Theology of Holistic Missions

<I was recently asked to create a Bachelor’s level course on Holistic Missions. I think it will be called, “Foundations of Holistic Missions.” Anyway, in my latest book, “Walking With: A Theological Reflection on Christian Missions,” I had written a chapter on holistic missions— or at least theological perspective that supports holistic missions. However, in the published version, the chapter was missing. Although it is a topic that I am very interested in, and one that is important in Theology of missions, in the end, my three part structure on my reflections, left this topic as the odd one out. I removed it. However, here it is. I don’t think it made it to a final edit, so please excuse any typos or other forms of awkwardness.>

Chapter 11

Nature of Ministry in Missions

As noted in a previous chapter, there is a great disagreement of what ministries should qualify as missions. Part of this is because of the reaction between conservative and liberal Christianity. Often the argument is centered on where social ministry fits into the overall ministry of missions. This conflict has not always been an issue. For example, consider the “Nestorian” mission work that extended across Asia during the first millennium.

As part of their missionary strategy, the Church of the East set up a number of schools in the Persian Empire where monks studied theology, medicine, music and other academic subjects before being sent out to evangelize. Whenever the Nestorians established a new episcopal see (the seat of a bishop), they also set up a school, a library and a hospital, thus combining educational and medical work with their preaching.”1

The monks served as the missionary arm of the Church of the East. For example, a mission team to the Haphthalite Huns in the sixth century included four missionary priests, one missionary bishop, and two merchants. They were to move to an unreached city on one of the major trade routes. The team would establish a church, library, and hospital— evangelizing, healing, and training. The merchants not only provide funding for the mission, they also provided a very acceptable reason for being there.2

This may be innovative in some ways, but is not without precedent. Paul and his partners evangelized, planted churches, trained leaders, healed the sick, and even collected moneys for the needy. They also made tents. This tentmaking certainly provided funding for their mission trip, but it also gave them a purpose to interact with people in the marketplace.

We see this same sort of multifaceted ministry work with William Carey. William Carey evangelized and sought to plant churches, but also was involved in legal reform, translation, publishing, teaching, and more. With such patterns from the Bible, early missions history, and early Protestant missions history, it seems like it should be obvious that mission work should be broad in scope. However, there were factors pushing towards a more narrow interpretation.

First, many see the Great Commandment as a calling for missionaries, rather than a calling for the church. Further, the Matthew version of the Great Commandment is seen as the guidance for what missionaries are supposed to do, and by inference, what they are not supposed to do. The Matthew version of the Great Commandment can be seen as describing a 3-part cycle.

  • Evangelize (proselytize them)
  • Baptize (bring them into the church)
  • Teach (train them to be multiplying Christians)

Looking at this, there seems to be no room for other forms of ministry. John Stott and Leslie Newbigin, among others, noted that this limited view of missions ministry is in no way supported by other Scripture. They would point out the John version of the Great Commission that notes that the apostles are commissioned to be sent out as Christ was. This suggests that Jesus is the model for the apostles. Jesus integrated social ministry (healing), signs, evangelizing, and teaching.

The Great Commandment and the Great Commission

The Great Commandment, not the Great Commission, should be seen as the key guide for Christians. The Great Commandment guides one’s relationship to God, others, and self. But how does one apply the Great Commandment? Jesus used the Parable of the Good Samaritan to not only explain who is one’s neighbor, but apparently also what obedience to the Great Commandment looks like lived out. Much of Sermon on the Mount is application of the Great Commandment. The same is the Great Commission. One of the ways that one lives out one’s love for God and for one’s neighbor, is to go into the world and act as witnesses and messengers of God’s love and message to all.

Why does this matter? It matters because this means that one cannot say one is accomplishing the Great Commission if the activity is inconsistent with the Great Commandment. For example, activities such as forced conversion (“Cross or Sword Evangelism”) is not obedient to the Great Commission. Some may not have trouble with such a method because it may be seen as an end that justifies the means. However, most I believe would say that forced conversion stands condemned by the Great Commandment.

What about social ministry? If one proclaims the message of God while refusing to meet evident physical, psycho-emotional, or social economic needs, can one justify this by the Great Commission, understood as an application of the Great Commandment? Good people can disagree, but the process of testing the methodology requires both the Commission and the Commandment. It needs to be “Doubly Great.”

20th Century Rejection of Social Ministry

The Liberal-Fundamentalist conflict of the early 20th century had its effect and how missions and ministry were viewed. As noted in a previous chapter, there was increased questions about missionaries going out and proselytizing those of other faiths and cultures. Religious Pluralism grew in the early decades, drawing into question of whether proselytizing was necessary, or even desirable. Tied to this was the growth of what became known as the Social Gospel. While proponents of this view have often been unjustly exaggerated in their views, the thought was that missionaries should focus on works of social ministry rather than proselytizing. As some mission work became lopsided toward social ministry, other missionaries and mission agencies moved in the opposite direction, rejecting social ministry.

