By Sara Beth Fentress
Imagine you’re hiking along a river with friends. Surprisingly, you see crying babies floating down the rushing water. Your group sees this emergency situation and immediately races into the water to rescue them from drowning.
Eventually, one of your friends exits the river and begins to run upstream. You beg him to stay and help save more lives. Can’t he see that this is an all-hands-on-deck situation? Your friend explains, “I’m going to go upstream to investigate how these babies are getting into the river in the first place.”
This was a disturbing illustration, but it’s a common analogy used to explain a shift in global orphan care towards orphan prevention. Orphan prevention is likely a new term for most people who are reading, and yet the definition is self-explanatory.
Orphan prevention is the work of proactively anticipating the root causes of family fracturing—particularly in vulnerable communities with the goal of reducing the number of orphans in the next generation.
For decades, well-meaning Christians have jumped into the river of emergency orphan care with little regard to addressing the root causes of family fracturing. We’re seeing a transition from urgent relief work (downstream) to wholistic orphan prevention (upstream). Both are necessary, but important action steps you can take to lead your people well into this new territory of orphan prevention and family preservation.
Here are 10 suggestions to get you started.
1. Study the word.
Develop a biblical theology of orphan care. What does the Bible say about caring for the vulnerable?
Study to help clarify motives and direction for caring for orphans with excellence. We are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and we reflect His heart to the world. God has a heart for the vulnerable.
Examine how Jesus treated women, children, and people who struggled with material poverty. Follow Jesus’ example in setting priorities to help people in need.
2. Teach other people what God shows you.
Don’t keep newfound knowledge just for yourself. Think creatively about how to inform your sphere of influence on what the Bible says about family relationships and caring for the orphan.
Don’t shy away from hard truths. Challenge the status quo and social norms.
3. Do the research.
Read books, listen to podcasts, and initiate conversations with experts. Educating yourself on current trends will allow you to lead people in a healthy way without creating dependency for those you are helping.
4. Go on a mission project working in vulnerable communities.
There’s no substitute for first hand experience to bring awareness and spur you to advocacy.
Lead your church to step out, setting the example for your members. Jason Johnson, author and orphan advocate says, “Orphan care demands we interject ourselves into broken stories just as Jesus interjected Himself into ours.”
Involvement that stands the test of time usually comes from the staff leadership and works its way down through the membership.
5. Partner with existing organizations and experts in this field.
There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Has God already placed someone in your network who is doing this well or who is connected to other effective organizations?
Partnership can maximize your resources and energy. Do your research to vet organizations who align with the skill sets and the interests of your congregation.
6. Speak up.
Proverbs 31:8 encourages us to speak up for the poor and needy. It’s up to us to discover the healthiest ways to use our voice.
How can we leverage the influence God has granted through our networks? How can we advocate in ways that will inspire people to action?
7. Be committed for the long haul.
Orphan prevention is a marathon, not a sprint. Quick answers are usually not right answers. Flash-in-the-pan missions are ineffective in vulnerable communities.
Relationships and trust always take time, but especially when the goal is lasting change and momentum in the third world. Be a student of the culture. Prove that you are not going anywhere.
8. Pray specifically.
Once you’re acquainted with people who are doing the hard work in vulnerable communities, you’ll know how to pray more specifically for them. Relationship breeds vulnerability.
And vulnerability allows you to pray with laser focus on the needs brought to your attention.
9. Train indigenous pastors.
Many pastors living in a third world context have little access to sound, theological training. Books aren’t in the budget and seminary training is a pipe dream.
Orphan care and prevention works best when initiated by healthy local churches in the area. Church planting and pastor training will help spread messages about communities caring for their own vulnerable people.
10. Help create lanes for your members to be obedient.
The pathways are limitless. We serve a creative God who provides a variety of ways for people to tangibly live out James 1:27 both in your community and around the globe.
Help your people find their lane and then fuel them to succeed in taking steps of obedience to what God is leading them to do.
We, as believers, should be motivated by compassion and justice to care for and prevent future orphans. There are two sides to the coin. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19) and we fight because Christ first fought for us (Romans 5:8).
We stand in solidarity with people in their time of need. We give mercy because we’ve been shown mercy. We treat people with dignity and respect because they are fellow image bearers. Sitting idle is no longer an option.
Benjamin Franklin first coined the term, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” when talking about fire safety in the 1700s. The idea was that proactively preventing fires is much more effective than fighting fires or rebuilding communities after the total destruction that actual fires leave behind.
Many organizations are using similar tactics to reduce the number of orphans in the next generation. We need church leaders to stand with us, advocate alongside of us, vouch for us, and collaborate with us in this valuable work.
Preventing children from becoming orphans is a valuable and inspiring cause to rally around. Will you walk upstream with us and encourage others to do the same?