What do we mean by 'Holistic Ministry?'

WMF “Position Papers” do not necessarily represent the opinions of the entire WMF community, but seek to articulate alternative positions on issues of mission and spirituality. The starting points for these papers are the WMF identity statements and WMF’s commitment to living out these principles in daily life and ministry.

By Rob O’Callaghan, former WMF staff member

Word Made Flesh is committed to a holistic approach to mission, as stated in our Philosophy of Ministry:

We recognize the world suffers from both physical and spiritual hunger. Our ministry is to satisfy those hungers by offering the bread of loaf along with the Bread of Life. We believe that the Kingdom of God redemptively addresses every question concerning human need, and so we are committed to respond holistically to the needs of [humanity] with the compassion and methodology of Jesus’ ministry. Our objective is to redeem the whole person toward the redemption of society. We seek to be agents of holistic transformation, desiring to facilitate the realization of regeneration, restoration and reintegration of the poorest of the poor (see philosophy of ministry).

Our commitment to holistic mission—that is, mission in service to the whole of life—is not simply a method or strategy, but a theological mandate and a lifestyle of obedience in the way of Christ. A holistic approach to mission recognizes that the person is a whole, that society is a whole, that the world is a whole. These entities cannot be subdivided too strictly into independent parts, for we cannot ignore the relationships between the parts that hold them together. In missions, then, holism expresses a commitment to serve whole persons, body and soul, in all their relationships.

Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10).

Holistic mission finds its theological basis in Jesus’ message of the good news of the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17, Mk. 1:15; Lk. 4:43). “The transformation promised in the coming kingdom relates to the whole of life, internal and external, personal and social” (J. Andrew Kirk, What is Mission?). Holistic mission must likewise be committed to the whole universe and God’s plan of redemption for the whole.

God’s kingdom refers primarily to God’s reign or rule (George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom). The place where He intends to rule is the whole universe. It cannot be found in the spiritual realm alone or in the heart alone. It is not that Jesus is concerned with some areas (such as the heart, the soul or the spiritual) and redeems those while leaving other areas (such as the body, human societies or the universe) alone. There is no area of life or the universe in which God is not interested or over which He does not claim to be Lord and seek to be acknowledged as God.

Yet in every area of life, God’s reign is contested. The world is in rebellion against its rightful King. Thus, we find intense suffering and vile destruction under the reign of sin and death. Like the small mustard seed or the yeast hidden in the loaf (Matt. 13:31-33), God’s present reign is hidden and unnoticed. Therefore, we pray for His reign to be revealed, for God to bring His triumph, and for sin, death and the devil to be banished forever from the life of this world. This is the hope that we seek in Christ’s victorious return. “May the whole earth be filled with His glory!” (Ps. 72:19).

With this hope in mind, holism in mission sees beyond the soul to the whole person awaiting resurrection and beyond the individual to the redemption of all tribes and nations in a new society ordered by God, with Jesus Christ as its head. Even the creation itself looks forward to its liberation (Rom. 8:19-21). The real excitement, the great promise, and the true hope of our faith is the Lord’s complete reign over the whole cosmos, over all that is, when we can hear from heaven, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ” (Rev. 11:15). Accordingly, the final vision that the Revelation leaves to us is the marriage of a renewed heaven (where God dwells) and a transformed earth (where humans dwell) where God and His people will dwell together (Rev. 21:1-4).

This means, among other things, that our embodied lives matter. If the physical world is to be tossed aside at the first opportunity, then what happens in this world only matters insofar as it affects our souls. Then physical suffering, broken relationships, political oppression and environmental destruction can easily be overlooked and are not really enemies of the gospel, because they would be outside the gospel’s concern. But if our hope is a resurrected life with real bodies relating to a real society of humans in a real, resurrected world, if that is the good news, then the present correspondence to our future hope is a gospel that confronts the world’s sufferings and sees these as objects for redemption. The gospel then comes to restore us in all our relationships: with God, with each other and with our environment. Poverty will be named and confronted. Sickness will be fought as a real enemy. Oppression will be rejected as unbefitting treatment of the children of God. Sin will be fought not only as an obstacle in our personal relationship with God, but also as a deathly force in the world of humanity.

