Fifteen years ago, 189 world leaders gathered to agree on an ambitious and inspirational global development plan: the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
These goals sought to halve poverty, dramatically reduce child and maternal mortality, fight disease and increase the amount of people with access to clean water.
It has been an ambitious undertaking. While many Christians have been a part of that process, I know questions remain for many about how much they, or the church, should be involved in these global development efforts.
Outright hostility is now pretty rare, but it’s not uncommon for many to feel such a focus would distract us from our main mission of evangelism; or that, as Christians, we should focus our efforts on our personal transformation and be less concerned about broader social and political structures.
I believe that God has a “development plan” that holds all these things together (justice, evangelism and personal transformation) and that all Christians are called to participate in this process.
For us to speak of development is to speak of the way we want to shape and build communities so they reflect God’s purposes.
In the creation stories, we get a deeper understanding of what these purposes are. God creates the universe not with a single word or the snap of his finger, but through purposeful and careful labor.
He filled the creation with beauty and abundance, “plants that were good for food and pleasing to the eye.”
Then, having created and filled the earth, he appoints all of humankind as his image bearers, “kings over creation,” granting us dominion over all he had crafted.
Here we get an image of humanity in right relationship with God – aware of his purposes for them, connected with one another, sharing together in the earth’s abundance as they collectively look after and care for the earth and all its creatures.
By the end of Genesis 1, we see that the work of fulfilling God’s purposes is not yet complete. God’s beautiful and cherished earth is “good,” but still not yet fully “developed.”
God entrusts his development plan to humanity, to multiply and fill the earth as they rule over it and subdue it (Genesis 1:28).
This is our vocation: to take God’s rule and vision of community beyond the garden and to extend it to fill the entire earth. For Christians, this is what development is.
While few would deny we’ve done a good job of “multiplying and filling the earth,” we’ve been far less successful at ruling and subduing the earth according to God’s purposes.
From Adam and Eve’s first sin, we have distorted God’s purpose for the world. While we see that the world is still good, we also see that it is not working the way God intends it to. Despite God’s call on our lives, we continue to live in sin.
We have not shared the abundance and rule of the earth – 867 million people still lack adequate food while the top 80 richest people have more wealth than that of the bottom 3.5 billion.
We have not cared for the creatures of the earth well – we are currently seeing species go extinct at a rate 100 to 1,000 times faster than would occur without human influence.
And we are failing to care for the earth itself – climate change has already driven a rise in sea levels, which by the end of the century could rise to two meters and displace up to 187 million people.
For Christians, development means remedying this misrule, through the transformation of ourselves, the people around us and the world.
This is the process that Jesus began and will fully realize on his return when the whole world will recognize his kingship (Philippians 2:11) and all things will once again be reconciled to God (Colossians 1:20).
Our role, then, is to drag this reality into the here and now and be beacons of what God will one day fully accomplish in us and across the whole world.
The target date for achieving the MDGs is about to fall due. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon describes them as the most successful anti-poverty movement in history, having helped to lift more than 1 billion people out of extreme poverty and more than halve the number of children dying before their fifth birthday.
They’re astonishing achievements that we as Christians should delight in.
A new set of goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), will soon be agreed to at the U.N. Sustainable Development Summit to be held in New York City in late September.
While Christian development efforts will take us further and deeper than the SDGs, we should be passionate champions of these goals as powerful targets that will help move the world closer to the one God intends.
Gershon Nimbalker is the advocacy manager at Baptist World Aid Australia. A version of this article first appeared on the BWAA website and is used with permission. You can follow BWAA on Twitter @BaptistWorldAid.