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. But I’d like to put what I’m discussing out there for input from the broader community. Here is a link to the first part, if you missed it.
A Better Question
Why do we have to do holistic ministry? Why is ministry even necessary? The answers are found in the narrative of the Creation and the Fall. Whenever we read Scripture, we read it from a certain perspective. Each perspective (hopefully) emphasizes something true about God or his actions, but each perspective also minimizes or conceals something true about God. That’s the nature of studying the infinite. For the next several sessions, we are going to look at the Bible from the perspective of holistic ministry. Ok?
Let’s take a few moments to read the account of creation and the fall in Genesis. Seriously. Read it. Here’s the link. I know you’ve read it before, but read it again. It’s the Bible. A little extra review is not going to hurt you.
Finished? Good. This study is based around the question, “Why?” Everyone should know that asking God “why” is a bold move (remember Job?). Our answers are often wrong and always incomplete. (Sidebar: Be very suspicious of anyone who gives a single reason that God does anything.) Be that as it may, thinking about why God created as He did gives us some insight into holistic ministry.
First, let’s notice that God doesn’t create everything at once. He creates in order, and allows things to grow and develop. Why? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s not because God got tired or that he was “feeling things out”. There is a purpose and an intent behind this method of creation.
Second, let’s notice that everything that God created was good, including the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why? Why the tree? Doesn’t the existence of that tree bother you? Don’t all the explanations about free will ring a little hollow? It’s not like having one dumb tree is the only thing that gave Adam and Eve a choice. They could have thrown a rock at God, or killed each other, or lied or any of a million things. Those things were all still evil, if not expressly forbidden. So, why the Tree? Remember, in itself, the Tree was good.
Now, let’s tie that idea to the following questions:
Why did God take all the animals to Adam to be named?
Why did He make Adam wait for his wife?
Why did God ask Adam to tend the garden?
I think that the underlying idea is that God’s creation was perfect, but unfinished. Adam was perfect, but God provided him with room and opportunities to grow and develop. Jesus, the second Adam, also needed time and space to “grow in wisdom and stature before God and men”. This can be a difficult concept for those of us who are used to thinking of perfection as a static place, not a dynamic quality of being. (Static perfection is one of the many remnants of Greek philosophy in current thought.)
Naming the animals shows Adam’s authority, but it also shows his increasing wisdom and knowledge. Adam was able to wait patiently with God to find his own mate for a long time. However long it takes to to name everything. We know from James 1 that endurance makes one mature and complete. God gave Adam chores, and a mission “Fill the earth and subdue it”. Think about that! Subdue God’s perfect creation. What does that mean?
It’s almost as if God’s work of creation didn’t stop with creation. It’s almost as if God was doing holistic ministry himself!
Which brings us to the most telling question about the Garden of Eden. And no, the question is not “Where was Adam when Eve took the fruit?” That answer is obvious. “Right beside her.” The Fall is the man’s fault as much as the woman’s (read Adam and Eve’s response to God’s questions again to understand why it is sad that this still has to be talked about).
Now let’s move on to an important question. Namely, “Where was God when Adam and Eve took the fruit?” To which the correct answer is not “Taking a shower” or “Doing the dishes” or “Doing other important God-type stuff”. The Satan did not sneak up on humanity while God had his back turned! Our God has his eyes “in every place, keeping watch on those who are evil and those who are good.” (Proverbs 15:3)
So, why? Could it be that God allowed the Adversary to tempt Adam and Eve so that they would begin to understand the difference between good and evil? Rejecting a lie implies understanding that a lie is a lie and therefore knowing that there is a difference between good and evil! Again, it seems as if God is doing holistic ministry.
Pay attention to this idea, it is important. The book of James is very, very clear on this. God does not tempt anyone to do evil. Ever. But He allows temptation, and He uses it to develop incredibly valuable properties in us. But God is not ever the tempter. Got it? Good.
What does God not do when humanity fails?
First, he doesn’t kill us. In fact, he graciously provides us with clothing. There are consequences for our actions. The ground is cursed, etc. God doesn’t soften the consequences and He doesn’t sweep anything under the rug. Instead He helps us deal with the consequences. It is almost as if God were still trying to help us grow! God does not quit!
Second, He doesn’t do the obvious thing, which is to take away our freedom to choose or to do evil. This is the knee-jerk human reaction to failure. “I can do this better than you, so just let me do it.” Think about that for a second. Can God tend a garden? Probably. Can God name animals? Yep. Could God have sauntered up to Satan and blasted him off the face of the earth? Yes. God can do everything better than humans, and yet He still lets/asks/commands us to do it! Moreover, he made us the ambassadors of the salvation of humanity in 2 Corinthians 5:20. So, how should we respond to failure, whether it is within our ministry or our development project or our organization or our church or our home? Think deeply about that. Think about what it really, really means.
Finally, realize that God takes the punishment for our mistakes on Himself. He sacrifices Himself as an atonement. The final atonement is a once-for-all, but maybe there are some principles there for more minor dealings.
We failed the test. We wanted the shortcut, we sinned, and it separated us from God. God showed his mercy in not killing Adam and Eve immediately, and providing clothes for them. But the world is a different place now because of the curse.
Those are the roots of humanity. That’s where we are. Was the curse physical or spiritual? Both, of course. You already knew that because you paid attention last time. The most important part of the curse is that Adam and Eve were removed from the presence of God and their relationship with each other was corrupted. But the secondary consequences involve physical things like child birth and growing food and death. The consequences of sin are primarily relational/spiritual, and secondarily physical. Now we can say that mankind is made in the image of God, but that image is marred. The heart of humanity contains both good and evil.
What does this have to do with holistic ministry?
First, we have to understand that God is in the business of doing holistic ministry, and has been from the very beginning. We do holistic ministry because we see God doing holistic ministry. Transformation seems to be a product of love. God’s development was holistic! It was relational, development happened with God. it was physical, Adam really worked for his own food … from God’s bounty. It was wise, it was spiritual. It was moral. Easy enough?
Second, the opportunity to grow implies the opportunity to fail. There is no way around it. God literally created the perfect situation for Adam and Eve, and yet, they chose incorrectly. Do you think we are going to do better in our own POST-FALL ministries? This point is crucial! If we attempt holistic ministry, we are going to fail. Not always, but sometimes, and perhaps often. We are not living in the perfect situation. Our world is complicated by the consequences of uncountable sins and failures.
All transformation is hard. Personal transformation, societal transformation, religious transformation, agricultural transformation, even growing in your job is difficult. You will fail at times. I will fail at times. But the Holy Spirit is our source of power for such transformation now. Meaning that no matter how bad our methodologies, we will also succeed at times. The Holy Spirit is quite gracious. And we can look forward to the end of failure when Jesus comes again. God is working for transformation, and God does not fail!