The central confession of Christianity is that Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is Lord (Rom. 10:9). Continuing from Jesus’ own message that God’s victorious reign has come near, the New Testament affirms that the risen and exalted Jesus is Lord and King, completely supreme, the head of the universe. No other powers can claim some free spot where they make the rules and not Jesus. The early Christians of the Roman Empire were willing to die rather than confess that Caesar is Lord, for they saw this claim as usurping the rightful place of Jesus alone. Today, Jesus still asserts His authority against all the powers that might lay claim to our lives or seek our trust. His authority is a contested authority, in competition with other gods and lords. Though we do not yet see all things subjected to Jesus (Heb. 2:8), this is a contest that Jesus has won. God will rule over all. Thus all things in the world that have yet to acknowledge Jesus’ headship must be subjected to Him. All that falls short of God’s glory and perfection must be brought into submission. The influential missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin concludes: “The Christian mission is thus to act out in the whole life of the whole world the confession that Jesus is Lord of all” (The Open Secret).

The hope of God’s new creation is central to biblical Christianity, for here we see the completion of God’s whole purpose of creation and redemption. This is made clear in Ephesians 1:9-10: “He has let us know the mystery of His purpose…that He would bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth.” In the similar passage of Colossians 1:19-20, Paul describes God’s purpose in Christ as reconciliation with everything in heaven and earth. “Mission is concerned with nothing less than the completion of all that God has begun to do in the creation of the world and of humankind. Its concern is not sectional but total and universal” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret).

Holistic ministry calls the whole world to obedience to Christ in all things by seeking to breathe life into situations of death, looking forward to the day when death, the last enemy, will finally lose its sting (1 Cor. 15:26, 55).

Therefore, we pray with the New Testament, “O Lord, come!” (1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20). Now we pray for what we desire. If we truly desire the world to be ordered anew under Christ’s headship, then our lives will be shaped by this same desire. Holistic mission is the church’s necessary real-world correspondence to our prayer, “come and reign,” and to our confession that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

…Teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you (Matt. 28:20)

Mission theology and practice of the last century was largely determined by the polemics between modernists and fundamentalists (Wilbert R. Shenk, “Recovering the Fullness of the Gospel,” in Changing Frontiers of Mission).

The liberal camp viewed Jesus as only a great human, the kingdom of God as totally present and mission merely as dialogue and social betterment, thus betraying the very essence of biblical faith by dismissing the supernatural and ignoring God’s ability to bring the newness of Easter into this world of death. The conservative camp emphasized the deity of Christ (but not His humanity), saw the kingdom of God as totally future and defined mission as solely “soul-winning,” thus cutting short the possibilities of newness in the present and making an easy alliance with the status quo. This dichotomy has left Christian life and witness dangerously incomplete, neither side fully understanding the whole of Jesus’ person and message as the Redeemer who both announced and in His own person made present the reign of God come near.

When Jesus ascended into heaven, He left a small gathering of disciples to whom He promised to be powerfully present through His Spirit. To these followers, and to the church of which they are the beginning, Jesus gave a way of life.

“The church’s missionary involvement suggests more than calling individuals into the church as a waiting room for the hereafter” (David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission). Rather, God has given the church a mission. Because Christ is risen, “the church is called to live the resurrection life in the here and now and to be a sign of contradiction against the forces of death and destruction” (Bosch). The church’s life of obedience is a demonstration of the kingdom: “The will of God for human socialness as a whole is prefigured by the shape to which the body of Christ is called…The people of God are called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately” (John Howard Yoder, Body Politics).

In the kingdom of God, the least will be treasured, the downcast will be lifted up, the oppressed will be liberated, the sick will be healed, the mournful will be comforted. Every tear will be wiped away. Sin, death and destruction will be no more. We who have been laid hold of by this King have tasted the beginnings of this reign already. The Holy Spirit among us is the firstfruits of our kingdom inheritance (Rom. 8:23), our guarantee of the resurrection life (2 Cor. 5:5). The Spirit is “the bridge between the present and the future,” “the first installment of the kingdom of God,” “the power of God’s final purpose already beginning to reclaim the whole person for God” (James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle). Holistic mission, therefore, looks to the Spirit of Christ to do the works of the kingdom through us, that we might fulfill the church’s mission to be a sign and a herald of God’s reign of peace and wholeness.

