The most important decisions in the Alongsiders movement aren't made in a North American headquarters, but under a hot tin roof in the rural villages and urban slums of Asia and Africa.
They're made every time an Alongsiders coordinator shares the vision with youth in a local church, and they decide to become Alongsiders.
These young Christians pray and decide for themselves who they should choose as their "little brother" or "little sister". Then they form a group, and decide who should be their group leader.
Before these most important decisions are made, or even considered, coordinators have gone out and connected with pastors one at a time. And as you may guess, that's easy to say and hard to do. To connect with many local churches, coordinators have to bridge gaps and adapt to diverse styles, structures, rules, and personalities. Then they persevere and do it again and again.
What we've found over time is that the churches that respond most positively to the Alongsiders movement aren't the most "successful" mega-churches. They're more often small local churches in economically poor, rural communities off the beaten track. And the youth who make the best Alongsiders are the ones who can say, "I chose him, because he was like me."
The big urban churches in the towns and cities are often more distracted. The pastors and members tend to busy with other programs and events. Certain programs are supported by foreign donors. Once pastors have been exposed to donor money, some will look for programs that keep it coming. And the Alongsiders movement doesn't do that.
Last week I went with Phearom, one of the two coordinators in Cambodia, to visit an Anglican church in a rural village almost three hours from Phnom Penh. It was like countless villages, an anonymous turn off the highway and down a narrow dirt road lined with wooden homes of farmers. When we arrived, we found eleven youth waiting to sign up as Alongsiders.
They had each made the choice to become Alongsider mentors after Phearom visited and shared the vision in November. What a sight it was to see them all and hear their stories!
One said he was so excited when he heard they could become an Alongsider. He immediately chose his little brother, a boy who has lived with his uncle ever since his parents abandoned him. His new Alongsider says, "I chose him because I knew I could help him."
The village is literally being left behind. The youth are growing up and going to the cities work or study. Even Cambodians might say this is a "failing" community and view it with distaste. So is a local church in a "failing" community also "failing"? What would that say about the youth who stay there?
The truth is, we saw the Kingdom of God visible in these eleven youth who aren't too busy to walk (or ride a motorbike) with a vulnerable child.
This is the kind of success we get excited about. Local churches like this one, whose pastors and members identify with being vulnerable themselves, are the leading edges of Alongsider movements.
They resonate with these words Paul used to describe himself and his coworkers:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Cor 4:7-10, ESV)
The most important decisions in the Alongsiders movement are made by those at a grassroots level who live and learn these lessons every day.
The most important decisions are made by those willing to pay the cost of walking alongside those who walk alone. They are the poor, the marginalized, the young and the overlooked.
Glory be to God for this treasure in jars of clay.