Holistic Ministry


            Imagine a drunk – with AIDS, with boils all over his body, who hasn’t bathed in a month, nor eaten in three weeks. Finally, imagine someone pushed him overboard from a ship in transit from Africa to the United States and is in danger of drowning.  You are a doctor on a ship with a well equipped medical facility passing by.  What do you do?  What do you do first?  Do you deal with the stench, the boils, alcoholism, the AIDS, the fact that he’s starving, or the fact that he’s drowning?  You have to determine the most immediate threat to his life. Then you will want to address each issue in order of direness and immediacy to his life and health. Some things you will be able to address simultaneously, while others will have to be ignored and allowed to continue until some other things are dealt with.

            The same thing is true for a church ministering to people. The people being ministered to have to realize they have a need and that you can address this need. The church has to recognize which threat is the most imminently dangerous. We can not confuse the soul threatening with what appears to be life threatening. Some churches deal with things that appear to be painful but not soul threatening. Other churches deal with the threat to the soul, but not to their life. As Christians, we need to deal with both the soul and the life of people.

            Many ‘conservative’ churches focus on the need for salvation (John 3:16-18). But often, they do not earn the right from the listeners to present the Gospel. Other times, the listeners do not recognize their need. In both cases, this causes people to not accept Christ as their savior. In other cases, the person might accept Christ, but the church does not do any discipleship – so the new believer has no understanding of the freedom they have in Christ. In still other cases, people might be saved, but remain stuck in bad situations because they have no spiritual growth. So often the ‘conservative’ churches focus on the soul but ignore the body and mind.

            Scripture tells us to follow the example of Christ. We need to look out for orphans, aliens, and widows, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, house the stranger, clothe the needy, heal the sick and visit the prisoner (Mt 25:31-46).  But this way also lies danger. It is often easy to be concerned with the physical and emotional well-being of people. The problem is, some churches deal with the body to the exclusion of the soul. They probably started out right – focused on growing spiritually maturing disciples, and certainly their motivation of being concerned with people’s lives is not bad. But somehow many of these churches have slowly slid down the path of liberalism. They no longer hold that the Bible is the word of God, which in turn removes the fear that God will judge for their sins. John 3:18 tells us that if we do not believe that Christ was sent by God to save us, we are condemned by God. Indeed, Matthew 10:28 states, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” We simply can not ignore the soul.  We MUST recognize that people NEED Christ or will go to hell, AND that people need to be helped, regardless of whether they are saved or not, AND a saved person needs to be discipled. The only way to accomplish these goals is for Christians to both reach and teach people until they do the same. To do this, we must find ways to do what is called holistic ministry – that is, reaching people spiritually while dealing with physical/emotional/earthy needs and then discipling them after they’ve accepted the Lord.

            There are many ways of doing holistic ministry. Churches from many denominations are finding ways to do holistic ministry effectively. But they all boil down to making relationships and meeting needs while teaching people from the Bible about Christ and what God has done for us and what He expects from us. What follows are some examples.

            An Assembly of God with in inner-city Philadelphia with 100 African-American attenders offers prayer, a food closet, a clothes closet, a men’s home for recovering substance abusers and a daily lunch, as well as daily worship service. Their goal is to “reach their souls and spirits as well as just feed their bellies.” These people live their faith and they bring others along, from unbeliever, to new believer, to growing believer, and ministering believer. [i]

            A Presbyterian Church, USA, in a Philadelphia suburb with 400 Anglo attenders seeks to do holistic ministry by helping people make personal commitments to service. They see their mission as evangelizing and reaching their needy neighbors. Church members are recruited for service projects: summer day camps for kids in inner-city neighborhoods, helping the Carpenter’s Club assist elderly and low-income home owners, covering books and reading to children in an urban Christian elementary school, visiting ‘throw-away’ parents in nursing homes, linking professionals and retirees with nonprofit organizations needing skilled consultations, Habitat for Humanity – essentially lifestyle evangelism and service evangelism.[ii]

            A Lutheran church with 75 Hispanic and Anglo attenders in inner-city Philadelphia sees the church’s mission to save the soul and transform the community. The church lives among the people they are ministering to, and do flyers, street festivals, and Bring-A-Friend Sunday, as well as celebrations traditional to the Latino Culture. The church also ministers by tackling unemployment, community decay, personal development. But the pastor believes social ministry that ‘focuses on responding to need rather than energizing people’s gifts’ can be disempowering. So the church also calls new believers to service appropriate to their spiritual growth.[iii]

            A Presbyterian Church of America in downtown Philadelphia with 1150 Anglo, African-American, and Asian attenders reach their community through Active Compassion Through Service – where they seek “to educate, motive, and equip members to imitate Christ in attitude, humility, and service, and to be good stewards of their God-given resources and talents.” They serve through Bible studies and dinners to homeless people, after school tutoring, nursing home visitation, worship service for HIV patients, single parent/divorce support groups, and a racial reconciliation fellowship. This church makes evangelism and discipleship central to their mission. They believe that unless spiritual bondage is broken, any assistance will be of little benefit. So not only does the church evangelize to free the person from spiritual death, but they help the people grow spiritually to be in a place where physical help does not fall on unprepared soil.[iv]

            Holistic churches are diverse. They worship in different languages. They use different music. The length of worship service varies. They wont all agree on what should be the priority for the church. Churches will not agree on the appropriate way to share the Gospel. What ministry should look like will differ for each church. Even though no church’s efforts at holistic ministry are the same, the authors hold that holistic ministry has a certain pattern: 1. Focus on ministries of personal transformation as a path to social change; 2. Focus on social service ministries as a door to evangelism; 3. Focus on ministries of reconciliation that witness to unity in Christ; 4. Focus on community development to express God’s love for whole persons and communities; 5. Focus on justice ministries that embody the empowering message of the Gospel; 6. Focus on reaching skeptics by demonstrating that the church makes a difference. [v]

            Many examples of holistic ministry for churches exist. Others have yet to be discovered. But essentially, they all boil down to three things: evangelism, social outreach/activism, and discipleship. Any one or even two of these alone is insufficient. It only through the combination of the three with the power of the Holy Spirit will we make disciples who make disciples who make a difference.


 Sider, Olson, Unruh; Churches that make a Difference; Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Books; 2002.

End Notes

[i] Sider, p 23-26.

[ii] Sider, p 26-28.

[iii] Sider, p 29-32.

[iv] Sider, p 32-35.

[v] Sider, p 36-42.


One Response

  1. […] admin posted a noteworthy aricle today onHere’s a small snippetTo do this, we must find ways to do what is called bholistic/b ministry – that is, reaching people spiritually while dealing with physical/emotional/earthy needs and then discipling them after they’ve accepted the Lord. b…/b […]

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