforts, be they in disaster response, education, food security, health or peacebuilding. Rather, for these organizations, development efforts are shaped by and flow from a comprehensive Christian vision of human flourishing. Authentic partnerships, with both organizational and community-based partners, requires that all parties should openly dialogue on their foundational, normative sources of meaning and hope that foster human flourishing.

Typologies typically conclude with the type preferred by the scholar who produced the typology, and this typology is no different: I find the transformational type to be most faithful to the Christian calling. I readily acknowledge that the compartmentalizing approach to faith adopted by the organizations in my faith-based humanitarian category can be attractive: knowing how to appropriately, peacefully and non-coercively witness to our faith is difficult. In certain times and places humanitarian action can be our only witness. Yet authentic witness in the name of Christ should testify in word as well as in deed to the comprehensive and radical nature of God’s transforming love to reconcile all of humanity and creation to God.

Ray Vander Zaag is Associate Professor of International Development Studies at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, MB.

Learn more:

Berger, Julia. “Religious Nongovernmental Organizations: An Exploratory Analysis.” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 14/1 (2003): 15-39.

Calhoun, Craig J., Mark Juergensmeyer and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Rethinking Secularism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Clarke, Gerard. “Faith-based Organizations and International Development: An Overview.” In Development, Civil Society and Faith-based Organizations: Bridging the Sacred and the Secular. Ed. Gerard Clarke and Michael Jennings, 17-45. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Deneulin, Severine, with M. Bano. Religion in Development: Rewriting the Secular Script. London: Zed Books, 2009.

Naugle, David. Worldview: The History of a Concept. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.

Sider, Ronald J. and Heidi Rolland Unruh. “Typology of Religious Characteristics of Social Service and Educational Organizations and Programs.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 33/1 (2004): 109-134.


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