The Nature of Man’s Greatest Need
“Too often in church planting we have relegated God’s transforming work to spiritual realities and assigned earthly matters to science and technology. The result is a schizophrenic Christianity that leaves everyday problems of human life to secular specialists and limits God to matters of eternity. A truly holistic approach to mission rooted in biblical truth is as essential in planting vital churches that remain Christ-centered over the generations as it is in Christian ministries of compassion” (Paul G. Hiebert, Foreword to Bryant L. Myers’ Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, 2011).
The idea of transformational development wedded to Christian witness is not a new concept. Myers sets forth clearly the idea of transformational development in his seminal work, Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Orbis Books, 2011). His use of the term reflects a deep seated conviction that what we are to be about in entering people groups and communities is seeking change “in the whole of human life materially, socially, psychologically and spiritually.” Myers goes on to say that Christian witness is concerned with communicating that “God has, through his Son, made it possible for every human being to be in a covenant relationship with God.” Myers chooses to use the term “Christian witness” over against “evangelism” because evangelism for him conjures up images of street evangelists broadcasting monologues loudly through megaphones, or crusade evangelists preaching passionately and persuasively to stadiums filled with people. Instead, he sees Christian witness as proclaiming the gospel by “life, word, and deed.”
This brings us to what holistic mission is all about: restoration of relationships.
“God’s inherent nature is good. One of the ways this is shown in the Bible is through the central theme of justice and care for the poor in scripture. Consequently, poverty and oppression are symptoms of something fundamentally wrong in the relationship between God and humanity. The biblical narrative describes an arc of history starting from a life of wholeness in creation (Genesis 1 and 2) that was marred by the Fall (Genesis 3). The consequence was broken relationships—ultimately with God, but also with each other, with ourselves and with the whole of creation.” (Tearfund: “Understanding Poverty: Restoring Broken Relationships”)
A holistic approach to church planting seeks to restore peoples to proper and right relationships with God, with each other, themselves and the world on which they depend. “Poverty itself can be understood as a state caused by broken relationships—a broken relationship with God that causes us to be separated from Him and act contrary to His desire for our lives; a broken relationship with each other that causes us to ignore God’s desire for us to love one-another as we love ourselves; a broken understanding of ourselves, forgetting that we are made in God’s image, causing us to ignore God’s ways and be hard-hearted; and a broken relationship with the world in which we live, abusing the resources we are to be stewards of and with which we have been entrusted” (Stephen Gaukroger, Clarion Trust International). Holistic church planting engages unreached people at their point of greatest need, namely the restoration of broken relationships:
Holistic or Integral Mission insists that our faith requires action in terms of the way we live and conduct our relationships. It demands we take seriously Christ’s admonition to love both God and our neighbor. According to Jesus, the motivation behind the messages of the Old Testament Prophets is based on this principle of reciprocating Love. Holistic mission is nothing less than transformation resulting from all-consuming love for Christ and for those whom He has created in the imago dei.
“Poverty is the result of a social and structural legacy of broken relationships with God, a distorted understanding of self, unjust relationships between people, and exploitive relationships with the environment. These broken relationships not only affect individuals’ lives, decisions and actions, but also create broken systems, leading to problems such as power imbalances and corrupt governments. These fractures are made worse by conflicts and natural disasters, many of which also have roots in the broken relationships between God, humanity, and wider creation” (Anna Ling and Hannah Swithinbank, Tearfund).
The Role of Local Churches in Community Transformation
“The church occupies a distinct space in communities, nations and the world. It is privileged in its reach at all levels, connecting at the level of the individual right up to international organizations. This creates huge potential for its role in tackling poverty, in all its forms, across the globe” (Lucie Wooley, “Integral, Inspirational and Influential: The role of local churches in humanitarian and development responses,” Tearfund: 2017).
