You may think that the evangelism vs. development debate is so last century, but as someone who works with both Global Interaction and Micah Challenge1, I know there are many of us still trying to figure this one out.
Maslow may have put bread and water as the foundation of our hierarchy of needs, but didn't Jesus talk about the bread and water of life?
Can we truly partner in God's ministry of healing and helping people without addressing both their physical and spiritual needs?
People stand at different places on the precarious evangelism/development tightrope, (hence the decades of debate) but as any good tightrope walker will tell you - balance is the key.
The buzz word today is wholistic mission. This is an approach that relates to whole-of-life transformation. Wholistic mission combines both proclamation of the gospel through evangelism and demonstration of the gospel through social action and points it all to Jesus.2 It is not about manipulation or hidden motives but rather true and authentic relationships that lead to whole life restoration and transformation.
While you might not find the word "wholistic" in the back of your bible concordance, you won't have much trouble finding the practice all throughout the gospels.
After telling the paralysed man his sins were forgiven, Jesus then told him to pick up his mat and walk. He healed the bleeding woman and assured her that her faith had made her clean. After a mammoth day of preaching, he multiplied the loaves and fish so that the people's bellies and hearts were full.
Jesus didn't separate his work into evangelism or development. Rather, he was wholistic in his engagement with all people. He interacted and cared for the whole person - healing their illnesses in miraculous ways, as well as caring for their eternal needs.
For Jesus, it wasn't an either/or thing. It was both/and.
Reading the stories of Jesus, wholistic mission sounds logical, doesn't it? It just makes sense? And yet when faced with it today, we can struggle to make it happen in our local and global communities? It's not easy. The job is huge, and people and communities are complicated.
But in small pockets around the world, the Global Interaction team members are giving it a go. We're seeing people's physical and spiritual lives being transformed through seemingly small initiatives and relationships.
Take the story of Pip. She's a Global Interaction cross-cultural worker in an area 'affectionately' known as the armpit of Cambodia. She works alongside her Khmer friend, Chanty, who's a fairly new follower of Jesus. For a few hours each week, a small group of Buddhist young people come together to play table tennis. I know what you are thinking - not really ground breaking stuff. Yet simple games of table tennis are opening doors into education and a developing understanding of Jesus.
After an hour of table tennis, Chanty shares bible stories with the group in a way that also contributes to their literacy. She reads the story to the students, they read it back to her and then write down in their very own exercise books.
Pip writes, "A few weeks ago, I noticed a girl quietly pick up a whiteboard marker and scrawl on the board, God is a good person and God is Lord. Then a couple of boys used the whiteboard to practice their math.
It was a bit weird (and kinda cool) because many of these kids have quit school, stay out late, experiment with drugs and alcohol and don't listen to their parents. It made me think: Maybe they just need something to do? Maybe they're just looking for someone who cares about them?"
But it doesn't stop there. Remember wholistic mission is about authentic relationships. Chanty knows each of these young people by name, visits their homes regularly and spends valuable time listening to their parents' desire for their children to be 'good'. Chanty is highly respected among these parents and many call her teacher. But she confesses, "You know, I'm not really a sports coach. I'm not an education specialist. I can't give you all the answers about how to raise your kids... but I can tell you about Jesus."
Next door in Thailand, through small attempts at wholistic mission, we're seeing the development of a whole new faith movement. The team of Global Interaction cross-cultural workers began by simply living together in a small rural village in Northern Thailand. Through English teaching, hairdressing, small income generation projects and emergency aid, they have been able to contribute to the community in meaningful ways.
Then, when God spoke to some of the Ethnic Thai through dreams and visions, the authentic relationships that had been built over time meant that discussions about faith and spirituality could flow freely.
Over time a handful of people became followers of Jesus, being baptised in the local river, meeting in each other's homes, chanting the psalms and eagerly sharing their new found spiritual freedom with friends and family. Muana, one of Global Interaction's cross-cultural workers, says, "The new believers are sharing their new faith with their relatives and friends and experiencing the beginning of a faith movement. We're really playing the role of facilitators, so they're mostly doing the ministry themselves. It's been an amazing journey."
Here at home in Sydney, I see more and more young people respond to the needs of the world and the call to mission in creative ways. There's a steep rise in the number of young adults studying international development, global studies and similar subjects. People are queuing up for that elusive job with an NGO. Some are even braving the world of cross-cultural mission, with a desire to share Jesus in meaningful and wholistic ways among least-reached people groups. Undergirding these choices is a Christian response to partner in restoring the world order to God's order.
Alongside the cry of the physically poor, we, as followers of Jesus, also hear the yearning of those who are spiritually poor. We believe that freedom and restoration from both physical and spiritual poverty is possible. Jesus taught that the kingdom of heaven is here, now. Heaven can begin on earth.
Wholistic mission is not easily defined or displayed, it's often complex and messy. But in following Jesus' example, we wrestle with what it looks like to proclaim his powerful message and be his hands and feet in this world. It is a challenge that is too important to be ignored, or simply debated. Rather it's key to living out the mission that God has given us here on earth.
About the Author
Melanie Wellings is the NSW/ACT Young Adults Consultant for Global Interaction. She also works with Micah Challenge as their Intern and Volunteer Coordinator. Melanie lives in Sydney with her husband Matt and their dozen garden gnomes.
1 A campaign of Christians speaking out against poverty and injustice
2 Based on The Micah Declaration on Integral Mission http://www.lausanneworldpulse.com/lausannereports/10-2005