by Bryant Myers
This article is a response to the article “Redefining Holism,” by David J. Hesselgrave (July, 1999).
My upbringing and my time in Africa taught me to respect my elders and listen to their wisdom. Being asked to respond to Dr. Hesselgrave’s article puts me in a difficult position. While there is much to like in his article, I am afraid that I am also quite uncomfortable with some of its major elements.
Let me begin with the problem Dr. Hesselgrave is trying to solve. The idea that holistic mission means that any kind of Christian activity qualifies as mission is a valid concern. Holistic is not a synonym for catch-all for “everything goes.” There must be a unifying framework for mission that points mission activities toward the goal of helping people learn that the kingdom of God is near and introducing them to the person who is the only way into the kingdom. So far, so good.
But as Dr. Hesselgrave articulated the “inadequacy of this kind of mission,” I began to struggle. While Stott’s use of John is where the theology of holistic mission began, the theological case for holism no longer rests on this single biblical foundation. In the intervening 25 years since the Lausanne Covenant, the case has been built from Genesis to Revelation. Putting forth an alternative interpretation of John does not undermine the theological case for holistic mission to any serious degree.
And the short paragraph on the “practical problems” of holistic mission is unconvincing. If a framework for mission is invalidated because we can see evidence of poor, or even sinful, practice, then what kind of an article would we have to write about any part of the mission movement of the 19th and 20th centuries? We are grateful to God that his mission is accomplished even when carried out by fallible and fallen human beings.
Fortunately, one can propose an alternative view of something without having to invalidate a prior view. Sometimes a new viewpoint is helpful in opening new vistas or possibilities. So let me move on to Dr. Hessel-grave’s proposal.
I very much warm to the idea that the Bible needs to be brought to the center of the mission task. After all, it is the living word of God and we would do well to give it the chance to speak for itself. I also agree wholeheartedly with the idea that we need to recover and release the whole story of the Bible. The gospels are embedded in a far larger story from creation to culmination. Understanding the gospel account is easier and more compelling when read against the whole story of what God has done and is doing in history.
I also am attracted to the idea of making a greater focus on discipleship as part of our understanding of mission. One of the ironies of modern mission is that in the very places where the growth of the church has been most dramatic, the practice of Christians has been problematic. In Africa, nations that are largely Christian suffer from corruption, ethnic violence, and poverty on a tragic scale. In America, Christian behavior is indistinguishable from that of non-Christians. We must face the hard question: What kind of Christians are we making?
But I am left with a question: Does bringing the whole biblical story to the center of mission and making a greater focus out of disciple-making have to be framed as an alternative to pursuing holistic mission? I think the answer is No. In fact, I would make the claim that they are part and parcel of the same thing.
What do I mean? In my forthcoming book, Walking with the Poor (available in July from Orbis/World Vision), I attempt to shift the theological framework for holistic mission from a set of propositions to a narrative framework based on the biblical story as a whole. I suggest that a genuinely holistic approach to mission begins with a strong creation theology and then builds on the holistic framework that is consistently present in the whole of Scripture.
It really doesn’t matter much where you look. The seamless integration of loving God and loving neighbor is in the Prophets. One does not have to read more than the first chapter of Isaiah to discover that, while God is upset aboutrebellious children who no longer understand (v. 2-3) and whose worship is unsatisfactory (v. 11-14), the corrective action Isaiah calls for is seeking justice, encouraging the oppressed, and defending the orphan and the widow (v. 17). Repeatedly, Isaiah suggests that the measure of our knowledge and respect for God is how the least in society are cared for, and vice versa. The God who speaks through Isaiah doesn’t seem to make a distinction between loving God and loving neighbor.
In the gospels, Jesus said there was one great commandment: Love God and love your neighbor. There is no intimation that this commandment is in fact two different ones or that one part is primary and a the other part somehow secondary. Reading what Jesus called the greatest commandment as a dichotomous pair is to read the modern dichotomy between the physical and spiritual into Scripture. This single commandment is a relational commandment, summarizing the family of relationships in which every human being lives. All these relationships were deeply marred and distorted by the fall and the evidence of the gospels is that Jesus is concerned with the restoration of all of these relationships. Jesus Christ is the key to the restoration of people’s relationship with God and with their neighbor.
Another area of struggle with Dr. Hesselgrave’s paper is that he does not define “holistic ministry.” If he is talking only about “everything is mission,” then I agree that we need to revisit the term. But this is not what John Stott was talking about, nor is it what most of us who pursue holistic mission mean. Holistic mission is a frame for mission that refuses the dichotomy between material and spiritual, between evangelism and social action, between loving God and loving neighbor.
Holistic mission is the life of Christians passionately pursuing their relationship with God by seeking to be more like Christ, and who, because of their life in Christ, are passionately sharing the good news that through Christ anyone can be restored to a loving relationship with God and can learn to love, not only their neighbor, but their enemy. This is what is meant by holistic mission as life, word, deed, and sign. Life in Christ. Deeds and signs that show that God’s redemptive work includes the material world, and not just disembodied souls. Words that explain who is the author of the deeds and signs so that others might say Yes to the offer of the Christian gospel that is for the whole of life.
So what’s the redefining moment in mission today? To pursue a holistic mission that is not a grab bag of whatever we feel led to do, but a set of activities that bear witness to a holistic calling that unites word and deed, that unites loving God and loving neighbor.
This is where Dr. Hesselgrave has it right. Discipleship is the key. We need to form, nurture, and encourage the emergence of holistic disciples. We need holistic Christians who are healed from the dichotomies of the modern West and the uncertainties of postmodern nihilism. We need holistic disciples that live the gospel seven days a week in every area of life, and who refuse a truncated view of mission that suggests that God is only interested in saved souls and the life hereafter. The God of the Bible is unwilling to leave our economic, political, and social lives to the devil. God got mad at Israel when this people acted as if all God cared about was worship.
One final word for the pioneers of using the whole biblical story in mission—Trevor McIlwain, James Slack, J.O. Terry, and the others. I really like what they are doing. It is an important mission innovation. Their work is part of what led me to thing about shifting the foundation for holistic ministry among the poor from propositional theology to a narrative frame, taking the whole of the biblical story to the story of the poor. What I would encourage them to do, however, is to revisit their use of this story of which God is the author. Their work is almost entirely vertical: getting right with God and seeking God. This is fine as faras it goes. But the whole story of the Bible is more than this; it is about loving God and loving neighbor until Jesus comes. Our friends need to tell not just the whole chronological story, but the whole story of what it means to say Jesus is Lord. Storying the gospel needs to be refined so that it creates holistic Christians.
Bryant Myers is vice president for ministry, World Vision.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 285-287. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.