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For some time now I have been on a journey to understand how people change. One of my breakthroughs came several years ago during a visit to rural Cambodia.
Surprising change agents
When my wife and two sons said goodbye to our friends in Kigali, Rwanda, a country where we had lived for nearly two years, we chose to fly home the long way—through Asia. A day after arriving in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, we drove beyond the frenetic city through a patchwork of rice patties to a cluster of villages only an hour away.
A group of smiling children led us up the wooden steps of a home. Inside, on a plank floor covered with woven carpets, we met three children, their parents, and a radiant grandmother. Smiling, we told them how our Rwandan friends instructed us to ‘greet them with our teeth’. As we did, the room lit up with laughter, each returning the favor. Then the grandmother drew attention to her mouth, her smile enveloping her eyes as she pointed to her only tooth. We all joined in for another round of laughter.
After the exchange of greetings, we sang praise songs in Khmer. Someone read the Bible. We listened as they told stories about their work to help stem HIV/AIDS in their village; and we prayed together.
Then a woman in her 30s carefully slipped through the open door. She had come from a friend who was sick with HIV. She told us how she had administered medicine two days before. Then she began to cry. ‘I visited her again last night but she was getting worse. All I could do was pray’, she said, fearing her friend’s death. ‘I am late because I have just come from her. Today she is talking and walking! I am so happy’, she said, tears streaming down her face. ‘God has healed her!’
What impacted me most about the people I met in Cambodia is this: the change I witnessed was exclusively led by people many would consider vulnerable, helpless, or even victims.
If you have ever been to Cambodia, you know how its 12 million people have suffered. Cambodia’s child mortality rates are alarmingly high and most Cambodians live in rural areas with inadequate access to education, water, financial services, or medical care. In addition, Cambodia has one of the highest HIV infection rates in all of Asia.
Cambodia is also one of the least Christianized countries in the world. Only 2% of Cambodians are Christ-followers. Buddhism shapes the core of the social, political, and cultural life of Cambodia.
Way of Hope genesis
Years ago my colleagues in Cambodia pioneered a community banking initiative which is now a separate institution serving in excess of 35,000 families. In its early days, when parents were gathering in groups to borrow money and repay their loans, their children had nothing to do. So one of our staff members started a community health evangelism (CHE) project for children.
Their health significantly improved and many children chose to follow Jesus. Their parents began to ask why their children were so much better off. They, too, began to change their health practices and follow Jesus. In response, my colleagues organized the adults into small groups which, much to their surprise, gave way to a cell church movement which they now call Way of Hope in Khmer.
Today Way of Hope is a movement of 12,000 Cambodian Christ followers, organized into more than 1,000 cell churches, reaching out to children and families in more than 170 villages in five provinces. Its members emphasize prayer and worship, local ownership, child participation, and service. Volunteer leaders do not, as a norm, have a high level of education; some are illiterate. Participation, storytelling, and interactive methods are used to overcome these barriers.
Way of Hope members meet underneath homes built on stilts:
For us, church means a group of people in the community where people can meet, can talk about God’s word—not only on Sunday. So our church is that we want them to come together, five people or ten people. Our church is a church with no walls.1
Way of Hope taught me something essential about church, community, and change—I still reflect on what I have learned from my Cambodian friends. Way of Hope moves beyond an instrumental, or utilitarian, ecclesiology. In para-church circles, it is common to view the church primarily as a means to end, as a vehicle to serve the poor and oppressed.
However, my Khmer friends believe the church is also the goal of mission—‘in constant need of repentance and conversion’ to become all it is meant to be.2, 3 Way of Hope views church as both a vehicle of mission in reaching out to the greater community, and an object of mission for renewal, discipleship, and worship. The cells are little communities of hope incarnating the presence of Christ into the pressing problems of the rural Cambodian landscape.
Way of Hope also breaks through common dichotomies. The cells emphasize both word and deed expressions of the gospel, not merely alongside each other, but rather in an integrated, interdependent fashion.4 To be a cell member is to worship and to worship is to reach out. Also, its leadership includes female volunteers, very few of whom are formally trained for the ministry, but who are deeply engaged in the community. By moving beyond male/female and clergy/laity dichotomies, the cells empower not only those closest to the needs, but also those who feel most called to serve.
Lastly, Way of Hope moves beyond working ‘on behalf of the poor’ to allowing the poor to become their own agents of change. Too often, well-intentioned outsiders seek to work ‘for the poor’ or even ‘with the poor’, but in so doing, snuff out local initiative. Such a posture, and corresponding models, can further entrench poverty, especially the form of poverty that results when our friends feel inferior.5 Ministry ‘by the poor’ within their own communities transforms from the inside out. Ownership is greater, and therefore sustainability is too. Way of Hope invites the poor, those marginalized and usually considered to be on the periphery, to the center to become actors in solving their own problems.
Last year, some of my colleagues from World Relief took several visitors to the Kandal Province, about an hour’s drive south of Phnom Penh. In one remote area, the village chiefs kept mentioning how different things were ‘since Jesus came to our villages’. My colleagues wondered whether these community leaders had become believers.
It turned out that some had, but most had not. However, they were adamant: ‘Since Jesus came to our villages, our children are healthier, AIDS-affected families are being cared for, there are fewer community problems, and people are getting along with each other better.’ My friends asked how they knew that Jesus did these things. They were puzzled by the question, because it seemed obvious to them. ‘You should know. You are the Jesus organization’, they said. ‘When Jesus came, everything changed!’6
Often I am drawn to well-known churches around the world. These movements are well-resourced; some are famous. Most are led by exceptional people—persuasive, insightful, and well-connected leaders, some of whom are friends. Along with so many, I am indebted to them.
However, I have learned more from movements like Way of Hope. They renew the essence of church for me. Church is not ultimately about resources or education or even theology, even though these are important. Church is about people living out the presence of Jesus, together, in community.
Of course none of this is new. Jesus sparked change from a corner of the world that was marginal at best, if not immaterial, in his day. He pulled together a motley group of followers with little resources to speak of and changed the course of history from a rural base. What most considered the edge, God called the center.
Way of Hope is not known by many. However, across the world in Cambodia, God continues to light a fire of passion among a beautiful group of people. There are no buildings to speak of except the lavish hospitality in thousands of small homes. The budget is small and there are no famous names. However, just as happened in Galilee in the first century, these Khmer disciples are inspiring people like me who long for a renewed vision of church in a world increasingly thirsty for the real thing.
1 Based on an interview with a Way of Hope provincial leader, September 2007.
2 See for example: P Harper and P L Metzger, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2009).
3 Ecclesia semper reformanda from David Bosch, Transforming Mission (New York: Maryknoll Orbis, 1991).
5 Bryant Myers, Jayakumar Christian, and others tackle this subject by identifying ‘poverty of being’ and ‘poverty of vocation’ as the deepest and worst forms of poverty. See Walking with the Poor (New York: Maryknoll Orbis, 1999).
6 Interview with Tim Amstutz, World Relief Country Director in Cambodia, in 2013.