Holistic Church Planting: Moving Beyond Polemics to Obedience

by Gene Wilson

The author shows how unclear constructs hurt the cause of integration, and suggests a more fundamental point of integration for church planting and social action.

There are many ways to express the integration of gospel proclamation, church planting, and social action (relief, development, justice, and compassion ministry). I serve on a global equipping team that comes alongside national partners in different ways. My emphasis is church planting, but others contribute through training pastors, coaching and mentoring training, medical and dental missions, storying for oral cultures, community health education, narrative evangelism, and narrative discipleship. We sometimes travel and teach together. And although we all believe in a holistic expression of the gospel, I struggle at times with the reasons given for that integration.

Our director of crisis response has been sending his relief workers to our annual church-planting school, and has joined our teaching team to help us integrate thinking as well as practice.

My desire in writing this is to move beyond the polemics, yet without totally bypassing the issues, and suggest a different point of integration that will foster holistic church planting. However, I also believe that faulty diagnosis (rooting the problem in shaky theological constructs) has been part of the problem in that it has, according to what I have observed, led to more debate than actual integration in the work of the gospel.

In other words, rather than adding some theological insight to the discussion, I would like to show how unclear constructs hurt the cause of integration, and suggest a more fundamental point of integration for church planting and social action that most evangelicals can agree on, and, just as importantly, act on.

Early Attempts to Redefine Mission
Until 1995, John Stott had maintained the priority of gospel proclamation in our mission as a Church. But in his 1995 work, Christian Mission in the Modern World, he described gospel proclamation and social action as equal partners in symbiotic relationship, declaring: “Mission is all the church is sent in the world to do.” He included a political dimension of social action, saying, “The quest for better social structures in which peace, dignity, freedom and justice are secured for all men” (1995, 30). Stott integrated spiritual and social work under the rubric of incarnational service as Jesus did (John 20:21), and believed that to be the essence of the Great Commission. He continued,

If we can accept this broader concept of Mission as Christian service in the world comprising both evangelism and social action—a concept which is laid upon us by the model of our Savior’s mission in the world—then Christians could under God make a far greater impact on society…(1995, 34)

Many others have responded more ably that I could (cf. DeYoung and Gilbert 2011, 52-58). For instance, D.A. Carson reminds us that there is an “ontological gap” between Jesus’ mission in the world and that of his disciples (1990, 566). He explains that the gospel, is in its essence, news of what Christ has done in the cross and resurrection, and is doing today. Although in some ways we pattern our service after his (John 20:21), the gospel (the good news about his life, death, and resurrection) is essentially distinct from the advance of the kingdom in history.

Certainly, scripture speaks of the “big gospel” (another one of Carson’s expressions) that stands at the center of the work of transformation. But even in the extension of the reign of Christ on earth, his part remains forever distinct from ours. If the rule of Christ inaugurated by the gospel were part of the gospel, then the gospel would only be complete when lived out fully and faithfully.

Recent Attempts to Redefine the Gospel
Richard Stearns wrote a Christian bestseller entitled The Hole in Our Gospel. In order to restore an expression of Christianity that integrates love in word and deed, he suggests that the reason we fail to serve our fellow humans as we should is that we have neglected a part of the gospel. This idea has taken hold because it reflects a generational shift toward making a difference in the earth (rather than merely talking), a growing awareness of human need and suffering, and a more holistic worldview.

Stearns just put words to what many (especially Millennials) were thinking and actually doing. But because of the way he grounds his challenge to the Church at large, we end up with a shaky foundation for holistic church planting and other expressions of Christian ministry. Why is that?

One problem is that when Stearns speaks of a deficient gospel (one with a hole), and contrasts it with a “whole gospel,” he fails to differentiate the gospel itself from that which flows from it. Thus, the distinction between what the gospel is and what it accomplished becomes blurred: “[The gospel] is shorthand, meant to convey the coming of the kingdom of God through the Messiah” (2009, 15). This is unfortunate.1 We end up with the same ontological blurring between what Jesus accomplishes and what he expects his disciples to do.

In other words, if the gospel were defined by our success in living it out, we would have a defective gospel on a massive scale! Fortunately, that is not the case. The gospel stands gloriously upon the merits of Christ, even when those of us who are transformed by it fail to be the agents of transformation that God would like us to be.

