Searching for problems vs. searching for possibilities

Walking With The Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, by Bryant MyersBryant Myers’ book, Walking With The Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development is an extremely thorough resource for Christians engaged in the work of world missions, especially those who are involved in community development among the world’s poor. One of my favorite parts of the book is in the chapter, “Development Practice: The Tool Kit.” In this chapter, Myers describes a discipline called Appreciative Inquiry (or “AI”)—an approach that looks at “organizing as a mystery to be embraced rather than a problem to be solved.”

According to Wikipedia, the basic idea of Appreciative Inquiry is to build organizations around what works, rather than trying to fix what doesn’t. Consider this: What would you do if you were going into a new community where it was obvious there are glaring problems and crippling poverty? You might begin by asking and observing, “What’s wrong here? What needs fixing? Let’s list all the problems in order of importance and then work on them one by one.”  In contrast, check out these questions below from Myers, page 179—a list of questions that he says would be asked by someone with an “Appreciative Inquiry.”

  • What life-giving, life-enhancing forces do you have in your community? What gives you the energy and power to change and to cope with adversity?
  • Thinking back on the last one hundred years of your community, what has happened that you are proud of, that makes you feel you have been successful?
  • What are your best religious and cultural practices? Those that make you feel good about your culture? That have helped you when times were tough?
  • What do you value that makes you feel good about yourselves?
  • What in your geographical area and in your local political and economic systems has helped you do things of which you are proud?
  • What skills or resources have enabled you to do things your children will remember you for having done?
  • How have your relationships, both within and without the community, worked for you and helped you do things that you believe were good for the community?

Elsewhere in this chapter and actually, throughout the book, Myers deals head-on with the need to confront evil and oppression. We cannot simply avoid the reality of what is wrong. But I believe Myers is also articulating the tremendous value of recognizing that wherever God is present, he is at work! Even in the darkest places, God is there and He is at work. Consider the biblical support we find in Philippians 4:5 and 8 …

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; …

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

What if, in our work of serving an impoverished community or a cross-cultural partnership ministry, we always began with a focus, not on the need and the problem, but rather, on “whatever is true … honorable … just … pure … lovely … commendable”? What if in the work of short-term mission trips, leaders intentionally focused FIRST on learning what is good in the community being served? And doing this before trying to solve the problems, address the glaring weaknesses, and make it “better?” When we are coming alongside indigenous Christian leaders and their ministries in the majority world, this will go along way in building friendship and trust.

The appreciation, empowerment and dignity that people would feel would be tremendous, don’t you imagine? Myers writes,

The net result of such an inquiry is often spectacular. The laundry list of problems the community would like the NGO to fix is lost in the enthusiasm of describing what is already working. The community comes to view its past and itself in a new light. We do know things. We do have resources. We have a lot to be proud of. We are already on the journey. God has been good to us. We can do something. We are not god-forsaken. This is a major step toward recovering the community’s true identity and discovering its true vocation. With these discoveries a major transformational frontier has been crossed.

In the practice of healthy cross-cultural partnerships, it is vital for partnership advocates from the west to be intentional about looking for what is good, strong and beautiful before identifying what is ugly, sinful or weak. In doing so, could it be that we also may become more aware of our own needs, weaknesses and sins—and that ultimately, we are just as vulnerable and desperate for the saving grace of Jesus Christ?

Of course, this mindset and approach can be applied in not just far-away cross-cultural settings, but also in my own home, my family, church, business, or neighborhood.

After all, as Apostle Paul wrote, “The Lord is at hand!”

For more about the discipline of Appreciative Inquiry in cross-cultural partnership,
see “Week 11: Appreciation” in The Beauty of Partnership learning journey.


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