The 1960s brought strange trends to missions. As noted before, there was a shift in concilliam missions (missions associated with the World Council of Churches) to see missions as incompatible with proselytization. In reaction to this, Evangelicals created their own alternative first with the World Congress on Evangelism, held in Berlin (1966). The group’s noble goals were driven by an attempt to restore evangelism to missions. However, there was a tendency to overreact, and pull away from Social ministry. Part of this was aided by supporters of Donald MacGavran. His work in missions and church growth, while ground-breaking in so many ways, did sometimes tend towards a pragmatic approach to missions and narrowing of the missions call to churchplanting. The pragmatism could also be seen in a tendency to take missions theology less seriously.3

Additionally, during this time there was a promotion of what I might call “Apocalypticism.” In this I mean that many believed that Jesus Christ was ‘returning any day.’ As such, Christians had to put all of their efforts into quick conversions. As such, medical ministries, community development, and work on human rights, could be seen as more of a distraction than part of real missionary work. This is hardly new. The Student Volunteer Movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries had a slogan, “Evangelization of the world in one generation.” This idea was repeated with the AD2000 movement, and others. While goals are not a bad idea, it is a bit troubling that the Great Commission is seen to have an expiration date built into it, rather than that Christians are to be faithful until the Lord comes. Further, quick methods for evangelization may seem more effective up-front. But 50 years later, one must wonder if development ministries would have proven more effective in time.

Perhaps the most odd of these reasons for minimizing social ministry is the view of some missiologists that they can “speed up” Christ’s return. They point to the prophecy of Jesus in Matthew 24:14, “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” Some have taken this verse to mean that if the gospel message is preached effectively to every people group on earth, Jesus will suddenly return. This perspective reminds me of the short story by Arthur C. Clarke entitled, “The Nine Billion Names of God.”4 This story is about a fictitious group in Central Asia who believed that if they could write down all 9,000,000,000 names of God, the Universe would come to an end. Considering that to be their noble quest, they buy a supercomputer (back in the day when such a task would require a supercomputer) to speed up their slow, pain-staking work. As an outsider to this group, one may wonder why this group would want the Universe to end, but one could also question why some missionaries wanted to speed up the return of Christ. If one has compassion for the lost, lessening the opportunity for them to respond seems out of sorts with such compassion. Thankfully, there seems no good reason to see this verse as saying that God is timing the return of Christ on our mission work. And if, by some chance He is, it is really uncertain what criteria would qualify as the gospel being preached “in all the world for a witness unto all nations.”

The 1960s and 1970s were challenging times for Social Ministry in Evangelical Missions. John Stott as a conservative Anglican, bridged the gap between Conciliar and Evangelical missions. He worked very hard to change the minds of several Evangelical leaders, such as Billy Graham and C. Peter Wagner, who sought to define missions in more “Spiritualistic” terms. It seems as if Stott was not really able to change their minds. However, he was able to change the wording of some the early pronouncements of the Evangelical Missions movement that formed in the 60s.5

While I know this is still a touchy subject in Evangelical circles, I am thankful for the work done to prevent a view that undermined the value of Social Ministry. If Jesus embraced both social ministry and proclamation ministry, why would we seek to do less?

Views Regarding Social and Spiritual Ministry

Jerry Ballard in his article “Missions and Holistic Ministry”6 describes several major perspectives regarding how social ministry is viewed by Christian missionaries or ministers. This section will use his work as a starting point. Spiritual Ministries would include things that are, right or wrong, seen as more spiritual than other ministries. This is not very informative, but such ministries may include: evangelism, churchplanting, discipleship, prayer, worship, and so forth. These may be (perhaps) seen as having eternal value. Social Ministries would include pretty much everything else— those ministries that are primarily addressing, physical, social, psycho-emotional, economic, and ecological concerns. These (again perhaps) may be seen as having temporal value.

Figure 14. Spiritual versus Temporal/Social Ministry7

If Spiritual Ministry is seen as the vertical axis and Social Ministry is seen as the horizontal axis, then one has created a plane of ministry. Figure 14 shows this plane. A rectangle of Spiritual Ministry covers any ministry that is highly “spiritualistic,” while a different rectangle shows ministry that is highly “social.”

A Spiritualist perspective may be seen as the view that Christian ministers should only be doing spiritual ministry. Other ministries are essentially a distraction, drawing one away from what God has called to be done.

The extreme opposite of this view could be described as the Social Gospel perspective. If the Spiritualist perspective is drawn from the Great Commission as described in Matthew 28, the Social Gospel perspective could be seen as drawn from Matthew 25. In Matthew 25: 31-45, obedience to God is seen in doing social ministry. In the extreme of this perspective, if one is doing social ministry, one is doing the whole calling of God.

