Holistic Ministry and the Wrong Question

I was reading an article reviewing Christopher Wright’s book “The Mission of God.” The review was from 2012 by Trevin Wax  HERE

I thought it was a good review, but the section (particularly in the concluding remarks) I found confusing.  It seemed to agree and disagree with Wright at the same time. Wright places high value on holistic ministry. Frankly, I can’t see how one could read the Bible without seeing that acting on God’s mission is  by demonstrating love to the whole person in his or her social and physical context. This is pretty clear since:

  1. The grand narrative (eschatological history) of the Bible has “horizontal,” “vertical,” spiritual, social, and physical components. Paradise in Genesis 1, as well as restored paradise in Isaiah and Revelation have these components. As such, God’s redemptive work has these holistic components.
  2. The various “Great Commissions” are secondary applications of the Great Commandment of Christ. In fact, the John version of the Great Commission points back to serving with Christ as model. As such, any view that the obedience to the Great Commission can be done without proclamation, or without active concern for people’s social and physical context is clearly sub-Biblical.
  3. Jesus modeled holistic ministry, and the Old Testament (especially the prophets) emphasized the inadequacy of religious piety without concern for the well-being of people in the here and now.  (It may be true that Wright’s emphasis on the OT Jubilee was a bit strange, considering its lack of emphasis elsewhere in the Bible… but if I was an OT scholar, maybe I would see its emphasis appropriate.)

The point I am making here is that Missiologists have often operated on a flawed dualism. The appropriate contrast should be:

Holistic

Since Jesus ministry was holistic, not simply spiritual or social, the question for us is whether we are to do holistic ministry or less than holistic ministry. Any arguments that seek to pull the issue back to spiritual (proclamation) ministry versus social ministry is trying resurrect the Liberal/Fundamental arguments of 100 years ago, not deal realistically with God’s Word and God’s Mission.

Wings versus Springs

I have been reading Christopher Wrights’s book “The Mission of God”… I am a slow reader. But I was also reading a review of that book by Trevin Wax… actually a very good review… but there was a part that got me thinking. 20130809105526u20220dTrevin was noting some disagreement (or apparent disagreement) with Wright’s focus on holistic missions (as opposed to “spiritualistic missions”).

But if eternal suffering in hell is one of the motivations for evangelism, then it should follow that evangelistic outreach is of the utmost importance. Political and social activity will be of eternal significance only insofar as they demonstrate the truth of that evangelistic message.

In other words, the weight of eternal suffering ought to make ultimacy pulse with passion for proclamation and demonstration – not as if they are two equal planes that need to be kept upright (one temporal and one eternal), but in seeing everything related to mission as ultimately designed to proclaim the gospel that relieves all suffering, especially eternal hell.

Therefore, it is not enough to say that mission is deficient if it does not contain gospel proclamation. We ought instead to say that mission is non-existent if our deeds are ever disconnected from the motivation and intention of proclaiming the gospel verbally.

John Stott would describe spiritualistic (or proclamation) ministry and social (demonstration) ministry as being two wings on an airplane (or a bird), are two blades for a pair of scissors. But the reviewer is suggesting that the implied symmetry is misguided. One is clearly more important than the other.  So for him, the plane model is inappropriate, and scissors (symmetrical) should be replaced with shears (that are typically assymetrical).

But I like the metaphor generally but there are clear problems with the metaphor.  Let’s elaborate problems and value associated with the metaphor. (Don’t get me wrong… every metaphor fails on a certain level… knowledge of the limitations of a metaphor is needed for the metaphor to be useful.)

