Demonstrating the Gospel: Holistic Mission in Practice

By Dr. Wendy, an overseas OMF worker

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17, NIV).

This passage in James helps us to understand that each human being is an inseparable whole of body, soul and spirit. We cannot help people by addressing their spiritual needs (i.e., needing God’s forgiveness and salvation) while ignoring their material or physical needs. The Gospel in its fullness encompasses both. We cannot separate the two, pit one against the other, or set one above the other. 

When we cross oceans, cultural barriers, and socioeconomic strata to share the Gospel with those who do not yet know Jesus, we need to embrace this holistic and integral posture. The intention is to transform human life in all its dimensions and enable human beings to enjoy the abundant life that God wants to give to them. 

I am a pediatrician serving in a remote mountain town. This area was the focus of a nationwide poverty alleviation campaign. It also has a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. What does an abundant and flourishing life look like for the people I serve? 

For 11-year-old Yibu, who has HIV and is struggling to remember to take his twice-a-day medications, the picture he drew may give us some insight: playing basketball under an apple tree and not worrying about his medications. 

For 15-year-old Yingguo who, out of rebelliousness, quit school and stopped taking his HIV meds last year, the first step towards a flourishing life may be the decision to return to school. He lost his parents to HIV/AIDS years ago, and his sky-high viral load is a great worry to his grandfather. After much counselling, and much to everyone’s relief, Yingguo agreed to resume taking his meds. 

Seventeen-year-old Huozi cannot even start thinking about flourishing. She is an orphan, but has always had her twin sister, Huoqu, by her side. They share everything, including an HIV diagnosis. The loss of her twin sister to AIDS complications last year dealt Huozi a severe blow. We can only offer her a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear when she needs one.

For two-year-old Jinhong, who was born with generalized profound muscle weakness and is prone to chest infections, a flourishing life is one where he can stay away from hospital admissions. I met Jinhong and his dad on his third admission with chest infection. He cannot sit or stand on his own, or even lift his arms against gravity. We got him a well-fitted infant car seat, giving him support to sit upright and decreasing the chance of aspiration and chest infection when he feeds. Seeing the big smiles on his face as he enjoys his favourite food while sitting in the car seat brings a smile to his dad and to us too.  

Dealing with these physical needs can feel overwhelming. Lives marred by diseases and superstition. Hopelessness insidiously takes hold of those living with HIV. Yingguo is not the only teenager who quits school and stops taking his meds. Huozi is not the only young person who has to deal with heartbreaking losses. The need for physical and mental health is tremendous. 

Some of you may ask, “What about their spiritual needs? It is great to offer Huozi a shoulder to cry on, but can you share with her that Jesus loves her?”

Indeed, without Christ, no amount of counselling, or poverty alleviation, or education can lead a person to an abundant and flourishing life. As Chris Wright so succinctly reminds us:

“Mission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task. It is defective mission, not holistic mission” (Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative).

All our projects are informed by biblical principles, and we strive to live grace-filled lives as salt and light for all to see. Unfortunately, open and direct proclamation of the Gospel puts us and our listeners at risk. Thus, we turn to our national brothers and sisters, who have slightly more leeway than we do. They are our partners in our community health projects, and through their participation, they also learn to embrace holistic mission across cultural and socioeconomic barriers. We pray that our own limitations can turn into mutual blessing and encouragement. 

It is often said that holistic mission is the demonstration of the Gospel: our actions tangibly demonstrate God’s love and care for those in need. I believe, though, that it also proclaims the Gospel. 

Jinhong has almost no chance of ever attaining independent living. People living with HIV are looked down on and seen as a burden to society and their families. When we choose to gladly walk with them and support them, we proclaim the counter-cultural message of Imago Dei: made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). We all have intrinsic worth and are loved by our heavenly Father, regardless of gender, race, health or ability. This is good news.   

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