Is there a hole in our holism?

Recently, I listened to a reading of Richard Stearns’ book, The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? Stearns is the president of World Vision U. S., and I was challenged by his own fervor for ministry to the poor, and his stirring exhortation to us to serve God in acts of mercy and help to the helpless. With his book quite fresh in my mind, my attention was caught when D. A. Carson critiqued the book in his editorial for the latest edition of Themelios. I encountered that critique thanks to a blog post by Justyn Taylor, entitled: “The Biggest Hole in Our Gospel is the Gospel Itself.”

Stearns “argues that the American failure to take up God’s mandate to address poverty is ‘the hole in our gospel,’” and Carson does not doubt that the American church falls short of serving the poor as God wants us to. But he has three reasons for objecting to Stearns’ identification of our deficiency in serving the poor as something missing in  “the gospel.” I won’t pursue Carson’s first two concerns; it was the third one that grabbed my intention, his observation that the current, and welcome, evangelical interest in holistic missionary activity has often failed to achieve genuine holism. Hence the question in my title: “Is there a hole in our holism?” Carson writes:

 Some studies have shown that Christians spend about five times more mission dollars on issues related to poverty than they do on evangelism and church planting. At one time, “holistic ministry” was an expression intended to move Christians beyond proclamation to include deeds of mercy. Increasingly, however, “holistic ministry” refers to deeds of mercy without any proclamation of the gospel—and that is not holistic. It is not even halfistic, since the deeds of mercy are not the gospel: they are entailments of the gospel. Although I know many Christians who happily combine fidelity to the gospel, evangelism, church planting, and energetic service to the needy, and although I know some who call themselves Christians who formally espouse the gospel but who live out few of its entailments, I also know Christians who, in the name of a “holistic” gospel, focus all their energy on presence, wells in the Sahel, fighting disease, and distributing food to the poor, but who never, or only very rarely, articulate the gospel, preach the gospel, announce the gospel, to anyone. Judging by the distribution of American mission dollars, the biggest hole in our gospel is the gospel itself.

I was privileged to spend 16 years in ministry with SEND International, a mission whose goal was “to plant the church where it does not exist and to serve the church where it does exist.” The Mission and its members certainly did many things to demonstrate Christ’s compassion for the poor, but its primary focus was on the proclamation of the good news of what God has done in Jesus to redeem fallen humanity and disintegrated creation, and it understood the church to be God’s normal instrument for bringing that good news, with all its entailments, to the nations. I was reminded of that central concern by a stirring message a couple of weeks ago, from Frank Severn, who was director of the mission during my time of service. He underlined SEND’s emphasis on the proclamation of the gospel.

What the poor need most, because it addresses their eternal well being as well as their well being in this short life, is to be reconciled to God through Christ, thereby becoming part of God’s people whose task is “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). That reconciliation necessarily entails reconciliation with the neighbor, whom we are to love as we love ourselves, and a life of good stewardship of the creation over which God has made us vice-regents. Both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment are important responsibilities of the church and its members, but if we fail to proclaim the good news of God’s rule, we will have fallen seriously short of the holism that we so often champion in our statements.

I was unaware of the statistics Carson cites, but I was certainly aware of the problem to which he draws our attention. I have noticed it in my own limited observation of the missionary activity of evangelical churches, as evangelicals have grown more committed to holistic mission. In principle, this is very good, but we dare not lose sight of the role our relief and development work must play in the larger picture of God’s reconciling the world to himself. In the context of relativistic pluralism, Christian presence which is not identified in Christian terms is welcome, but proclamation of the uniqueness of Jesus as the only Savior of sinners, and as the only one who can put right what is wrong with the world, is viewed as a threat.

Jesus is Lord, and all that we do must be done out of an overarching longing to see God’s name reverenced and his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Shortly after publishing this post, I came upon a stirring musical presentation reminding us of the joy which has come to the world, which comes with the kingship of Jesus, the “joy of man’s desiring.” This is the time of year when that message is widely proclaimed, but not often by the US Air Force Band.



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

One reply on “Is there a hole in our holism?”

Amen, Terry! Thanks for highlighting this. I suspect it is 1) the exclusive claims of Christianity and 2) the casual embrace of pluralism that keeps most from filling the hole. After all, there is an existential angst between these two. Most of many religious persuasions would find common ground in helping the poor as a worthy goal (just think of Zak?t, the Muslim requirement to give alms for the poor, or the Buddhist emphasis on compassion). But that alone is not “food that endures to eternal life” but rather “food that spoils” (Jn 6:27).

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