When Rev Noddy Sharma was asked to take on the role of heading up church engagement for World Vision Australia, he was pleased to find that working in partnership with the church is coded within the organisation’s “DNA”.

“World Vision has such an amazing footprint all across the world and is known across secular society but [still has] that core [of being] a Christian organisation that wants to see faith work its way out in the brokenness of the world…” he says, noting that it's a partnership he wants to foster.

“The church’s identity needs to inform the way we interact with humanity across the globe and what an amazing partnership that will be to see that come to fruition more than it has.”

Noddy Sharma Chosen1

Noddy Sharma, World Vision Australia's head of church engagement at a Chosen event in New Zealand. PICTURE: World Vision

Sharma, who served as national director of mission organisation OM Australia for seven years prior to joining World Vision, says listening to the church is key to his new role.

“When we start to think about 'What does church engagement look like?', it’s very much around that ‘How do we invest and speak into the church in a way that actually puts mission back into the centre and the heart of church?’" he says.

Noddy Sharma1

Noddy Sharma. PICTURE: Supplied.

 

 

“World Vision has such an amazing footprint all across the world and is known across secular society but [still has] that core [of being] a Christian organisation that wants to see faith work its way out in the brokenness of the world…”

 - Rev Noddy Sharma, World Vision Australia's new head of church engagement

“[It’s also about opening] ourselves – World Vision – for the church to be speak back into who we are, our Christian identity, and how that Christian identity speaks into the action that we want to see around the world, especially in extreme circumstances of poverty..."

Sharma says that while partnership is often understood in a transactional sense – “I’ll partner with you so long as I can achieve what I want to achieve”, in the “true Kingdom sense”, partnership is actually about “mutual costly participation where we understand that it’s actually the work of God that we’re partnering with and together we bring our resources and go out on the street and we say ‘Well, what can we do under the banner of Heaven or the Kingdom?’.”

“So it’s about not just listening to each other but actually listening to God in that space as well,” he says. “And I must add that that’s nothing new for World Vision. World Vision are known around the globe [for] not just taking answers into communities and saying ‘Well this is what we want to do’ but instead [we’re] going in and saying ‘We’re hear, we want to listen...and together actually co-create something that will bring favourable solutions to the community so that it’s not dependent on World Vision being there for the long term but it’s actually about building and equipping those people that are in that space to be able to help themselves as they move forward into a new beginning.”

Sharma sees his job as World Vision as natural extension of what he was previously doing at OM and before that as a pastor at two churches in Melbourne - initially at Melbourne church Blackburn North Baptist (now known as New Hope Baptist Church) and after that at Heathmont Baptist.

He quotes Charles Perry, the first Anglican Bishop of Melbourne, who he says told the Parliament that nothing will increase the health of a local church more than “a vital interest in world mission”.

“That’s an incredible quote and an incredible truth. If we want to see a healthy, growing church…that [means having] a vital interest in world mission or, in our language today, that takes a vital interest in what God is up to – locally and globally – through His people.”

Sharma’s own journey to working as a pastor and then on to OM and World Vision wasn’t a path he imagined for himself as a young man. Born in Darwin, he spent part of his childhood in Papua New Guinea where his parents served as missionaries before, following the death of his father when he was aged just nine-years-old, his family moved to Melbourne.

He had what he calls a “dramatic conversion” to follow Christ at the age of 18 having, as a teenager, pursued a lifestyle he describes as “pretty dark” and was pursuing his aim of making a living as a professional golfer when his life took a different direction when, at the age of 24, he lost his sponsorship.

Attending a church service at about the same time, he recalls hearing about a church internship program but immediately rejected it as not something that appealed to him; in fact, he remembers telling God at that service that if it was a path God wanted it for him to embark on, He would need to make it really clear. His answer came the following day when the pastor arrived at his door with sign-up papers for the internship, telling Sharma that he’d felt like God had told him to bring them over.