1.  Two wings gives to impression that proclamation evangelism and demonstration evangelism are connected (in the middle) and aid each other but are otherwise independent of each other. For example, I think few of us could imagine a bird (let’s use a falcon as an example… why not?) that could fly if it only had one wing. We probably are pretty convinced that a one-winged falcon could not fly. However, we probably can imagine a falcon with only one wing. A one-winged falcon would still be a falcon, even if it could not fly. But I would suggest that proclamation without demonstration is not evangelism and is not missions. One is reminded of the “gospel bombs”– paper gospel tracts dumped into people’s back yards in the short story “The Gospel Blimp.” This, and other forms of “evangelistic littering,” is something… but it is not evangelism and it is not missions. Donating money to a secular charity is nice and it is kind and it is loving… but it is not evangelism and it is not missions. Prayer walking may or may not have value… but it is not proclamation and it is not demonstration. It is not missions or evangelism. It is now something else.

2. The two-wings metaphor suggests that holistic missions can be discretized… disconnected into two separate things. The term “holistic” (I do prefer the spelling “wholistic”) fights against this. It suggests an integratedness, a gestalt, a synergy, that defies dividing them into two camps. Successful missions is neither really proclamation nor demonstration….. but RELATION. Relation cannot be broken down into words and actions… they join together inseparably. While I understand that from a taxonomic standpoint, one could possibly separate mission/evangelism into two categories… the question is, is there any usefulness in such categorization (functionally speaking)? I think the usefulness is often lost in the confusion it creates.

3.  As noted before, there is a huge inequality between the two wings. In the quote above, Trevin noted that if one views eternal destination as more important than present circumstances (an understandable viewpoint) than proclamation must be seen as the more vital. But one can reverse it pretty easily to suggest that the other side is greater. Consider the argument used. One side is proclamation… but what does that entail?

  • Wing 1:  “verbal communication of adequate facts/data to allow another to make an informed decision whether or not to follow Christ.
  • Wing 2: Everything else.

If that is how the two wings are divided, Wing 2 would take up most of the activities of any evangelizer or missionary no matter how much one tries to focus on Wing 1. One may seek to prioritize Wing 1, but in the end, Wing 2 is likely to be dominate in one’s time and effectiveness. The question is whether one does Wing 2 well or does it poorly. The two wings are unequal in various ways. As such the model is challenging.

An additional assymetry is effectivity of separation.

  • Wing 2 (Social ministry) without Wing 1 (proclamation) is clearly inadequate. However, behaving in a loving manner to those who need such love, but without proclamation of the gospel), while (again) inadequate, at least can serve as a preparation for the gospel.
  • Wing 1 (proclamation) without Wing 2 (social ministry or demonstration) may be effective in some circumstance. However, it is also quite likely to lead to rejection. How many non-Christians have been turned off to the gospel by people who preach up the love of Christ, but are not able to live out the love of Christ.

The first scenario is inadequate but neutral to somewhat positive. The second scenario ranges from negative to positive. On the other hand salvation comes from a response to a message, not to demonstrated love without the object of that love presented.

4. Talking about which is more important is ultimately foolish. Looking at point #3.  In terms of adequacy, proclamation is more important… the message is adequate for response, while this is not true of demonstration not linked to the message. On the other hand, in terms of size of ministry, social is greater. And in terms of effectivity, social is greater (in the sense that proclamation is more harmed by divorce from its partner than is demonstration).

The two wings suggests, incorrectly, that one can do one or the other or both. In the quote above the reviewer rightly noted that demonstration without proclamation is not missions. But he needed to go further. Proclamation without demonstration is not missions either. Doing one without the other is not Christian missions. Trying to do proclamation without demonstration is difficult, and likely to backfire. Arguably, it is impossible since to proclaim without focusing on demonstration (“social ministries”… everything on Wing 2) simply means to demonstrate poorly. To demonstrate God’s message poorly is to effectively preach against one’s spoken message. And to demonstrate God’s love without God’s message of hope is so incomplete as to arguably not ultimately be missions.

Ultimately, I would suggest a different metaphor… not to replace the wings, but to supplement them. I would suggest the metaphor from James of a fountain. or a spring. James 3: 11-12 suggests that we cannot use our mouths to both curse and bless. After all can a single spring bring forth both fresh and salty water or both sweet and bitter? Of course, we know that people both bless and curse with one mouth. The point is that it is unnatural… a violation of how things are suppose to be.

