Holistic Discipleship: Integrating Community Development in the Disipleship Process

by Jay Moon

In holistic discipleship, the ultimate God addresses intimate needs in ordinary areas of life; areas of “non-poor” poverty are exposed; and disciple-makers consider the community growth process from relief to sustainability.

With excitement in her voice, a missionary friend described the phenomenal growth of the churches in sub-Saharan Africa. Gradually, though, her smile faded as she leaned closer to confide, “It is great to see the churches growing, but I am concerned about the lack of discipleship. The African church leaders asked me to find a discipleship program that I can take back with me to help.”

The underlying assumption is that there should be a “How to Make Disciples” manual. Unfortunately, a written manual is often not enough to transform the character of young believers.

While effective discipleship patterns have been observed in oral cultures (Moon 2010), this article focuses on holistic discipleship that integrates community development. I will first define holistic discipleship and then describe how this process is applied in various contexts to demonstrate that holistic discipleship helps followers of Jesus to:

1. Experience the ultimate God addressing their intimate daily needs
2. Identify areas of poverty that are often overlooked and which may stunt the discipleship process if not recognized and addressed
3. Engage the long-term process of community growth from relief to sustainability in order to foster personal and community transformation

What Is Holistic Discipleship?
“Discipleship” is a process whereby Jesus-followers center their lives on the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33) and obey Christ’s commands in the cultures in which they live (Matt. 28:19-20). As they encounter daily issues, they respond in a manner that is both biblically faithful and culturally relevant in order to maintain a kingdom-centered life (Hiebert 1994, 122-127).

This lifelong process forms mature followers of Christ who overcome the extremes of syncretism (culture is not critiqued, thereby blending two faith systems) and isolation (culture is rejected). Holistic discipleship also addresses “split-level Christianity” (Hiebert, Shaw, and Tienou 1999), in which Christianity responds to merely the ultimate life issues (e.g., salvation, problem of evil, etc.), but neglects intimate life issues (e.g., sickness, finding/keeping a spouse, etc.). The latter are then left to be addressed by other sources such as African Traditional Religions.

“Holistic” implies a concern for the totality of life instead of being limited to certain “spiritual” areas. This means that both the ultimate and the intimate issues of life are important to God. This is modeled by the incarnation, in which God demonstrated a concern for both by sending the divine Son of God to preach good news and address poverty/justice issues (Luke 4:18-19).

The Micah Network uses the term “integral mission” to indicate that both the proclamation (words) and demonstration (deeds) of the gospel need to be integrated (2001). A holistic perspective reminds us that the combination of words and deeds are crucial for Christian witness and discipleship (Hughes 2008, 8).

Combining the two terms, “holistic discipleship” is a process whereby Jesus-followers center their lives on the Kingdom of God and obey Christ’s commands by integrating the words and deeds of Jesus in the development of their community. Practically speaking, holistic discipleship addresses questions like, “How do we transform Christians who are shaped by unspoken cultural influences like secularism, consumerism, individualism, or fatalism?” and “Where should discipleship start for those living in poverty-stricken communities?” Holistic discipleship even addresses intimate concerns like “Can Christ save my marriage?”

Ultimate God Addresses Intimate Human Needs
In holistic discipleship, the maturing follower of Christ experiences how the ultimate God addresses intimate human needs (Zahniser 1997, 41). Instead of separating our activities into the two categories of secular work vs. spiritual work, holistic discipleship anticipates that a change in “secular” areas of life will create changes in “spiritual” areas of life.

To describe how this is carried out in discipleship, an understanding of the “functional integration” of culture is helpful. For the purposes of understanding a local culture, culture can be divided into three major sectors. In this model, each of the pie pieces represents major sectors of a culture that must be explored and researched in order to understand the local culture. Darrell Whiteman (2001) simplifies Charles Kraft’s (1996, 122-126) division (see Figure 1).


Figure 1


These sectors are functionally integrated such that a change in one will result in a change in another. In order to create a change in the ideology and belief of a maturing Christian, for example, holistic disciple-makers do not have to start in the Ideology & Beliefs sector. Introducing a change in other sectors will create a change in ideology and belief.

Example: The Bible Church of Africa and SIM introduced a hand-dug well program in the Upper East Region of Ghana. Villagers worked with church members to dig and construct wells. At the well dedication in the village of Kalijiisa, villagers came from near and far dressed in their Sunday best. The sunflower yellows and electric blues of their clothing swirled against a backdrop of a massive Baobob tree.

Dancing under the shade of the tree, the women kept time with the beat of the pounding drum. Children smiled in delight as the music filled the air. Handkerchiefs were hoisted in the air and waved about in celebration of this joyous occasion. Everyone from white-haired men to babies carried on their mothers’ backs gathered around the well.

