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:


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)

Why Do Good? Or Why Not?

We (me and my family… I am not talking about myself in first person plural) do a number of different ministries here in the Philippines. This includes church ministries of different sort, some church planting, and seminary teaching. But our biggest work has been more what is often called social ministry. This includes medical missions (more in the past than the present) and pastoral care and counseling. Recently, due to the typhoon and earthquake disasters in Philippines in the last few weeks, we have been pulled back into disaster response. This brings back a question that Evangelical Christians often wrestle with… Why do (social) good?  It might seem obvious why we should do good. Jesus did good and we are suppose to have Jesus as our example… so it shouldn’t be particularly difficult. 

William Wilberforce by Sir George Hayter - Fer...
William Wilberforce by Sir George Hayter – Ferens Art Gallery, Hull – Accession number: KINCM:2005.5020 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The difficulty seems to come when we pull in certain theological presuppositions. These presuppositions create different attitudes about social ministry. Ballard describes five common attitudes that Christians have regarding social ministry. 

@page { margin: 2cm }
P { margin-bottomJerry 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.

The first is avoidance. It assumes that Christian ministry is to be “spiritual”. Evangelism and discipleship are the center of Christian ministry. Other work distracts from this.

The second is convenience. It also is focused on the spiritual, but accepts that doing social ministry is okay as time and resources allow. Those with this attitude will likely be more involved in social ministry than those with the first attitude, but it is not viewed as their “real” ministry.

A third attitude is focus on the social gospel. The view equates Christian ministry with social ministry. Proclamation of the gospel and spiritual conversion/transformation is not really valued.

A fourth attitude can be described as “ulterior motive”. It assumes that social ministry is valued to the extent that it positively affects spiritual ministry. This is sort of a variation on convenience. Spiritual ministry is again “real” ministry, but social ministry is no longer viewed simply as a nice thing to do (as long as it doesn’t distract. Rather, it is seen as a open door or lure to real/spiritual ministry.

The fifth attitude is wholism. It says that both social and spiritual ministries have inherent value. Christian ministry and mission should draw its inspiration from the life of Christ—who appeared to care for the whole person, both spiritually and socially.

Among Evangelical Christians, the last two attitudes are the most common. Personally, I believe that the Gospel of Christ is transformation on all levels of human and social condiition. As such, it should not be narrowly defined in terms of “soul” issues. So I believe that a wholistic view is most in line with the Bible. But it is true the the Bible does give priority to spiritiual concerns (generally, but not universally). All in all, however, Evangelical Christians do need to come to the point that they are comfortable with both spiritual type ministries (evangelism, church planting/growth, discipleship, and such) and social ministries.


Medical Missions Events in the Philippines, Part V

This is the last section on Medical Mission Events. This is based on my dissertation. The focus of the dissertation was the use of medical mission events in the Philippines for long-term impact in a community by a local church. As such, the traditional medical mission is inadequate. Traditional medical missions typically have little long-term impact. Here are some

Medical Mission in Sagada, Mountain Province


1. Medical Missions needs a committed local presence. That commitment is to wholistic concern for the community. A church that simply “wants to grow” is not enough since the desire of itself can be simply selfish. A church that is concerned for the community and the people in the community needs to focus on reaching out to the community rather than trying to lure people in.

2.  Medical Missions events should do more than simply short-term medical care. There are a number of ways to do this:

-Provide health and hygiene training as part of the medical care.

-Use the mission as a catalyst for bringing together concerned entities within a community for long-term programs

-Provide training programs integrated into the medical mission or operating in parallel.

<Consider training such as provided by http://hepfdc.info/Health_Screening.html   or   http://www.lifewind.org>

3.  Intentionally plan for long-term ministry. This plan should gradually transition the outside team from providing the majority of services to being technical support. This requires training for local leaders, and material transfer.

4.  Work with local authorities, not just religious groups. Utilize and partner with local health and social services.

5.  Recognize transformation and evangelism in terms of gradual change, not quick fixes. God may have taken only 6 days to make the world, but after all of this time He is still not done transforming it. Consider a dictum from Engineering. Engineers like to say (when asked to design something) “The design can be Quick, Cheap, or High Quality. You can choose any two of the three.” If it is quick and cheap, it will be low quality. If it is cheap and high quality, it will not be quick. If it is quick and high quality, it will not be cheap. Same with ministry. High quality ministry takes time. I, frankly, am not sure that throwing more money at it will allow one to reduce the time.

6.  Medical missions should be done “right”. A major purpose for medical missions is to express love and goodwill in a community in a form that can be recognized and appreciated. Therefore doing things poorly, sabotages that purpose. Here are a few things I have seen (shockingly enough) done in medical missions… that obviously should not be done:

-Bringing too little medicine (or medical samples or random medical donations).

-Bringing expired medicines.

-Hard-sell evangelism. Filipinos will typically say what people want them to say (especially if given something). Missions is not about getting people to “say stuff.” It is about changing lives.