Let’s bring the idea of a spring 2over to evangelism or missions.

A. A spring has a source… which in this case is God and God’s mission.

B.  It has an outward flow from a place of abundance to a place of lacking. I would argue that this flow is love… relational. God loved us first, and we respond with love for God and love for who and what God loves. The reality of hell, for example, may inform the message, but should not compel the action. Likewise, the Great Commission may inform our methodology, but it should not be our motivation… one simply of duty. Love compels word and action.

C.  To love halfway… such as loving with word that is disconnected from deed, or deed disconnected from word… is unnatural… and a violation of what it truly means to love just as it would be unnatural for the spring to be both salty and fresh.

Ultimately, I believe the reason we have these arguments is that we don’t truly love those around us (yes, I am including myself here). Therefore, we find ourselves playacting… guessing at… how one is supposed to act if one loves. Does one focus on words? Does one focus on doing nice stuff? Does one focus on programs, formats, or anything else?

If we did not playact loving God and loving others as we love ourselves… we would not have to figure out all of this stuff… working out methods and priorities. It would flow… like a spring of cool pure water for a parched land. (see Isaiah 58:11)

Book Reflection: “The Mission of God” Part 2

This is a continuation of the reflections on “The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative” by Christopher J.H. Wright.  NOTE: This is NOT a review… just things that the book got me thinking about. I haven’t finished the book yet (I am slow sometimes, but I have to give it a STRONG recommendation already).

The book seeks to develop a Biblical Theology of Missions, as well as a missional hermeneutic for understanding the Bible. This got me thinking…

IS HAVING A SOLID MISSION THEOLOGY NEEDED?

With some reflection it seems to me that the obvious answer is YES and NO. It is NO in the sense that most Christians can carry out God’s mission on earth quite effectively without having a very strong theological foundation for what they do and why. But where does YES come in?

1. History has shown that Christian missions has moved forward in fits and starts (and stops). It pops up here with great fervor and dies away over there. Among missional people there is often a belief that missions people are more godly or spiritual or “on fire” than those who are not. I have not seen this as true. Perhaps missional fervor is NOT a good judge of spirituality. Perhaps the fact that missions is often disconnected from normal Christian life, and ecclesiastical life means that missions is commonly borne along through a few who are motivated in that specific area of the Christian walk. Perhaps, having a missional theology that is linked better with the overall understanding of the theology of God, Man, World, and Church, would reduce the fickleness of the overall movement of Christian missions. (Just a theory.)

2. When there is a disconnect between theology and its application, problems often spring up. Let me give an example. William Carey was a pastor of the Particular Baptists, a strongly Calvinistic group in England. This group had little interest in missions. God preordained people to Heaven or Hell after all… so what is the point of reaching out? William Carey wrote a booklet challenging this logic. He used the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to argue that Jesus gave the command to evangelize to all Christians not just the original Twelve. He made a strong case for this.

However, note this. He did not really challenge the Calvinistic doctrines… just argued that one should not use those doctrines to deny something the Jesus commanded us to do. Calvinism (particularly consistent Calvinists) always had a gaping hole when it came to missions going back to… well… John Calvin. Carey made it clear that regardless of what one believes doctrinely, one should evangelize because Jesus commanded us to. There is a seeming disconnect here. It is hardly surprising that just decades later among the Baptists (and the Campbellite offshoot) developed the “Antimissional Movement.” It was a reaction away from missions, in part because of the Calvinistic theology of its members.

This is not a diatribe against Calvinism (I am neither Calvinist nor Anti-Calvinist). But when one’s theology is not consistent with the ministerial application, it is hardly a shock that problems recur. One could argue that Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years, also known as the Hocking Report (1932) got much of its strength from the fact that missions was built on a poor theological foundation… and as such was easy to topple or redirect.

