Holistic Ministry Defined

The Whole Gospel for the Whole Person Through Whole Churches

The root meaning of the word “holistic” is whole, from the Greek holos. Christians recognize that the world is broken and incomplete, falling far short of the glory God intended at the dawn of creation. Through holistic ministry, Christ’s redeemed community responds to the world’s brokenness by proclaiming and modeling the joy of a right relationship with God in Christ, and participating in the ongoing Kingdom work of personal and social restoration. As Christ is making us whole, God’s Spirit works through us to bring wholeness to others.

Holistic ministry can be summarized as: Reaching your community with the whole gospel for the whole person through whole churches.

Reaching Your Community with the Whole Gospel . . .

The whole gospel brings salvation in its fullest sense—forgiveness of sins, inner conversion of individuals in regeneration and sanctification, physical and emotional healing, the transformation of social and economic relationships, reconciliation and peace overcoming sinful human divisions, and the ultimate triumph of Christ over the forces of evil on a cosmic scale.

God’s salvation is comprehensive. We are finite. We tend to want to break God’s work down into smaller chunks that are easier to understand and to manage. Thus the church’s presentation of the gospel has been fractured. Different segments of the church have emphasized different aspects of the good news — for example, grace to sinners versus justice for the poor.

But God’s glorious work of redemption in Christ far exceeds any system or box we try to frame it in—it accomplishes “far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). If our understanding of the Gospel is too narrow, we limit the ways that God can use us in His Kingdom. Not only that, but we cut ourselves off from others who are also doing God’s work. Holistic churches acknowledge the sinfulness of divisions in the church and minister in the power of the full
gospel.

. . . for the Whole Person . . .

Holistic ministry views persons through God’s eyes, as body-soul wholes created to live in wholesome community. Thus the church ministers to every dimension of human need, and seeks wholeness at every level of society—individuals, families, communities, nations, and the global human family. Holistic ministry values every person as a unique and marvelous creation, bought by Christ, destined for eternity. Because of the Spirit’s power to make all things new, a transformational perspective sees persons in terms of their potential rather than their problems.

Holistic ministry breaks down the barriers between those serving and those being served.

Ministry does not feature perfect people who have it all together, reaching out to miserable needy sinners. Rather, we recognize that we are all on a journey of transformation together, “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). Each of us has contributed to the pain and suffering and decay in the world. We thus serve with a posture of gratitude and humility, acknowledging our own brokenness before the cross. Ministering Christ’s wholeness to others is part of what makes us whole.

. . . Through Whole Churches

Holistic ministry takes place in holistic congregations, where disciples of Christ live out their salvation in loving fellowship. (See Characteristics of a holistic congregation.) Says Amy Sherman, “Inside of our churches we are to be a reflection of the coming Kingdom, and we are to be doing the work of the Kingdom—a work of justice, of love, of healing, of hope and transformation.” Building a healthy church and reaching out beyond the church are no conflicting priorities. When the church functions rightly as the body of Christ, it will also serve as the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Because the church plays a key role in God’s redemptive plan, the goal of holistic ministry is not just to bring persons to Christ but to welcome them into a congregation of his followers. Parachurch ministries fill an important role, but they cannot substitute for a worshiping, discipling church. Holistic churches welcome those who are served with open arms. They also call and equip new believers to join in the church’s mission.

A holistic approach also means that the whole church pulls together toward a unifying ministry vision that recognizes the unique gifts of each individual member. Each Christian bears fruit only as a branch of the larger vine (1 Cor. 12:20). Similarly, each individual congregation needs the ministry of the whole community of the redeemed.

So — What Is Holistic Ministry?

We are called to reach our communities with the whole gospel for the whole person through whole churches. By living out the whole gospel, holistic ministry overcomes artificial divisions — between social action and evangelism, between ministering to individuals and seeking social justice, between an emphasis on discipleship and a passion for outreach.

Holistic ministry entails more than sponsoring a program here and there. It goes beyond short-term, relief-oriented aid. Holistic ministry in our churches means modeling God’s concern for the total well-being of persons and communities. It means an incarnational lifestyle of integrity, compassion, and invitation. It means sharing good news both for this life and for the life after death.

It means loving neighbors both far and near with the same joyous abandon that Jesus displayed, especially those who are most needy and least lovable.

The source of holistic ministry is God’s redeeming love and transformational power. This makes us bold in sharing God’s glorious salvation through word and deed. Not that our ministries presume to “save” others or to “fix” the world! But as Jesus told His followers, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).

As the Father desires that all should have abundant life, we too should help others realize their potential for living as God intended. As the Father urges that “justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24), we too must work toward creating the kind of society that pleases God. As the Creator of all takes delight in His work and promises to renew the earth, we too should serve as responsible, creative stewards over the earth’s resources. As God incarnate in Christ appealed to all to receive the Good News, our work and witness offers an invitation to others: “See what love God has for the world! Come, turn to God and be made whole. Come, join with our community of faith as we follow Christ in holistic mission.”

Adapted from Ronald J. Sider, Philip N. Olson and Heidi Rolland Unruh, Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works, chapter 2. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, copyright (c) 2002.