Then Jesus, moved with compassion… (Mk. 1:41)

Ultimately, we embrace holism because we seek to follow in the steps of Jesus our King, who loved us and gave Himself for us. Jesus saw someone in pain, and He was moved. The godly response when we meet suffering humanity begins with compassion. If we cannot feel what Jesus felt, then our own hardheartedness may be our greatest obstacle to finding all that God has for us.

The value and validity of compassion does not depend on the results it produces. Only one of the ten lepers returned to give Jesus thanks (Lk. 17:11-19), yet His healing of all ten was still praiseworthy. Christ’s action still proclaimed the character of the gospel, God’s mercy towards the suffering and the sinful.

The history of evangelical missions bears this out. Since the birth of the modern missionary movement, evangelical mission agencies have repeatedly taken up “mercy ministries” at one point or another. Even if their theologies told them to focus just on saving souls, when war, earthquake, flood or famine struck, the heart of God overcame them. Because these missionaries really loved those they were seeking to reach, they began feeding the poor, building houses, caring for the sick and educating the vulnerable.

As the Body of Christ, we are Jesus’ presence on earth, continuing the mission of life and love that He inaugurated. The church that hearkens to her Lord meets the sins, the pains and the injustices of the world head on. Yet the church marches to no easy triumph. Jesus secured the victory through His cross, and our mission will also proceed through our suffering. Countering the world’s death-dealing has its price.

Sometimes the only way we will know how to respond is in anguished prayer. We who have joined Word Made Flesh have done so because we have been touched by God and want to be part of a sustained response of love, flowing from the heart of God, towards suffering in its many dimensions. Our modest response has included discipleship and spiritual formation, empowerment through education, health care and rehabilitation, economic development, and job creation. It has included welcoming prostitutes into our homes and sitting and praying with children dying of AIDS. “We submit to Kingdom spirituality, which faces the harsh realities of a broken world and seeks to respond as Jesus would…and indeed will.” (Word Made Flesh Preamble, 1996, since revised). Holistic ministry perseveres by embracing a spirituality of suffering in hope.

I am the Resurrection and the Life (Jn. 11:25).

God is in the business of newness. In a despairing world, God provides resurrection hope. The way things are now is not the way things will always be. God turns to the despairing and the dying and asks them to look with faith to His new world rising up in the ruins of the old. The people who follow this God, likewise, are committed to the redemption of all that is broken and the healing of all the open wounds that are bleeding this world of its very life. The living God affirms, supports, and sustains life. To a world bent on its own destruction, our Lord promises abundant life overflowing with love, joy and peace. Holistic ministry labors in service to life.

Holism is not simply a strategy for winning people to Christ, but a theological commitment. This commitment seems especially important today, when Christians are increasingly viewed with suspicion around the globe. Some see us as arrogant, manipulative, or even hypocritical, talking about love and service but living for ourselves in a world apart, complacently apathetic towards the pains and turmoil of today’s world. We suffer a crisis of credibility. David Bosch, the eminent missiologist, insists: “Our mission has to be multidimensional in order to be credible and faithful to its origins and character” (Transforming Mission). Our authenticity as gospel people demands a response of compassion (Matt. 25:35-46, Jas. 2:15-16, 1 Jn. 3:16-18). Such compassion is inherent in the gospel of the kingdom, which has laid hold of us. This service—a foretaste of redemption—is the irrepressible fruit of the gospel in our own lives. If we do not make this clear, then our ministry to human needs risks looking like mere public relations. Our goal is not to get a promotion, to look good, or to make the evening news. We simply delight in seeing God transform, heal and redeem.

Rob graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary with a Master’s degree in Cross-Cultural Studies. Soon after he, his wife, Twyla, and son, Toby, moved to Bangkok, Thailand, where they served for a year and a half. They currently live in Atlanta, GA, where Rob is pursuing a master’s in theology at Candler School of Theology. They have three children, Toby, Nevan and Ada.

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7 thoughts on “What do we mean by 'Holistic Ministry?'

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  6. Syreta Green says:

    I had never heard of Holistic but after reading this article it’s just the same belief’s and teaching I have learned all my life that is awesomely.

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