I’ve been asked to conduct a training on the biblical foundations of integral mission, also known as holistic ministry or transformational development. There are many folks who have addressed this question more ably than I. My favorite discussion so far is Bryant Myers in the second edition of his book Walking with the Poor. Here are links to the intro and part 1.
Last time, we talked about a few things that we could learn about holistic ministry from the Creation and the Fall. We learned that God has been doing holistic ministry from the first moment of creation. We discovered that an opportunity to grow is an opportunity to fail, yet God keeps giving us opportunities. We know that God never gives up and He never fails. So let’s try to catch a few glimpses of how He pursues holistic ministry through the Old Testament.
Noah – God Who Judges
Genesis 6:13-14 (NET) – So God said to Noah, “I have decided that all living creatures must die, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. Now I am about to destroy them and the earth. Make for yourself an ark of cypress wood.”
For many of us, this story is one of the hardest in the Bible. We love God in the Garden. He is just, yet profoundly merciful. Judgement is delayed. In the story of Noah, we see God the Righteous Judge acting as an executioner. His judgment is still delayed for 100 years while Noah calls people to repent. But the truth about holistic ministry is this, at the end of all the chances for repentance, at the end of all the mercy, God still gives us freedom to choose between love and evil. And if we use that freedom to choose evil, then our fate is death. He will carry out judgement.
Abraham – God Who Chooses
Genesis 12:2–3 (NET) – “Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so that you will exemplify divine blessing. I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name.”
In Abraham, we see a new phase in God’s holistic ministry program. God chooses to bless Abraham so that Abraham may be a blessing to all the nations of the earth and that they may know what it means to be blessed by God. We know from Genesis 15 (not to mention Romans 4) that Abraham was not chosen because of his good works, but because of his faith in God’s promises. From now on, God will be working through Israel and we will be able to see how God’s ministry is doing by looking at Israel. This is very similar to the way that we do holistic ministry. We cannot minister to everyone at the same time, so we choose where to work, and then we work there. Not because those people are better and more deserving, but so that those people can continue the work of holistic ministry among the people that they choose.
Moses – God Who Loves Justice and Frees the Oppressed
When we read the story of Moses, we learn that God loves and cares about the oppressed. We should begin to understand at this point that God must reveal Himself if we are to understand Him. We are incapable of using human logic to understand new revelations about God. When God reveals Himself in the burning bush, He reveals Himself as a God who loves justice and works to free the oppressed. After God frees the Israelites (using a chosen person again) in the Exodus, He gives the Law in order to establish a just and righteous society. Note that God does not view morality as a private matter, but as a matter of public truth, divinely decreed.
God sets up the perfect Law, and then He promises to bless the Israelite nation when they follow the Law and curse them when they do not. It is the perfect system to guarantee obedience. Blessing for obedience, cursing for disobedience. Blessing for justice, cursing for injustice.
The Rest of the Old Testament
And yet, the Law doesn’t even get Israel out of the desert. They immediately lose faith. They stumble through the times of the Judges. Blessing immediately leading to prosperity, which leads to apathy and disobedience, which lead to cursing. Round and round, through the high point in the reigns of David and Solomon, through the low points in the captivity and the destruction of the Temple in the time of the prophets. Their society is characterized by injustice and disobedience to the Law.
Isaiah 58:1–9 (NET) — 1 “Shout loudly! Don’t be quiet! Yell as loud as a trumpet! Confront my people with their rebellious deeds; confront Jacob’s family with their sin! 2 They seek me day after day; they want to know my requirements, like a nation that does what is right and does not reject the law of their God. They ask me for just decrees; they want to be near God. 3 They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast? Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’ Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires, you oppress your workers. 4 Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls, and fistfights. Do not fast as you do today, trying to make your voice heard in heaven. 5 Is this really the kind of fasting I want? Do I want a day when people merely humble themselves, bowing their heads like a reed and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes? Is this really what you call a fast, a day that is pleasing to the Lord? 6 No, this is the kind of fast I want. I want you to remove the sinful chains, to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke, to set free the oppressed, and to break every burdensome yoke. 7 I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood! 8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise; your restoration will quickly arrive; your godly behavior will go before you, and the Lord’s splendor will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call out, and the Lord will respond; you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’ You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.
It seems as if God’s perfect Law, designed to produce the perfect society, has failed. And, in a way, it has. But, failure too, is part of God’s plan, just as it was in the Garden. God knew that humanity could not measure up to the law. So His plan includes this
Isaiah 42:1–5 (NET) — 1 “Here is my servant whom I support, my chosen one in whom I take pleasure. I have placed my spirit on him; he will make just decrees for the nations. 2 He will not cry out or shout; he will not publicize himself in the streets. 3 A crushed reed he will not break, a dim wick he will not extinguish; he will faithfully make just decrees. 4 He will not grow dim or be crushed before establishing justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait in anticipation for his decrees.” 5 This is what the true God, the Lord, says
What does this have to do with holistic ministry for us?
First, we need to minister in light of God’s mercy and His justice. They are both real and the Scriptures give us no warrant to emphasize one and ignore the other. Second, holistic ministry requires choosing who to minister to. That choice can be strategic, though I would suggest using Jesus’s example of strategic choosing, (cf. the qualifications of the disciples). We do not minister to someone in order to bless them. That sounds more pure, but it is not.
We bless someone as a blessing both to them and to those they will bless! Their blessing is incomplete until they are also a blessing to others.
Third, God created the perfect law and it didn’t change the society. Our laws will be no different. We make laws to help us limit the excesses and also to convict the people of sin(!!). But our work must be focused in the same place that God’s work is focused: the hearts and lives of people. We call sin as sin because it is, that humanity would be without excuse before their Creator. But we don’t expect our laws to stop people from sinning. We aim to reduce sin and make it more difficult, with more consequences.
Fourth, people are creators of culture (ethics, family organization, class structure, music, etc.) and their social structures (law, government, etc.). They are also influenced by their culture and social structure. Holistic ministry must deal with culture and social structures in order to remain effective. We focus on people without ignoring the factors that are so important in shaping their lives. Holistic means “whole” and we must see how everything fits together.
Fifth, morality is a public subject. The holistic minister cannot remain silent during injustice, even if speaking out means that their opportunity to minister in the future is limited. We must be wise, but we must not let wisdom turn us into utilitarians or cowards.