Picture a village. Remote, undeveloped, overwhelmed by poverty and characterized by broken relationships. Where malnutrition, illness, and a small number of positive role models oftentimes leave children extremely vulnerable. And where the perpetual cycle of poverty cripples entire generations, decade after decade.
Now picture that same village in community. A community characterized by thriving relationships, strengthened families, spiritual richness, economic sustainability, and good health. Picture community leaders and church pastors, once isolated and fragmented, sitting together, in conversation. Learning, talking, sharing, and envisioning. Eager to connect, encourage, and challenge one another. Eager to love and serve the most vulnerable, to fulfill the Great Commission, and see the next generation renewed, restored, and transformed in Christ.
What if I told you about a unique and innovative model, pioneered by World Relief, that fulfills this very vision? A beautifully biblical and thoughtful process by which communities are truly being sustainably changed from the inside out. Where the cycle of poverty is being broken, and communities are beginning to experience a fullness of life unlike anything they’ve ever experienced?
Here it is. It’s called the Church Empowerment Zone (CEZ) Model. And it changes everything.
Pioneered by World Relief in Rwanda over the last 7 years, our CEZ model is a powerful, unique model that adopts best-practice thinking on “moving from [interventions] focused on community deficits and professional-client relationships to a model that empowers the community by building on local assets and professional community partnerships.”  We do so by establishing local ownership from the outset, focusing on leadership development and capacity building, and building upon our core tool: a transformative curriculum that works to eliminate the underlying causes of poverty and end the vicious cycle once and for all.
World Relief’s “Transformation Tree Curriculum” (TTC) focuses on better equipping local pastors—inspiring and faithful servants of the Lord, who are genuinely called to serve with all their capacity and might. They are resourceful, and their strength and enduring spirit blesses their communities abundantly. And so we stand with and alongside them, sharing in our knowledge and resources.
Our TTC grounds these leaders in the scriptural calling to care for and shepherd all people. It addresses foundational beliefs concerning God’s compassion for the poor, the root causes of poverty, and our call to love and serve one another. We teach pastors that in order for the vicious cycle of poverty to truly end, value systems, beliefs, and ultimately behaviors must change. We demonstrate that in order for holistic physical transformation to take place, spiritual transformation must first lead the way.
Impact is catalyzed as these leaders are brought together and equipped, not just as a distribution mechanism, but also as change makers and kingdom champions. They are developed as true leaders. They are inspired. They learn to shepherd and, in turn, teach others to be shepherds. They are equipped to transform their communities. And they themselves are transformed—as leaders, teachers, community activists, neighbors, wives, mothers, husbands, and fathers.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Once foundational beliefs and values are in place, and World Relief staff have served as initial trainers and catalysts, we equip hundreds of “ordinary people” to take part in this great kingdom work. Through our Outreach Group Initiative, we use local church volunteers to reach their neighbors and communities, enabling us to address the deepest of issues that extend beyond the ‘front door’ of the home. Lessons begin with biblical teachings that provide spiritual building blocks for our technical interventions. Parents are taught about the obligation to care for their children as a blessing (Psalm 127:3; 1 Timothy 5:8), farmers about the honor and privilege of tending to land (Genesis 1:28, 2:15), families about the importance of saving and sharing money (1 Corinthians 16:2, Proverbs 13:22), couples about respect and support for one another (Hebrews 10:24, Ecclesiastes 4:9), and many more.
With the building blocks laid and beliefs and values instilled, technical interventions become rooted in powerful scriptural support, and adoption for long-term behavior change becomes possible. We then see the gospel work powerfully through the servants, initiating transformation in their communities because the gospel has become powerful in them and among them.
Evidence of change is not simply anecdotal. Not only did our most recent evaluation reveal significant progress in health behaviors and economic standing (the use of clean latrines up 55.4% from 4.4%, and the expansion of income generating activities up to 90% compared to 67% outside our intervention areas), but also in family strengthening and relationships. 84% of beneficiaries claimed their spousal relationships had improved significantly, and 96% reported better relationships with their children. 75% of couples responded that they now made joint decisions, as opposed to 47% in the comparison area, and attitudes toward domestic violence changed drastically, with less than 15% of respondents justifying wife beating as opposed to over 45% prior to intervention. There is no doubt that these numbers showcase visible, tangible transformation in our targeted communities.
Trosha’s story is one example of the powerful narratives of transformation behind these statistics. As I sat with him in a small community in Bushenge, Rwanda, he told me his story:
“My wife is HIV Positive. I am HIV negative. Three years ago, we were barely surviving. The conflict at home was unbearable. There was no peace. The issues of HIV in our home led to fighting so bad that we were close to killing one another. So the church came to us, and volunteers invited us into World Relief’s Mobilizing for Life Program. I began to learn how to treat people with HIV/AIDS, how to support them and give them hope. I began to understand my responsibility for taking care of my wife, and began to care for her and help her with her medicine. After 11 years of pain, we began to live together in peace. Since then, we’ve discovered many of our friends are facing similar issues, and we’ve gone to over 6 homes to share our lessons and council friends. Now, we join together as happy homes, transformed through our churches and this program, and in community together.”
I met Trosha and his wife sitting on a small wooden bench under a tree, just down the road from their home. At the end of our time together, Trosha invited us to see his humble home before we began the long trip back to Kigali. As he led the way through a small opening in the trees, a clearing came into sight, upon which stood several buildings. On this once small, rented plot, he had created a beautiful, thriving home. A house for his family, a kitchen garden for their food, an animal paddock for their livestock, a clean latrine, an outdoors space for friends and family. This was a little slice of God’s kingdom, here on earth, blessing Trosha and his family with riches, both spiritual & material, far greater than they could ever have imagined. What’s more? His neighbor’s homes were beginning to look strangely similar… And it was a beautiful, inspiring picture.
Trosha’s story is one of hundreds coming out of our Church Empowerment Zones. The evidence of visible, tangible transformation occurring across multiple domains of intervention, and the corresponding change in belief and value systems, are contributing to truly transformative outcomes in the lives of leaders, volunteers, and beneficiaries alike. Our CEZ model is empowering hundreds of local churches to begin building a legacy of hope, generosity, and self-reliance that sustains progress long after we depart.
“Jesus is the one that started the work we do, and we are told to do it. This is why I am doing it – because it is like Jesus.” — Outreach Volunteer
 J.P Kretzman and J.L. McKnight: Building Communities from the Inside Out: A path towards finding and mobilizing community assets. (Evanston IL: Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, North Western University 1993.)
 Integral Mission Outreach Groups. Pilot Project Final Report Evaluation. Bugesera, Rwanda. May 2017. World Relief.
Francesca Albano currently serves as Product Development Lead at World Relief. With a background in strategic marketing communications, she connects her interests in brand strategy, audience engagement, and storytelling around her passions—children, disaster and humanitarian relief, human rights, and poverty alleviation. Francesca best describes herself as a storyteller, writer, foodie, globetrotter, and humanitarian.