-Bait-and-switch tactics. Don’t offer more of what people want and then switch and more of what you want.

-Having inadequate medical personnel. Inadequate can be in number, training, and licensing.

-Failing to limit the number of patients.

<The last one seems strange to some people. Consider an evangelistic concert. If 50 people come, that is okay. If 500 come that is great. If 5000 come that is excellent.> But not so in medical missions. If you have medical personnel and medicines for 500 people, if 1000 people come, a large number of people will be unhappy… at you and who you represent. It is better to have a smaller group that is treated well, than a large number treated poorly.>

I am sorry if these 5 posts are a bit disjointed. The dissertation is much much longer with much much more information. Instead of boring people with that, I just wanted to hit a few points on medical missions. Summing things up:

  1.           Doing a good job is more important than doing a big job
  2.           Preparing for long-term ministry is more important than an impressive short-term event
  3.       Demonstrating goodwill and God’s love in a tangible way is more important than “wowwing” the crowd

These three points are true with nearly all ministries.

Relevant Book: Healthy Christian Medical Missions

Wholistic (Holistic) Transformation Quote

Transformation is the progressive, ongoing, measurable, and supernatural impact of the presence and power of God working in, through, and apart from the body of Christ on human society and its structures. It involves seeking positive change in the whole of human life materially, socially, and spiritually as we recover our true identity as human beings created in the image of God and discover our true vocation as productive stewards, faithfully caring for our world and its people. Deep and profound change is possible in human beings and is equally possible for the social organisms that we call communities, cities, and nations.”

(“Research on Transformational Indicators” by Stan Rowland 7-08-06 Rev 5/07)

Challenges of Church-Based COMDEV in the Philippines (Part 2)


B.  Challenges Associated with the Philippines

1.  Cultural Factors

-“Utang na loob“. This term literally means “inside debt”. This is an implied obligation one experiences after receiving a gift or help. Since community development is about interdependency, “utang na loob” tends to prevent this interdependency. Instead, it tends to promote dependency (“rice Christian” effect)

-“Bahala na”. This term describes a sort of resignation to fate or luck. Quoting Tomas D. Andres, “Bahala na works against Individual and social progress, … It harnesses one’s behavior to a submissiveness that eats up one’s sense of responsibility and personal independence. It provides one with a false sense of self-confidence to proceed with an unsound action in the belief that somehow one will manage to get by.” Bahala na sounds Christian (Thy will be done), but only if one confuses a personal God with impersonal fate.

-Datu mentality. The datu (local leader) mentality limits growth and innovation because of the tendency of decisions to be made by one with little creativity. Community development works best when the creativity and power is shared broadly within the community.

2.  Historical Factors.

-As mentioned before, community development in the Philippines came through the government, foreign government, and non-governmental organizations. Therefore, churches lack history in community development.

-Historically, the track record of the community development groups are questionable. Often based on flawed beliefs (or theology), or bad methodology, there is little real change seen.

-Many churches assume all government to be corrupt, so to work with governmental organizations is impossible, or will lead to compromise.

C.  Non-contextual Factors

-The tendency of money to create dependency. Glenn Schwarz has pointed out that if rich countries simply giving money to poor communities worked, “then Haiti should be a shining example of development in our world.” Dependency destroys rather than develops.

-Development is often linked to economic wealth. Wealth doesn’t always develop a community… sometimes it destroys it. To develop wholistically (not just economically) is a challenge.

-Although development is not about money, money will always be a factor. The lack of money in communities makes local church-based development difficult.

-Another problem is the uncertain role of social ministry within the church. Ballard describes five basic attitudes:  Spiritualistic, “Social Gospel”, Convenience, Ulterior Motive, and Wholism. Only a wholistic attitude is likely to genuinely produce solid interdependent community development. However, this may require a major change in attitude of the local church

-Fragmentation is another problem. Partnership is needed for community development, but that means mature sharing of power and vision. However, people and organizations like to accumulate power and act according to their own vision.

-Outside help is often needed to do community development, but leadership must be developed within the community to take over. Power and skills must be transferred to to local elements.


So, can the church be involved in community development in the Philippines? YES.  It has much to offer.

1.  Community development should be wholistic… this means that it concerns itself with all aspects important to human and social development. This includes spiritual.

2.  Churches SHOULD provide a model of interconnectedness in community. If they don’t, there is something wrong with the church.

3.  Local churches are already in the community. They are an important institution that exists incarnately within the broader community.

4.  Churches already have a (hopefully wise ) group of leaders within the community that can help with development.

Additionally, there are characteristics of the Philippines that can help with community development.

1.  The barangay system sets up community government. This removes some of the difficulty of setting up community structures for development.

2.  The Catholicism of the Philippines helps. The common understanding of God and His role in reaching out to communities and individuals is important to wholistic work.

3.  “Pakikisama” and “Bayanihan” are two Philippine cultural traits that describe coming together with purpose for common good. Building community development in line with these cultural values may be more successful than in the US where Individualism takes precedence.