Slowly, the elders came forward and announced, “We thank the church for this new well. Now, we are confident that our newly-married wives will not leave us!” I stared blankly from face to face. Confused, I asked the elders for an explanation.

They continued, “The first morning after the wedding, a young bride was asked to fetch water. She had to walk a long way to get water from a place where the water was not clean. This alarmed her so much that she quickly ran home to her father’s house and did not come back again. Now that the well is close to the house and has clean water, the new wives will stay.”

The joy in the women’s eyes brought a smile to my face and a realization of the wisdom in the elders’ words. While skeptics may claim that well-digging is secular work, holistic disciple-makers realize that there is no secular work…unless you make it that way. A new well began an obvious change in the Economics & Technology sector. This led to a change in the Social Relationships sector as well, since the relationships between husbands and wives (and the entire family) were affected.

This then created a change in the Ideology & Belief sector as the elders saw the positive role of the church and how the ultimate God is concerned about the intimate needs of newlyweds. Holistic discipleship helped the young men and new brides further their growth in faith as they appreciated the God who cares enough about their marriages to send a church to help.

While holistic discipleship benefits the poor with clean water, it also helps those who classify themselves as “non-poor” to identify areas of their own poverty.

“Non-Poor” Poverty
While poverty is often defined by one sector (Economics & Technology) as a lack of basic necessities, such as food, clothing, and shelter, this definition overlooks poverty that exists in other sectors. Considering Figure 1, what would poverty look like if it occurred in the other two sectors of culture? Bryant Myers (1999, 88-90) describes “non-poor” poverty as those who are wealthy in Economics & Technology but are lacking in other sectors. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (2009) use the term “non-material poverty.”

Poverty can also be defined by broken relationships (Myers 1999, 88-90). If a lack of caring, trusting relationships exists, this leads to poverty in the Social Relationships sector. If poverty in this sector is not addressed, then discipleship is stunted.

Example 1: After a short-term mission trip to help the poor, an American youth asked me with astonishment in her voice, “Why are those poor kids so happy with so little?” As she considered her own “non-poor” poverty in the Social Relationships sector, she was forced to challenge the Western assumptions of secularism and consumerism that promise happiness through the purchase of a Louis Vuitton purse, a BMW car, or an iPhone. Here is a shocking revelation: perhaps that large suburban home in the Better Homes and Gardens magazine can lead to isolation, loneliness, and eventually depression, thereby creating “non-poor” poverty in the Social Relationships sector.

Holistic discipleship exposes “non-poor” poverty and creates an environment for deep learning and kingdom focus.

Similarly, Myers notes that people who live in fear have a different form of poverty. They may be afraid of evil spirits, government, neighbors, etc. As a result, they stifle initiative and breed fatalism (Parris 2008). This is poverty in the Ideology & Beliefs sector. Since poverty is not limited to one sector, discipleship must identify and address poverty issues that are preventing them from living kingdom-centered lives.

Example 2: The Sioux Falls Seminary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, embarked on a bold holistic discipleship contextual learning experiment in 2008. A large house, called the Summit House, was purchased in an area of the city targeted for revitalization due to high crime, low incomes, etc. Seminary students voluntarily moved into the house in order to become servant leaders for Christ in this at-risk community.

Since the neighborhood composition was multi-ethnic, students learned intercultural ministry and community development through a combination of seminary courses and practical experiences in the neighborhood. In addition to spiritual formation classes, they committed to spend at least five hours per week in ministry to the community. Not only did the students have a significant impact in the development of this neighborhood, but they were also challenged in areas that were previously neglected, thereby revealing their own “non-poor” poverty.

For instance, many students realized that the high Western value of privacy led to a “poverty” of community with others (Social Relationships sector), but they did not realize the roots of this lie in the Ideology/Beliefs sector.

By living and serving in a missional location, they started to understand how privacy and community are in inverse relationship to one another. Clinging to a high value of privacy (an unchallenged American value) resulted in a low degree of community with others. See Figure 2.

Figure 2

To achieve a high sense of community, privacy must be reduced. In practice, this means being available to sit with neighbors, having a meal with others, and spending more time in “community locations.”

The students eventually realized that the benefit of having more emotional strength through community significantly outweighed the cost of reducing their privacy. This shift in ideology did not occur simply by reading books. As a result of holistic discipleship, their “non-poor” poverty in the Ideology & Beliefs sector was exposed, leading to lifestyle transformation.

Long-term Community Growth Process
Holistic discipleship also reveals that discipleship is a long-term process of community growth, which may not be evident in a short-term individualistic culture clamoring for instant results. It recognizes that individuals do not exist in isolation; rather, we are part of larger systems. Healthy, maturing disciples often arise from healthy, maturing communities. This requires the holistic disciple-maker to look at the larger community growth process that leads the community toward wholeness.

