As Christians, we hold the Bible as God’s authoritative word that shapes what we do as individuals and as churches. We need to begin with understanding what Scripture says on the issue of holistic ministry. This flows into theology, which is our systematic understanding of God and how God relates to his world. Our theology needs to be made real in the practice of mission, which is taking what we believe to impact this world.
Biblical grounds for holistic, developmental ministry—what God says
Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth …” is a fundamental claim that this is our Father’s world. It is followed by the affirmation that the world was very good, and God was pleased with what he made. He placed people on this creation as his image bearers and stewards who would function to properly manage the creation. As Christians, we share this mandate with all who have followed Jesus, seeking to bring the fullness of life as God created it.
It only takes two chapters for Adam and Eve, who were the crown of this creation, to fall for the serpent’s lies and destroy the harmony of creation. As we see in the opening chapters of Genesis, the fall wreaked havoc on the creation and social order that God had so carefully crafted. The impact of the fall is described in Genesis 3:16-24 and includes the reality of death—humans are dust and to dust they will return. The effects of the fall have dominated the course of human history. As Paul states in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (NIV).
However, God did not leave the world to its own destruction. He began the process of reconciling to himself other people and the world, which would ultimately come through Jesus Christ. Through his covenant with Abraham, he made a people who were intended to be a light to the nations. As God establishes a people, they are expected to relate properly to God and all people. The people of God are called to build a just society where all people are treated properly, one in which people walk humbly, love mercy, and do justice. It is in Jesus that we see the example of holistic, developmental ministry so clearly. He comes to save but also to proclaim good news to the poor (Luke 4:18-19). This kingdom of Christ pertains to all areas of the created order; it is a message of personal and social transformation. He has made us, his disciples, ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-21).
Theological grounds for holistic, developmental ministry—how we think about what God says
The dictionary definition of theology is “the rational interpretation of religious faith, practice, and experience” (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1987). We would add that theology may also be an art, creatively asking how we apply our beliefs to the canvas of the world God created. This understanding fits in the category of a world and life view and theological theme in which we affirm that God is reclaiming “every square inch” of creation (Kuyper 1898). It sees Christ as the transformer of culture, seeking to bring people back into the harmony that had existed in Eden, and looking forward to the time when Christ returns and makes all things new (Revelation 21:1-5). Although we know that this will only be fully realized when Christ comes again, we have the responsibility to bring our world into conformity with God’s will, helping his kingdom to come. What we do here in our lives has eternal significance. Christ’s disciples are here to restore all areas of life.
A second major theological theme which inspires holistic, developmental ministry is that of hope. Hope is both a psychological need that people have for the future and a powerful theological reality that allows the church to place itself in the midst of the world’s suffering and know that one day everything will be okay. Hope takes our promised future and makes it a blueprint for what we try to make a reality here and now. In his book Visions of a World Hungry: Study, Prayer & Action, Thomas Pettepiece says this about hope:
When I begin to lose hope, too often I have forgotten that hope is inseparably connected to faith and love … your love which powerfully confirms that you are not only the bringer of life, but you are Life … faith that receives love humbly and enables me to respond with hope to even the most complicated problems (as cited in Job and Shawchuck 1983).
This hope is not a weak wish but the confident assurance that what God has promised will come to be. Read through Romans 8:18-25 to see how Paul acknowledges the reality of the present but still had hope and confidence in God’s future.
A final picture of hope comes through the words of Jesuit Father Luis Espinal who was assassinated by paramilitary forces in La Paz, Bolivia, on March 22, 1980. In the midst of fear and the struggle for justice, Father Espinal was yet able to claim these stirring words:
There are Christians who have hysterical reactions, as if the world had slipped out of God’s hands. They are violent as if they were risking everything. But we believe in history; the world is not a roll of the dice on its way to chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen. Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph with our bodies still in the breach and our souls in tension; we cry out our first ‘Hurrah’! till eternity unfolds itself. Your sorrow now has passed. Your enemies have failed. You are the definitive smile for mankind. What matter the wait now for us? We accept the struggle and the death, because you, our love, will not die! We march behind you on the road to the future. You are with us. You are our immortality! Take away the sadness from our faces. We are not in a game of chance … So teach us to give voice to your new life throughout the world. Because you dry the tears from the eyes of the oppressed forever and death will disappear (as cited in Job and Shawchuck 1983).
