Written by YY

In response to the Great Commission, the ABC church (help-givers) saw a need to evangelize people of another culture (help-recipients). The help-givers began serving by organizing activities like Sunday Schools among the children, tuition classes, Christmas celebration, distributing bags of rice, etc. The church mobilized teams to visit the people they minister to at least once a month. When the burden became too much for the church, a few churches came in to share the burden.

After some years, a few of the local people accepted Christ. In order to establish a church, the help-givers raised funds for a building for these new believers. However, the building was only used when the help-givers visit. The help-givers looked for a full-time person to live among and shepherd the locals, but no one was found after 2 years.

Eventually, someone from another state who speaks the national language well was found. The help-givers hired this person as the pastor. Since the pastor lived among them, the church assumed the ministry was running smoothly and sent fewer teams to visit the locals. After another 3 years, the pastor resigned because he found a better offer. The ministry fell back to square one [1].

We are in many kinds of working relationships at work, in church, and even at home, but we often do tasks without much participation from others at different levels. Occasionally, a few people respond positively, but most are passive. We may feel lonely and eventually burn out. Is there a solution? The participatory approach introduced below may be one.

What is Participatory Approach (PA)?

PA is a way to work together that values participation from stakeholders—including the help-givers, help-recipients, and the leaders. Using PA, stakeholders think and talk together to describe and analyze their situation, decide what to do, plan how to do it and evaluate what has been done. Everyone affected by the decision may be involved in the decision-making and play an active role.
In a conventional management model, decisions are made by the top level and implemented by an executive team for the “end-users” or help-recipients. A participatory approach, by contrast, emphasizes the essential voices and participation of those who will be affected by a decision. The following continuum is used by Corbett and Fikkert to assess the levels of participation of locals in planning and decision making:

Participation Continuum

Mode of ParticipationType of Involvement of Local PeopleRelationship of Outsiders to Local People
CoercionLocal people submit to predetermined plans developed by outsiders.Doing TO
ComplianceLocal people are assigned to tasks, often with incentives, by outsiders; the outsiders decide the agenda and direct the process.Doing FOR
ConsultationLocal people are asked to give opinions; outsiders analyze and decide on a course of action.Doing FOR
CooperationLocal people work together with outsiders to determine priorities; responsibility remains with outsiders for directing the process.Doing WITH
Co-leadingLocal people and outsiders share their knowledge to create appropriate goals and plans, to execute those plans, and to evaluate the results.Doing WITH
Community InitiatedLocal people set their own agenda and mobilize to carry it out without outside initiators and facilitators.Responding TO
Table 1 Participation Continuum by Corbett and Fikkert (2012), pg140. [2]

Comparing the relationship of ABC church (outsiders) to the local people based on Table 1, we can see that the church did many things TO and FOR the locals. They organized the activities, built a church, and chose a pastor. The locals were only beneficiaries of those activities. Some locals might respond by doing certain tasks for compensation. Others might give their opinions or help determine priorities, but the outsiders set the agenda and manage the course of action without active involvement of the locals. An outsider-driven model of mission, can result in a lack of local ownership.

We can also use this approach for Bible studies.

Let’s consider the benefits of using participatory approach as seen in Nigeria. When a church decided to talk about improving their Sunday School, the meeting included not only the Sunday School teachers, but also the pastor, parents, and children. Having “raising children well” as their goal, they sat in a large semi-circle and discussed the topic, “What is preventing us from training our children?” Everyone who expressed their ideas were heard, and ideas were listed down. Even women who were culturally quiet spoke freely and openly. They discussed a lot about the obstacles preventing them from training their children and found ways that needed improvement. The parents were not passive in this matter. As a result, the Sunday School teachers began to see parents change gradually: becoming more responsible in training their children, and even volunteering to teach Sunday School. [3] Most importantly, parents took ownership.

Why use a Participatory Approach?

First, it puts everyone involved on the same page. Most of the time, we have our own beliefs and assumptions for various things. We have different ideas and values. These have to be voiced out and understood by all. To achieve this, we need to evaluate matters as a group and make observations together. This will set the tone for those who are involved and help them know how to move forward according to realistic needs. Second, as people put their heads together, the visioning and planning becomes the capstone of the whole meeting. A platform is provided for constructive discussion and problem solving. This enables people to make well-informed decisions, rather than decisions based on presumptions. Third, it is to plan a tangible course of action together, particularly by those who will carry out the action plan, not someone else. In many of my personal experiences, the one who suggests usually becomes the person responsible for the action. This is basically a practical solution but it often falls on the shoulders of one or two people. After a period of time, this person chooses to be silent during meetings, to avoid shouldering more burdens. We want to encourage group action planning and shared responsibilities. Therefore, we need group planning. Fourth, we want to ensure that whoever is involved—including the people we serve—will become givers and stewards. The communities are empowered and depend on God instead of outsiders with resources.

This is not just an approach to problem solving. It is useful for many areas—identifying root causes and presumptions, providing a platform for group observation and discussion, reflecting on an event or any topic, short-term or long-term planning etc.

PA is used with the community for language assessment in one of the bilingual communities Borneo island.

What does the Bible say?

One of the key foundations for using PA in our ministry is the belief that we need others in ministry because we are all fallen and broken. We Christians do not have all wisdom nor are we perfect, let alone when we work with people of different cultures. We often have God-complexes, assuming we are superior because we provide for others, or we have the answers about life.

God distributes His spiritual gifts among His people for doing His work together in unity (1 Corinthians 12). Instead of saying “we don’t need you” (v.21), He expects us to value one another’s input and participation. God loves diversity and looks forward to the presentation “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).

This fallen world still has the residue of the goodness of God’s creation. His image is visible in all people, including those who do not yet know or worship Him. In fact, God has been sustaining their communities long before we started our ministry among them. To experience the width, depth and fullness of God, we need the full participation of the community we seek to serve.

The second foundation is that Jesus brought restoration and involved others in the ministry of restoration. He was sent by God and He in turn sent His disciples (John 20:21). He gave up His power to dominate and identified Himself with the needy (Hebrews 2:5-15). He related Himself to 12 commoners (Mark 3:14) and empowered His disciples to continue His work (Luke 10). He invited His followers to participate in this restoration work (Matthew 28:18-20), gave them the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2) and continues to expect our participation although He is now seated at the right hand of God. Yes, God reconciled everything to Himself through the blood of Christ (Colossians 1:20). Thus, we participate in God’s work of restoring peoples‘ relationship with God, relationship with self, relationships with others, and relationship with the rest of creation. We follow Jesus’ model of inviting others to participate in God’s mission.


Using a participatory approach is restorative and relational. During a discussion, the bond between the participants grows. Our ideas become more realistic. Listening well to others gives us new perspectives. Furthermore, brainstorming brings creative solutions. In summary, we trust the Holy Spirit to work among all participants to achieve His goal.

[1] This is a story made up from anecdotes of various ministries among indigenous people groups I know in real life.

[2] Corbett, Steve, and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself. 2012.

[3] Azomo, John. 2015. “Discovering Together and Increasing Responsibility”. Orality Journal. 4, no. 2:41-42.