Christians are called to take intentional and strategic initiative in restoring broken relationships. Integral mission “understands that God is working to restore broken relationships by responding holistically to people’s needs, including economic, emotional, spiritual and physical ones. The church, as the body of Christ, therefore has a distinctive role to play in fulfilling this mission” (Ling and Swithinbank, “Understanding Poverty: Restoring Broken Relationships,” Tearfund: 2019). Churches are by definition prophetic communities of faith (please see our earlier blog: “The ‘Why’ of Holistic Church Planting, Part 1”, 12/2/19). The response of The Unfinished Task Network is to mobilize the planting of churches that are by nature and effect agents of spiritual and community transformation. The aim of transformational church planting is to restore all four different types of broken relationship. This approach goes beyond meeting basic needs, equipping churches to enable and empower people to flourish as they come to know Christ individually and become agents of transformed relationships:
Dane Fowlkes, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, The Unfinished Task Network
Everything I have done since I entered vocational Christian ministry at the age of 20 has related to the work of local churches—pastor, missionary, theological educator, college professor, and international relief worker. I love the Church, and have sought to plant and strengthen local expressions on four continents. The most common visible expression of Christianity is the local church, but many are hard-pressed to define her. What is “church?” Offered automatically without thinking but with an ‘everyone knows that’ expression, many people define church as “a body of baptized believers.” But what does that mean? That so-called definition speaks more to what qualifies you to be a member of a church than it offers anything about what a church is. Tragically, some pour themselves into planting churches with only a vague understanding of what it means to be and do church. Fortunately for all of us, Scripture speaks to the nature of the church in descriptive fashion. Consider Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37.
The Book of Acts is our one book of history in the New Testament and gives us our clearest snapshot of what life was like in the earliest churches. As we read Acts, we are careful not to take any single description and make it prescriptive, but if we see the same description repeated, we may have great confidence in drawing some conclusions/principles that we can apply today. The description of the earliest church in Acts 2 and 4 help us redefine the meaning of church. More than describing what churches do, we actually see what a church is. From what we read in the Book of Acts over against the backdrop of the Old Testament, we can say that a church is a prophetic community of faith. While some may disregard this as a minimalist definition, each simple word holds profound meaning and is determinative in our approach to church planting.
1. PROPHETIC (vv., 43, 47)
“Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.” (v. 43)
“praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (v.47)
Even a cursory consideration of these verses will, at the very least, cause the reader to stumble upon the incredible impact this earliest church had on both those who were a part of the fellowship and those who were yet to be a part. Using deeply grounded biblical terminology, this may best be termed “prophetic” ministry. Widespread misunderstanding prevails concerning the biblical concept of prophecy and prophetic ministry. The Old Testament prophets were not primarily men and women who predicted the future; they were individuals who received a word from the Lord and proclaimed it with such boldness and relevance that people responded—sometimes responded in repentance; at other times they responded in anger and hostility, to the point of harming the prophet himself. But no one remained unaffected and apathetic when a prophet spoke.
The first element of being church is being prophetic—an agent of transformation in an unbelieving community, as well as within the believing community. Truly being “church” brings about transformation. A church without effect, isn’t really church.
2.. COMMUNITY (vv. 42, 44, 45).
“They devoted themselves to… the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (v. 42)
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” (vv. 44-45).
That’s community! There is a terrible misnomer today. People say they “attend church,” but if Acts is giving us an accurate portrayal of church, you cannot attend church, you can only be church! Church is not a place where strangers assemble to attend and enjoy a program; church is a living organism in which strangers become family, and family deals with the worst and brings out the best in each of us.
“The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)
3. FAITH (vv. 42a).
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” (v. 42a)
What were the apostles teaching? They were teaching Christ! They were reciting what they had heard and witnessed with their own eyes. They were describing their relationship with the Master. The early church was radically Christ-centered, and the result was radical discipleship. Relationship is everything. That means that discipleship is the expression of transformation within the believing community. This relationship with Jesus Christ is a radical one. Take a moment to read again for yourself what Jesus says about following him (Mt 10:34-39).
Theology does matter. For proof, one need look no further than the historical schism between evangelism and the so-called “social gospel.” The ebb-and-flow of this ongoing debate has infected church planting strategy and methodology. The remedy for this infection is a return to a biblical understanding of church. The “why” of holistic church planting is rooted in our understanding of “church.” When we redefine church and understand it as a prophetic community of faith, we are compelled to establish churches that are agents of transformation, both within the believing community and in addressing the needs of the surrounding context.
Dane Fowlkes, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, The Unfinished Task Network