The hole is not in the gospel, but in our obedience to the Great Commandment and Great Commission. Even more fundamentally, the gospel is not about what we do—it’s about what Jesus Christ has done. The New Testament authors express the gospel as a “fait accompli” at times. At others times, it is personified as ever-living and active, ushering in a new age. Yet always, it is the work of God.

The other problem is that when the gospel is joined at the hip with a particular missional cause, however noble and righteous it might be, the gospel loses its lustrous shine and priority. It is the power of the gospel that transforms—not our efforts to speak it and live it out. In this, God receives all the glory.

A Third Way: Obedience-based Holistic Ministry
The primary point of integration of renewed thinking, living, and declaration of faith is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We touch people with Christ’s love and share his message with them because we are his disciples. We follow his example and obey his command to proclaim the good news of the cross and resurrection, and love others by serving them.

This was exemplified by the good deeds of Dorcas, the hospitality of Priscilla and Aquila, and the healing of Peter and Paul, among others. Jesus contrasted the Good Samaritan with the religious leaders who walked by without helping. The Good Samaritan was given to us as a role model when Jesus said, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

James wrote, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action is dead” (James 2:7). John added, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers… Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:14, 18). And Paul summarized, “Love must be sincere… Share with God’s people in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you” (Rom. 12: 9, 13-14).

Do we fail to love because we have a narrow gospel, or because we disobey the Great Commandment? How do we express that in our mission? That may vary. The mission organization through which I serve, ReachGlobal, roots integration in its mission statement: to “glorify God by multiplying transformational churches.” This missional core is very biblical. It reflects the integrated ministry we observe in the New Testament and affirms the centrality of the Church, however imperfect, in God’s program of redemption, reconciliation, and transformation.

As we make disciples in obedience to Christ’s command, we seek to gather them into indigenous, self-supporting, reproducing churches that transform lives, families, and communities. Our desire is to see entire regions transformed in breadth and depth. Therefore, we don’t want to make just any kind of disciple, nor plant just any kind church. Disciples should be kingdom agents expressing the rule of Christ in three dimensions:

1. The Great Calling: To glorify God and declare his worth
2. The Great Commandment: To love each other and our neighbors as ourselves
3. The Great Commission: To make disciples of all nations

Expressed through Example
Some have ministries that are primarily social or physical, and must find ways to integrate proclamation. Let me share a few examples.

• My father served as a non-medical director of a missionary hospital in Morocco in the 1960s. They had people share a brief message in the waiting room several times a day, but the most powerful witness came from the nurses and doctors themselves in the examination rooms.

• My wife, Linda, and I were church planters in Quebec. We were put to the test early in our church-planting ministry. Linda opened our home several nights a week, even though she had two babies. She provided free day care, week after week, because the seekers and new believers needed the teaching of the word more than she did.

• One evening, a friend and I visited a depressed single mother. She had dirty dishes and pots and pans all over the kitchen, as well as in her bathtub. We worked until the early morning hours cleaning while she got some sleep. We realized she needed medical help for her depression. Her 7-year old son was out of control and threatened me with a knife. The first couple that came to Christ took him in as a foster child, and he finally started turning around.

I have found that most church planters I know naturally integrate evangelism and compassion ministry in local ministry. And, in most countries, the question of theological integration is a non-issue.

In the 1990s, holism began to be a key emphasis in urban mission. In Montreal, a multi-cultural context, we identified several felt needs that we addressed intentionally through a ministry center: loneliness, confusion coming from the New Age movement, struggling marriages, and the lack of guidance in raising kids. When two French Canadian social workers came to Christ and helped us with workshops and personal follow up, our ministry grew.

We must begin with our own lives. Are we living out the fruit of the gospel in word and deed ourselves? Is love without hypocrisy? When we, as followers of Christ, live out these three dimensions of ministry, they will be a foretaste of the kingdom to those around us, as well as instruments of Christ’s rule.

Expressed in Discipleship
New disciples need to understand that the gospel changes everything. For example, when Zacchaeus met Jesus, his life changed drastically and suddenly. He believed and repented. Evidences that the gospel had come into his home were many: hospitality, restitution, transformed business practices, and generosity. This came from a changed heart, not some sort of structural societal change. Jesus explained, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). Then, Jesus affirmed the reason for his coming: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost” (19:10).

