PATTERNS OF MINISTRY AMONG HOLISTIC CONGREGATIONS
There is no one template for “the holistic church.” Although holistic congregations have
common theological roots and share several key characteristics, each church’s ministry is shaped
by its unique journey and calling, and by theological beliefs that shade how it interprets and
implements its mission. This means that holistic churches are quite diverse. You cannot predict
where they will be found, or what ethnic group will fill the pews, or whether they sing hymns or
contemporary choruses, or which political party they will endorse. Nor can you associate holistic
churches with a particular type of ministry. In fact, churches that foster a holistic mission may not
all agree on the “right” priorities for ministry or on the best ways to share the gospel. But they will
all affirm that the church must share the gospel, and that community outreach is a priority.
Holistic ministry takes different forms in different churches, emphasizing a range of ministry
themes. Each of the six themes below focuses on a particular dimension of mission. A church is
likely to combine several themes, and various individuals or programs within a church may lean
toward different themes. In fact, a church that focuses on one ministry theme alone is not truly
holistic. The key is to blend these themes in a balance that is appropriate to the needs of the
community, the spiritual gifts and resources of the members, and the vision and calling of the
church. (See Tool #17, "Ministry Patterns and Priorities", to discover the balance of mission themes
at your church.)
1. Focus on ministries of personal spiritual transformation as a path to social change.
The first pattern or ministry theme emphasizes transforming society one life at a time—as
Glenn Loury puts it, “one by one from the inside out.” Spiritual renewal empowers change in every
area of a person’s life, and the transformation of individuals in turn serves as the seeds of lasting
change at a community level.
In working with individuals who struggle with deep-rooted behavioral and psychological
issues—such as drug addiction, long-term welfare dependency, or generational domestic
abuse—spiritual renewal and a process of holistic discipleship may be necessary to produce
fundamental life changes. Vibrant personal faith endows life with meaning and purpose. It
overcomes the grip of nihilism and despair. It assures forgiveness, canceling feelings of guilt and
failure. It brings a new sense of dignity and worth that counters the stigmatizing effects of poverty.
It strengthens a moral framework for lifestyle, character, and attitude. And it offers hope for the
future, motivating positive steps toward change. Christian faith is more than positive thinking or
self-help therapy. Spiritual rebirth releases a supernatural power that breaks the stranglehold of evil
forces and transforms the very core of broken persons. This spiritual liberation can then unlock
emotional, relational, physical, and financial deliverance.
As people experience renewal, they discover new resources for overcoming external obstacles.
Without attention to internal barriers to empowerment, however, social ministry often has limited
impact. Social ministry may alter people’s circumstances, but unless there is inner change, the root
problems will re-manifest themselves in other forms.
Tanya (not her real name), a counselor with Cookman United Methodist’s welfare-to-work
program, learned this the hard way. After she accepted Christ in prison, she quit her drug habit. In
prison, she took computer and office skills training and enrolled in college classes. After her release,
she got a job and stabilized her family life. But she did not follow through with discipleship and church fellowship, and within a few years she was back in prison for forgery. She then realized that she could not succeed without God and that she had to make a decision: “His way or no way.” Even though she no longer used drugs, she still had a “dope fiend mentality,” as she describes it, because
she had not resolved the spiritual issues at the root of her addiction. Tanya now helps the women
she counsels understand that without surrendering their life to God, they might get a job, but if they
leave the other parts of their life a shambles, they will eventually face some moral or social
challenge that they do not have the ability in themselves to resolve.
Spiritual renewal is not a magic wand that immediately resolves all of a Christian’s problems.
Sometimes people do experience instantaneous deliverance after turning their life over to
Christ—but most often, as in Tanya’s case, it takes years of slow progress and patient discipling.
Getting right with God is seldom by itself sufficient to turn a person or a community around, but it
is a fertile starting place. Discipleship lays the foundation for other services, such as family
counseling, GED classes, job training, and health education, that empower people to build a new
In addition, the loving support of members of a congregation is essential to the ongoing
transformation of broken people. Many people who have adopted habitual, destructive patterns will
only experience lasting change if other Christians walk prayerfully with them over an extensive
period of time, holding them accountable, challenging them to take the next step, showing grace
when they stumble, and celebrating new patterns of behavior.
2. Focus on social services ministries as a door to evangelism.
The second holistic ministry theme or pattern sounds at first like the opposite of the first:
Helping meet people’s social needs lays a foundation for spiritual nurture.
