What is holistic ministry?

by Lt. Colonel Ray MoultonThe vision we have perceived in this territory is to be compassionately active in serving humanity. This is further amplified by stating, our ministry will continue to be to the whole person. We…will be a people who see ourselves as a catalyst for meeting the spiritual and social needs of our community. This deep desire that we have captured from God is further expressed in our second priority–promote holistic ministry.

But what do we mean by holistic ministry? How will we know authentic holistic ministry when we see it, or are engaged in it in our day-to-day ministry? Isn’t it enough that a congregation adds some community service–like a food pantry–to its list of programs? Or that a social service center adds a chaplain to its staffing? These are questions we need to continually ask, searching for depth of meaning found in Scripture, and to understand God’s direction for our ministry.

A recently published book, Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works–jointly written by Ronald Sider, Philip Olson and Heidi Rolland Unruh–attempts to define holistic ministry by, “a whole-hearted embrace, and integration of both evangelism and social ministry, so that people experience spiritual renewal, socio-economic uplift, and transformation of their social context.”

While this may feel academic, it does give the intent that our evangelism and social ministry is to be embraced by our congregations in such a way that encourages the opportunity for spiritual renewal, with the economic and social benefits that people require to live to their potential. This results in personal transformation, as well as the positive impact on the neighborhood in which they live. Evangelism, without a genuine concern and care for a person’s real life situation, feels hollow and empty. To the same extent, expressions of care and support for a person’s difficulties and pain in life, without the opportunity for spiritual transformation, is less than our whole calling.

Some would claim that holistic ministry is, in fact, incarnational ministry–that is, as God himself invaded our world incarnationally and became human in order to identify and relate to us as weak, miserable creatures. In the same way, God sends us to minister by identifying, and coming alongside in relationship with those to whom we are ministering. It is God’s people fleshing out the truth of the Gospel in relationship with others. As recorded in the Gospel of John 20:21, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” It is by being in relationship, by sensing and responding to the needs and issues of individuals, by being agents of change within the lives of individuals, and communities, that we are sent.

As we take seriously the vision we have discovered from God, and try to work out in our personal and corporate ministry, it is important for us to examine closely what that means and what it would look like for us. No doubt we in The Salvation Army pride ourselves on a ministry that reaches out to God and to man, in various practical measures. Yet some would say that we have divorced these two expressions of ministry so that they are not whole or integrated, but being carried on by individuals and programs where there is not enough connection between the two. I would suggest that in various corps across the territory the ministries are separated–and in many, many other places these ministries are integrated and whole.

The book to which I referred earlier gives some understanding of what the holistic church would be. First, a holistic church or corps would, “teach a ministry vision that integrates discipleship, evangelism, and social action, and works toward both spiritual and social transformation.” This vision of ministry fully integrates our various programs of outreach and assimilation into the body of Christ. It is not enough to simply work for the spiritual transformation of individuals–we must be concerned about neighborhoods and communities in which they exist, as well.

Secondly, a holistic church would, “support a spectrum of social action that includes charity, compassion, community development, public policy, and justice advocacy, addressing both individual and systemic sources of human problems.” Our ministry might be “the giving of a cup of cold water” that is symbolized by food banks, shelters and other means of providing assistance to individuals and families. However, it also would include developing neighborhoods, and addressing public policy issues that would harm and hinder individuals in their living environment. To be holistic does not necessarily mean we are engaged in all of these ourselves, but in partnership with other Christian churches and agencies that we, as a part of the Kingdom of God, are expressing our concerns and bringing into action the issues that affect the health and wholeness of humanity in general.

Thirdly, in the holistic church we would, “see ministry as fundamentally relational, seeking to develop long term relationships with ministry recipients, and welcoming them into church fellowship.” This is where providing assistance to individuals and families moves beyond that act of charity to engage them in a relationship. Certainly, this relationship engagement is at their choice, and certainly we can not foster on them a requirement to engage in relationship. However, our ministry–expressed by individuals and congregations, as well as staff and volunteers involved in professional service–must find opportunities to build relationships with individuals in a healthy sense, so that their whole lives are open for transformation; and, in turn, the community in which they live is improved.

Fourthly, the holistic church would, “view mission as both local and global in scope.” This touches on another priority from our vision that would see ourselves casting a global vision. Vision centers upon the neighbors and individuals within our sphere of influence that we meet on a regular basis–as well as tribes, nations, peoples from other parts of our globe, who are in need of the redeeming grace of Christ, and the material and relational support that we can provide within their situations. It is not enough to have an “us four and no more” mentality, but our holistic view would encompass those who are hurting locally, as well as the global work of extending God’s Kingdom as we are able to participate.

It is not enough to verbally share the Gospel without demonstrating deep concern for individuals. And it is not enough to demonstrate concern for people by just providing them quick solutions and handouts. A balanced and integrated ministry needs to happen within our entire mission, so that individuals, and the world, will know how deeply Christ cares for us all.

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