I wrote an article a few years ago called “Wholistic Ministry and Nehemiah.” One of the central points was that we often think of development backwards. I pointed out that Nehemiah worked to create change in a specific order.
It is strange that when people think of Nehemiah, they focus on “THE WALL”. While it is true that the wall takes up several chapters of the book, but there is so much more.
Consider some of the problems Nehemiah dealt with… presumably in chronological order.
1. Lack of a city wall around Jerusalem (STRUCTURAL PROBLEM) Chapters 1-4
2. Debt/Usury/Oppression of citizenry (ECONOMIC PROBLEM) 5:1-13
3. Taxation issues (ECONOMIC) 5:14-19
4. Housing problems (STRUCTURAL) 7:4-73
5. Ignorance of God’s Law (SPIRITUAL/EDUCATIONAL) Chapter 8
6. Sorrow about Sinfulness (SPIRITUAL/EMOTIONAL) Chapters 8-9
7. Need for population relocation (SOCIAL) Chapter 11
8. Temple/Religious problems (LEADERSHIP) 12:44 – 13:13
9. Breaking of Religious Laws (SOCIAL/LEADERSHIP) 13:14 – 15:30
What problems were dealt with first?
A. Nehemiah dealt with felt needs first. What were the felt needs? The people felt they needed walls, they felt they needed housing, and financial relief. They did not feel that they had spiritual problems. By first addressing the people’s felt needs, they were more open to recognize other needs that they had. Additionally, by demonstrating his willingness to listen and respond to their needs, Nehemiah was seen as someone who cared for the people.
B. Nehemiah dealt with the easy things first. We might be fooled into thinking that building the wall was the most difficult thing in the book of Nehemiah… but it wasn’t. The Great Wall of China was built with money and coersion. Nehemiah had money and authority, so this problem was fairly straitforward. The wall took 52 days of labor. Wouldn’t it be great if all community problems could be solved in less than two months if enough money and manpower could be thrown at it? The financial and housing circumstances were fairly simple since Nehemiah had the authority to make, modify, and enforce laws. But social and spiritual problems are more difficult. You cannot coerce spiritual changes, and social problems, likewise, have a nasty habit of resisting legislation. The most difficult were leadership difficulties. Local leaders have power. The power that these leaders had, Nehemiah needed at the beginning to get things done. To turn against these leaders at a later date, was a great risk. Nehemiah did the easy things first. By doing this, he developed the reputation of being a problemsolver, and ultimately gained the influence he needed to do more difficult things later. We often think that the big problems we face are ones involving money and manpower… but these are the easy ones.
C. Nehemiah appeared to be focused on God, focused on the needs of the people, and open to a level of pragmatism. It is quite evident that God loved the people of Jerusalem and that he was dedicated to serving God. However, we often don’t notice his pragmatism because we focus on Nehemiah’s uncompromising attitude with the opponents of the wall. However, he showed a great willingness to work with local leaders who were highly flawed, only addressing the problem with these leaders at a much later date.
It would seem that these provide good principles to follow when possible. Prioritize concerns the community has. The community is more ready to support working on what they value. Of these concerns, prioritize those that you are well suited to achieve based on your experience, resources, and authority. Later on one can (and should) expand to changes that are needed, but may not be immediately appreciated by the community. Finally, we need to accept a certain amount of pragmatism in our plans and methods as long as they don’t contradict our love of God and the people we are serving.