Is there any question that love in action, as well as in word, is the central mark of discipleship? Jesus commands us to teach them to obey (obedience-centered, love-motivated, Spirit-empowered living) everything he has taught us (Matt. 28:18-20). If we model and teach the Great Commission, Great Commandment, and Great Calling, there is a far greater chance that new believers will integrate word and deed. Paradigm shifts are needed, but they are usually made through obedience to the word.

Expressed in the Kind of Churches We Seek to Develop
Our ecclesiology should also reflect the same holistic integration. Through church-planting efforts, we gather those disciples into new churches that express that integration of word and deed. God’s people in a collective sense, as local fellowships, are called to display these same three dimensions. We want them to be kingdom communities that function as salt and light and transform whole cities and regions in time.  

These three dimensions—the Great Commission, the Great Commandment and the Great Calling—comprise the fullness of what it means to be the church, the people of God’s choosing, kingdom communities. Different churches will evidence them in different measure. Yet all must be present and each contributes to the other. (Ott and Wilson 2011, 398)

Each dimension informs the other. Our efforts to make disciples in obedience to the Great Commission are infused with love (Great Commandment) and glorify God (Great Calling) when carried out humbly and graciously. How do we assess holistic obedience in church fellowships?

One way is to help churches evaluate how much of their energy and resources is invested in edifying those who are already believers, and how much is invested in serving those outside the Christian fold. Often, up to ninety percent goes to the small minority of already-believers.

The other point of assessment is the balance between proclamation and social or compassionate action. Some have shifted to almost all action and very little internal verbal witness. Others focus the lion’s share of the effort on literature, radio, and visitation ministry which is declaratory in nature. Ministries should be demonstrating biblical balance and integration.

The emphasis of “word and deed” disciples gathering in kingdom communities does not rule out the need for para-church organizations and non-profits with a special ministry of relief, compassion, or development. However, Tim Keller reminds us that programs and ministries acting alone won’t change cities—they can only hope to if they act together to create an eco-system of new churches that generate transformational ministries.
Keller states,

The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for reaching a city… This is an eye-brow raising statement. To those who have done any study of the subject however, it is not even controversial.” (2009, 619)

There is no need to redefine the gospel or the Great Commission. The point of failure is also the point of integration: full expression of the gospel of Christ through lives that demonstrate the love and lordship of Christ. This is the best hope for real transformation.

1. I believe Christian leaders are too quick to turn their emphases, however true and noble, into “gospel additives.” We had the “full gospel” that claimed certain charismatic expressions were essential to a true expression of the gospel. The expression “social gospel,” on the other hand, was a derogatory label given by theological conservatives to those who engaged in political action and social engineering in the name of the gospel. Now, we have a new push for a “whole gospel.” We should be careful not to make our missional emphases part of the gospel, even if it is for the sake of emphasis. The gospel once delivered to the saints is the common ground that united believers across denominations and across history. DeYoung and Gilbert (2011) talk about a wide- angle view of the gospel and a narrow lens view as both being legitimate. Likewise, Carson (1990) speaks of the “small gospel” (what Jesus did on the cross and resurrection) and the “big gospel” (what he is doing today redemptively). But neither include the Church’s mission in the gospel.

Carson, D.A. 1990. The Gospel according to John. 1990. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

DeYoung, Kevin and Greg Gilbert. 2011. What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom and the Great Commission. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway.

Keller, Tim. 2009. “Cities and Salt. Counter Culture for the Common Good.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ed. Ralph Winter, 615-619. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Ott, Craig and Gene Wilson. 2011. Global Church Planting Biblical Principles and Best Practices for Multiplication. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.

Stearns, Richard. 2009. The Hole in Our Gospel. What Does God Expect of Us? World Vision.

Stott, John. 1995. Mission in the Modern World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsityPress.


Gene Wilson is director of church planting for ReachGlobal, the international mission of the Evangelical Free Church of America. Before that he was a church planter in Quebec, Canada, for eighteen years and a church-planting trainer and coach in Latin America and the Caribbean for eight years. He received his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and his DMin in Urban Missions from Westminster Theological Seminary.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 342-349. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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