Holism in ministry

Missionary ministry that reflects Christ

I had a friend who seemed fixated on "saving souls." I never heard him talk much about the people he encountered except for counting them when they repented of their sins and accepted Jesus as their Savior. The only thing that seemed to be on his "to-do" list was ensuring people got saved and had their ticket to heaven.

Do not misunderstand me: Being passionate about people going to Heaven is not a bad thing . . . unless all you think about is making sure their "souls" are going to be saved.

As I read the gospels, I see Jesus concerned about more things than "saving souls." He did not separate people into bodies and souls like my friend seemed to do. Jesus saw individuals as whole persons, and He treated them as such. He spent time with them. He ate at their tables. He played with their children. He went to the synagogue with them. He laughed and cried with them. And, He announced: "I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest." (John 10:10, CEV).

Jesus did ministry in a holistic* way. That means He did not see people's physical and emotional side as something totally separated from their spiritual side. He dispensed forgiveness at the same time he healed diseases. He helped people become spiritually whole while feeding them fish sandwiches.

In Jesus' holistic modus operandi, He saw people in the context of the society in which they lived. For that reason, He talked about ways to foster healthy relationships. Jesus' response to a question about the "greatest commandment" reveals a holistic way of thinking. His response addressed our horizontal dimension (loving others) as well as our vertical one (loving God).

Across the years, the best world missions outreach has been holistic, like Jesus' earthly ministry was. For instance, in the early 1800s British missionary William Carey set the pattern for Protestant missionary work. One reason Carey is called the "Father of the Modern Missionary Movement" is his holistic approach to missions.

To be sure, Carey did evangelistic outreach ministry, including open-air preaching, but he also introduced economic development projects and literacy and medical ministries. He battled to give young women educational opportunities. He fought against the abhorrent practice of burning widows alive on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands.

If missionaries today want to do ministry in the name of Jesus Christ, they must approach it in the holistic fashion of our Lord and Savior by meeting human needs as well as saving souls.

*Some dictionaries say "wholistic" is a variant spelling of "holistic." Others give slightly different nuances to each of the two words.

Discussion questions

  1. How does the concept of holism in ministry challenge the traditional emphasis on "saving souls" as the primary goal of missionaries?
  2. In what ways did Jesus exemplify a holistic approach, addressing individuals' spiritual and physical and mental well-being? How can missionaries today learn from His example?
  3. Why might it be important for missionaries to view individuals as whole persons rather than separating their physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects? What might be some unintended consequences of overlooking the holistic nature of human beings in ministry?
  4. What practical things can missionaries do to minister holistically by considering the societal contexts and addressing physical and emotional needs alongside proclaiming the possibility of spiritual transformation?
  5. Reflecting on the example of William Carey, pioneer missionary to India, how can the integration of economic development, education, social justice initiatives, and other holistic efforts enhance the effectiveness and impact of missionary work? What are the potential challenges or obstacles in implementing such a holistic approach in missions today?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

This mini-essay on Christlike attitudes and actions that should be present in cross-cultural missionary service is one of a dozen articles in the series "Missionary ministry that reflects Christ" that was published in Engage, a monthly online missions magazine.


In practice, this involves providing not only spiritual guidance, but also offering food and shelter, emotional support, counseling, and educational opportunities. Holistic ministry recognizes that people's needs are interconnected and that addressing one aspect of their life often requires attention to other areas as well.

Many people and organizations involved in world missions outreach adopt a holistic approach to their work, recognizing that true transformation and empowerment often come from addressing all aspects of a person's life rather than just providing temporary relief for immediate needs.

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