A final theological theme supporting holistic, developmental ministry is that of compassion—how we respond to human suffering. It is primarily in Paul’s letters that Jesus’s disciples are told to develop the fruit of the Spirit, which includes compassion. While most of the world sees our emotions as static or “the way we are,” Paul tells us to be imitators of God. This includes growing and developing our emotions like love, hope, and compassion in order to be Christ-like.
This is important to acknowledge because compassion might not be our most natural reaction to human suffering. Like the priest and the Levite in the story of the good Samaritan, it is very easy, almost natural, to pass by on the other side of the road. Following the path of Jesus, who responded compassionately to both human suffering and human lostness, compassion is not the easiest response, but it is the right response. Malcolm Muggeridge describes how he felt as he filmed scenes at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying:
I went through three phases. The first was horror mixed with pity; the second, compassion pure and simple; and the third … something I had never experienced before—an awareness that these dying and derelict men and women, these lepers with stumps instead of hands, these unwanted children, were not pitiable, repulsive, and forlorn, but rather dear and delightful; as it might be friends of long standing, brothers and sisters (as cited in Job and Shawchuck 1983).
Our definition of compassion is “the Christian response to human need in which a deep sense of concern and connection arises and results in seeking to alleviate the need.” Going beyond feeling bad about another’s suffering, Christian compassion always includes action. Theologian Walter Brueggemann describes the power of this type of compassion.
[Compassion] constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but as abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness … The compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon the concern of his social context (Brueggemann 2001).
Missiological grounds for holistic, developmental ministry—how we do what God says
Why don’t we simply leave involvement in holistic, developmental ministry up to the individual church member or parachurch ministries? We do indeed celebrate and affirm what individual Christians and parachurch organizations do in the name of Jesus. Many of the most complex needs we encounter require a sophistication and skill that comes with a high degree of professionalism that specialized ministries fulfill. At other times, it may be appropriate to turn to the government or other organizations to provide this level of resource and professionalism.
At the same time, it is absolutely critical that the church, as the body of Christ, steps up and gets involved in holistic, developmental ministry. When the world experiences a church that shares the good news in word and deed, it is invited into relationship with Jesus, is welcomed into a community of brothers and sisters, and can experience the fullness of life that God desires for everyone. As Dieter Hessel argues in Social Ministry, it is critical for the church to do both:
… since God is radically social, all modes or dimensions of ministry are social in ways that encompass both personal growth and social responsibility. Congregations must develop the modes of ministry with intentionality and competence, so that ministry contributes to social transformation as well as human fulfillment, to health of community and country as well as congregational renewal, to local and global action as well as to church growth. I assume that social ministry [holistic, developmental ministry] cannot remain peripheral, optional, or episodic; rather it is central, necessary, and eventful to the life of the church (Hessel 1991).
The synergy that comes from holistic, developmental ministry creates a dynamic and vibrant church life that is building the kingdom of God in this world.
The church needs to be committed to the common good of all people and to the rights and dignity of every person who is created in the image of God. The church, both organically and institutionally, acts as a leavening agent for society—it simply cannot remain indifferent to the greatest issues facing the society in which it is placed. Howard Snyder describes it this way:
So the Church is not to be understood primarily as a means to the end of transforming society. This would trample over the uniqueness and infinite worth to God of the Christian community. Besides, the amazing and profound fact is that the church most transforms society when it is itself growing and being perfected in the love of Christ. … Truly Christian transformation of culture comes through Christ-like (and hence sacrificial) love, community, and being. … The being is fundamental, but the doing is the natural result (Snyder 1977).
As the church proclaims and seeks to establish the kingdom of God, which is God’s rule over all areas of life, it comes to see that all human needs may be used by the Spirit as a point of connection for the gospel in the lives of people. We are “doing justice” people who will see and experience the reality of the God who so loves his world and seeks to give fullness of life to all.