“So…that was a pretty clear indication I was supposed to be doing that and I signed up. And...the church [then Blackburn North Baptist] ended up employing me and paid me to go to Bible college. I never thought that’s what I’d be doing but I just loved it…”

Noddy Sharma Chosen2

Noddy Sharma speaks at a Chosen event in New Zealand. PICTURE: World Vision.

Now married to Alison with a six-year-old son Jesse, Sharma started the new job at head of church engagement at World Vision late last year.

One of Sharma’s key roles in the new job will be overseeing the introduction of what are the most dramatic changes to way the organisation’s child sponsorship model – which accounts for almost half of the Australian arm's income - has been structured.

Under the previous model, would-be sponsors in Western nations like Australia get to choose which child to sponsor, often selecting a card with the child's picture off a table. The new model - which is called ‘Chosen’ and which has already been tested in places like Canada, the US, UK and New Zealand - turns that on its head.

“For the first time, the child actually has the chance to choose a family,” says Sharma, noting that it’s all about “giving the child dignity and giving them a voice that they wouldn’t otherwise have”.

“There’s something really powerful, when we think through this, of what it means to be chosen by God and what it means to have the ability to have others to have that choice, not for us to be God in their lives but for them to have the power of their own voice..."

- Noddy Sharma

The change means that instead of taking photos of the children to display on cards for people in the West to see, they are now inviting would-be sponsors to have their picture taken with their family. The photo is then taken out into the field to what’s known as a ‘choosing party’.

“So we rock up to a community…that we’re already doing work in and we set up a pinboard with all these photos. The community gathers and the child will enter into a room and just see this wall, this sea, of faces looking back at them and they get to actually walk in and choose a family to be part of.”

The child’s photo is then taken and sent back to the sponsors where a ‘reveal party’ is held where people get to see and hear the story of why a child chose them.

“There’s something really powerful, when we think through this, of what it means to be chosen by God and what it means to have the ability to have others to have that choice; not for us to be God in their lives but for them to have the power of their own voice...” says Sharma.

“And then also knowing what it means for us, especially for us in the Western world, what it means for us to open ourselves up to allowing someone to choose to step into our world...There’s something incredibly powerful about that and it’s something that I think is life-giving and transformational…”

World Vision has created some special photo booths for capturing sponsor family images and they say these are ideal for churches to use in a special Sunday service

Chosen child

A child selects a sponsor at a "choosing party". PICTURE: World Vision Australia.

Sharma recounts a recent visit by the US band Rend Collective – which is coming to Australia to tour with World Vision this year - to the Honduras where they attended one of the choosing parties.

“It was really interesting watching some of the footage and hearing some of the feedback they had. Often, when we’re choosing stuff ourselves and looking through photos, it’s often what’s most appealing or what’s the saddest story, what tugs on our hearts. 

“[But] when some of these kids walked in to a sea of faces…I’m surprised by what it is they’re looking for – it’s not who’s the smiliest or whose the happiest or who’s a family or who’s single or who’s the best looking - it’s none of that stuff. It’s all of a sudden, almost like this prayerful moment of them looking at [the pictures] and saying ‘That person stuck out to me and I just had an affinity with them’...[T]hat’s a powerful moment of this coming together in this understanding that we have all be created in the image of God…”

The need for ongoing help for the children is clear. While World Vision globally has helped lift more than 200 million children out of poverty since its inception in 1950 – by all measures a massive effort, hundreds of millions more, including more than 350 million children living in extreme poverty, need help today.

“So it’s a drop in the bucket in comparison to what the need is…” notes Sharma. 

For those who already sponsor children under the previous model in which they chose the child, the sponsorship will continue as usual. But Sharma, whose family sponsors a number of children through World Vision, says it’s his “cheeky hope” that they might take part in 'Chosen' process to connect with another child as well.

"[That] they’d see this incredible moment in this season happen and that they’d want to engage with it again.”

~ www.worldvision.com.au