The Convenience perspective is somewhat similar to the Spiritualist perspective. However, one who embraces the Convenience perspective would accept the premise that “It is nice to be nice.” As such, this person may not really think their calling is to do social ministry. However, this person would not see social ministry as a distraction. If there is a need, and helping out would not undermine doing their “real work,” the missionary will try to be a blessing.

The Ulterior Motive perspective sees Social ministry as an important part of Christian ministry. However, one who accepts this perspective doesn’t see social ministry as inherently important but as valuable to open doors for spiritual ministry. This person may see spiritual ministry as “the real ministry” but recognize that social ministry is still an important part of the process. I used to be involved in medical missions. In these medical missions activities, we would provide free medical, dental, and surgical services, along with free medicines and vitamins. Normally, we would also evangelize. Many of the people I worked with in this activity would say that their real ministry is to evangelize and get people to be part of a home Bible study and a church family. They saw the medical and dental services as the way to draw them in and get them to respond positively to the “spiritual ministry.”

The Holistic perspective sees Social Ministry and Spiritual Ministry as both being part of God’s call to Christian service. As such, a person with this viewpoint would value both and seek, when possible, to integrate both in their ministry work. This view may be seen as being more in line with John Stott’s imagery of ministry being like a pair of scissors, or wings on an airplane or bird. Some may see one as having priority over the other… but in for those who have the Holistic perspective, priority doesn’t mean choosing one over the other. (An emergency room team may prioritize certain forms of care in rapid response, but that does not mean that they don’t provide all forms of care.) In the medical mission work I was involved in, there were also many team members that saw spiritual ministry and the medical and dental care as important and working together. As such, they saw no value in separating them and prioritizing one over the other.

Returning to Figure 14, the perspective is likely to have affect behavior. A missionary who embraces a Spiritualistic perspective is going to invest time, energy, and other resources into spiritual ministry, and little into social ministry. One who embraces a Social Gospel perspective is likely to be the opposite, putting most resources into social ministries, with little into spiritual ministries. Figure 14 shows Convenience and Ulterior Motive perspectives as sharing the same space on the diagram. Both do not highly value social ministry. One does it because the missionary wants to be nice when possible. The other sees it a means to the end of doing “real ministry.” As such both are likely to be invest more seriously in spiritual ministry, and much less diligence in social ministry. Finally, one who embraces Holism will seek the overlap of the two ministries— high quality and resource investment both in spiritual and social ministries.


Missionaries should, as part of developing their own theology, address the issue of what truly entails mission work. How narrow or broad is one’s calling. The answer is not simple since our chief example, Jesus Christ, did not make it simple. He embraced a broad understanding of what it means to serve God, guided by the Great Commandment. At the same time, God does empower people differently and places them in unique situations. As such, even if one a Holistic Perspective in theory (for example), one’s circumstances and giftings may place one in a position of doing ministry that leans towards one extreme or another.

In my case, I presently teach missions in a seminary as my primary ministry role. That role is not overtly holistic. Some may see it as more Spiritualistic since it involves training people to do Christian ministry. Others may see it as more Social ministry since its focus is on education and research rather than evangelism, discipleship, and church planting and growth. I spend very little time worried about the bounds of Spiritual Ministry and Social Ministry. In fact, it is entirely possible that dividing Christian ministry into two categories is a human construct rather than one that God would recognize as valid.

Chapter Eleven Endnotes

1 Mark Dickens, “Nestorian Christianity in Central Asia”. 2000. in AV-STM Leadership Development Program 2006. [CD-ROM] Baguio City, 2006, 2-3. Article is available online at

2 More on this with article, Robert H. Munson, “The Role of Trade Routes in the Spread of Christianity in Asia During the First Millennium.”

3 We are back to Rodger Bassham’s book, Mission Theology.

4 Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God.” Originally published in Star Science Fiction Stories, Frederick Pohl, ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1953).

5 A couple of interesting articles on John Stott’s work are: Just Distraction: What does the Bible say about social justice? By Katherine Ladd (2019)

When John Stott Confronted Billy Graham by Trevin Wax (2013)

6 Jerry Ballard, “Missions and Holistic Ministry.” In World Missions: The Asian Challenge: A Compendium of the Asia Mission Congress ’90, Held in Seoul, Korea August 27-31, 1990. 342-344.

7 Much of this is expanded on in Robert H. Munson, Christian Medical Missions:: Principles and Practices in the Church’s Role for Effective Community Outreach in the Philippines and Beyond, Rev. A (Baguio City, Philippines, MM-Musings, 2013). Also video on this available, “Social Ministry as Part of an Integrated Mission Strategy, Parts 1 and 2.” These can be found at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s