Tetsunao Yamamori (1993, 131) noted that there are four stages in the community growth process. Each stage requires holistic disciple-makers to respond differently. While both words and deeds are required throughout, the proportion of each varies based on the stage in the growth process. See Figure 3. The x-axis refers to the stage of community growth; the y-axis refers to the amount of ministry focus on words and deeds.

At the relief stage, the focus on deeds is much higher than words. Moving further along the growth process, the amount of ministry through words increases as the ministry through deeds decreases.

Example 1: Shortly after Hurricane Katrina occurred, seminary students went to provide immediate relief. Deeds were required to stop the bleeding and keep people alive. In the process of performing these deeds, words were used to comfort, pray, console, etc. Figure 3 anticipates that the amount of time spent on ministry through deeds would exceed ministry through words during the relief stage.

Figure 3

A year later, the seminary students returned. This time, however, they found the community in the second stage, recovery. At the recovery stage, there were still a fair amount of deeds needed (e.g., reinstalling drywall and repairing roofs) in order to restore the community to the level of development that existed prior to the hurricane; however, the amount of time spent on ministry through words significantly increased through counseling, listening to stories, praying, etc.

In the third stage, development, time spent on physical deeds further decreases because those ministering discuss strategies to further improve the community and prepare for any similar future events.

The last stage, sustainability, occurs when the local community has the capacity to respond to future emergencies. At this stage, they are also a resource for others by sharing their experiences and lessons learned. The role of disciple-makers here is to minister primarily through words.

Problems often occur when people come for a short-term mission and disregard the stage of community growth.

Example 2: Each summer, short-term teams visit the Rosebud Lakota Sioux Native American Reservation in South Dakota. When they view the state of houses, transportation, and lack of amenities, they assume this is a relief context. After all, if their neighborhoods looked this way, this would be a crisis! As a result, they spend most of their time ministering through deeds (building, painting, repairing, etc.), with a minimal amount of ministry by words.

While this would be appropriate for a relief situation, it is not appropriate for other stages of community growth. Many Native Americans themselves see their context as either in the recovery or development stage. They would prefer that outsiders spend more time developing relationships through conversation (more words along with deeds).

When bringing a team to Rosebud, we informed the local ministry leader that we were available to learn and serve. For the entire week, they were happy to teach us their culture, history, rituals, visit families, counsel at-risk youth, etc. They only asked us to serve with deeds for a small amount of time. As relationships were developed with succeeding visits, this led to more intimate and long-term engagement of pertinent discipleship issues.

Understanding the various stages of development helps identify the appropriate focus on words and deeds for holistic discipleship.

Holistic discipleship that incorporates community development is often overlooked in many discipleship programs. In holistic discipleship, the ultimate God addresses intimate needs in ordinary areas of life, furthering trust in God. Areas of “non-poor” poverty are also exposed in order to address unspoken cultural assumptions. In addition, holistic disciple-makers consider the long-term community growth process from relief to sustainability.

While there is no “silver bullet” for the discipleship process, there is hope that holistic discipleship can help transform disciples of Christ, whether they are in an urban poor ethnic neighborhood, Native American reservation, African village, or disaster area. This approach helps engage the local culture with the words and deeds of Christ to transform individuals and communities. That is good news that cannot simply be learned from a discipleship manual.

Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert. 2009. When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Ourselves. Chicago, Ill.: Moody Publishers.

Hiebert, Paul G. 1994. “The Category Christian in the Mission Task.” In Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Ed. Paul Hiebert. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Hiebert, Paul G., R. Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou. 1999. Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Hughes, Dewi. 2008. Power and Poverty: Divine and Human Rule in a World of Need. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Kraft, Charles H. 1996. Anthropology for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Micah Network. 2001. “Micah Declaration on Integral Mission.” Paper read at http://en.micahnetwork.org/integral_mission/micah_declaration in Oxford.

Moon, W. Jay. 2010. “Discipling through the Eyes of Oral Learners.” Missiology: An International Review 38(2):127-140.

Myers, Bryant L. 1999. Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Parris, Matthew. 2008. “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God.” Times Online. Accessed May 20, 2011 from www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article5400568.ece.

Whiteman, Darrell L. 2001. Definitions of Culture. Unpublished class notes, “MB 700 Anthropology for Christian Mission.”

Yamamori, Tetsunao. 1993. Penetrating Missions’ Final Frontier: A New Strategy for Unreached Peoples. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Zahniser, A.H. Mathias. 1997. Symbol and Ceremony: Making Disciples across Cultures, Innovations in Mission. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC.


Jay Moon is professor of intercultural studies at Sioux Falls Seminary. From 1992 to 2001 he and his family were SIM missionaries among the Builsa people in Ghana, West Africa, involved in church planting and water development.

EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 16-22. Copyright  © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events