3.  Missions is often drawn from a “gerrymandering” of Bible verses. Often it seems as the practitioners of missions have already determined what they want to do and why, and simply pick those verses that seem to support what they are already doing. I know churches who have dumped all social missions because missions to them is proclamation, conversion, discipleship, and church-planting. I have known of churches who have cut off funding to orphanages because orphanages are not evangelistic… and so are not missional. They have verses to support their view… but they have to throw out an awful lot of the Bible to support such an idea. I have known missions agencies that have (incredibly) stopped working in very productive areas because people in those areas were no longer labeled “unreached people groups.” The Biblical justification for this is shallow, and the logic of stopping work because it is productive is… odd to say the least. Wouldn’t it be better to understand what God’s mission is (based on God’s revelation and character) and then come alongside… rather than doing what we want to do  and then select verses (“prooftexts”) to back it up?

4.  There is some really sloppy missions methodology out there… some of which comes from a very poor theological foundation. The focus on Unreached People Groups has been justified by utilizing Matthew 24:14. Some have taught that once we have reached all “people groups” Christ will immediately (or at least almost immediately) return. First, the passage never says that, nor, in my mind, even implies it. Second, the application of that interpretation results in a behavior that comes close to… well… evil. Think about it. People focus on trying to get the gospel into every “people group” (however one chooses to define such an entity) pulling resources away from successful outreaches among “reached” peoples in hopes that God would come back sooner. In practice that means one is seeking to reduce outreach to many people and shorten the time that the Gospel is available for response. One is actually trying to send more people to hell by giving them less time and opportunity to respond. Weird! If one truly believed the quite fanciful interpretation of the Matthew passage and believed (equally fancifully) that one could define exact “people groups” (ethne)… the proper response would seem to be to reach as many people as possible among all people groups as possible— except one. Only after evangelistic saturation of all peoples (is that realistic?) would one saturate the last people group with the gospel. <Thankfully, God did not give us control of when He comes, nor gave us the calling to “time” His return.> By the way, I am not against reaching all people in all cultures… nor do I believe that doing so nor failing to do so will change God’s timing one iota.

Some evangelical missions leaders back in the 1950s and 60s had embraced an apocalyptic view of Christianity (Christ is coming any day… at least any day really really soon.) As such, they tossed aside God’s work in caring for people’s needs in favor of quick conversion. But they were wrong… 50, 60 years later and Christ is not here yet. What if investment in demonstrating God’s love had been effectively linked to proclaiming God’s love over the last several decades (rather than disconnected). Personally, I think carrying out God’s full mission faithfully without trying to “read the signs” would have been more effective, and is still more effective today.

The Missionary Call seems to be another area of sloppiness. There seems to be little Biblical support for it at all. Christ calls all to follow Him. The church may call people to be pastors or missionaries (apostles)… but does God? I don’t think so. If He did, then the missionary call is primarily an “anti-missionary call” since the vast majority of Christians are, presumably,  not so called. The missionary call seems to be more of an excuse not to be missional than it is to motivate people to missions. Defining missions in terms of only being cross-cultural, or only to the “called”, or only for “professionals” seems to be without theological basis as well. It is hardly surprising that there are good Christians that argue that missions and missionaries are unbiblical. I have even seen blogsites that challenge Christians to show that missions and missionaries are Biblical. You know, IF one uses the common definitions utilized today, I think they have a point. However, if one is willing to challenge the definitions I believe we see the Bible as a missional book and a book of God on mission and us on God’s mission.

5.  The poor theology has led to questions about even what is the goals of missions. What is missions supposed to do?

  • Get conversions and baptisms?
  • Get churches planted?
  • Disciple?
  • “Civilize” the people?
  • Help social needs?
  • Socially liberate?
  • Promote specific denomination or theological goals?

A sound theology of missions should help determine what are our priorities and what are extraneous.

Yes, I think it is high time that God’s people take seriously Missions Theology… or a missional understanding of God.