People’s immediate needs—whether financial, physical, relational or emotional—may eclipse
their felt need for God. People are less likely to absorb the message that God loves them and wants
to turn their life around if they are worried about paying overdue rent, struggling to learn English
as a second language, or surviving an abusive relationship. As a staff member at Christian
Stronghold Baptist Church notes, “By going out to the community and meeting their felt needs, that
gives us the opportunity to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. . . . People become very curious
why you are helping them. It gives us an opportunity to change the conversation to Christ.” By
helping people overcome physical hunger, the church can help create in them a new awareness of
their spiritual hunger. Bringing stability into people’s lives clears a space for them to reflect on their
relationship with God.
Jesus saw a person’s need as a window of opportunity to invite her or him to embark on a
journey of transformation. Jesus fed the five thousand (John 6:5-13), and then invited the crowd to
eat of the bread of life (6:27). After a dramatic healing, Jesus commissioned a demon-possessed
social outcast to return to his home town as an evangelist (Luke 8:27-39). In his first encounter with
a paralyzed man, Jesus told him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk”; in his second encounter, Jesus
admonished him, “You have been made well! Do not sin any more” (John 5:5-14).
Meeting a pressing need is also a way of making the gospel tangible. Caring for physical needs
has symbolic meaning as well as practical importance. Jesus recognized this when he instructed his
disciples to follow his example by washing one another’s feet. Humble service communicates
Christ’s love in a way that transcends words. One volunteer recalls sitting beside a man at a
Christian homeless shelter as he poured out his doubts about faith. “There are so many religions out
there. How am I supposed to believe that this one is right? How do I know that what the Christians
say is true?” he asked. The volunteer thought for a moment. “Well, who was it that gave you dinner
tonight?” The man got the point. When people see love in action, they are better able to believe in
a loving God. As people’s needs are met in Christ’s name, they catch a glimpse of Jehovah Jireh,
the great Provider.
Beyond simply distributing goods or services, holistic social ministries also create
opportunities for Christians to build relationships with those who are served. People who have
repeatedly been hurt or abandoned do not easily let people into their lives. Gaining a hearing for the
gospel message may require overcoming barriers of trust or culture by cultivating a caring, nurturing
track record over time. David Apple says of Tenth Presbyterian Church’s ministry to homeless
persons, “The first goal is that each worker be a friend to each guest in order to establish trust. If
there is no trust then there can be no ministry.” You can tell people that God loves them, but until
they see it demonstrated, they may not understand or believe it.
Compassion ministries feed people while teaching them that they don’t live by bread alone
(John 6:27). The ultimate desire in holistic social ministries is to see people brought into the fullness
of life in Christ. But this does not mean that social compassion is pointless unless someone becomes
a Christian because of it. When Jesus healed a group of ten lepers, only one returned to thank him
for his mercy. Yet this did not discourage Jesus from continuing his ministry of healing. The church
similarly bears a responsibility to meet people’s needs regardless of how they respond to Christ.
Otherwise social ministry is reduced to a means to an end, a utilitarian evangelistic tool. Compassion
must never be used as a bribe. “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has
made” (Ps. 145:7-9). Holistic churches model God’s extravagant love by extending aid in the same
spirit of gracious, patient compassion.
3. Focus on ministries of reconciliation that witness to unity in Christ.
Theologian Vinay Samuel asserts: “One sign and wonder, biblically speaking, that alone can
prove the power of the gospel is that of reconciliation.” The assurance of the gospel is that Christ
“has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” between different people groups (Eph. 2:14). The
peace between God and humanity accomplished by the cross is inseparable from the peace that
should prevail among God’s people.
Only by the power of the Spirit can holistic churches take on the seemingly intractable
divisions of race. “Generations of racism have left deep, deep scars on the soul of the black
community,” writes Bishop George McKinney. The historical abuses and ongoing assault on
minority communities has produced “a very deep, very broad reservoir of rage seething in the guts
of most black people today.” While other types of ministries address the symptomatic consequences
of this rage, such as violence, addictions, and family instability, ministries of reconciliation allow
God’s redemptive power to flow to the root of the anger. Authentic reconciliation goes beyond
superficial friendships or token integration to create new patterns of fellowship based in repentance,
spiritual healing, and Christ-like love. Holistic congregations create an environment where
Christians can work through the stages of racial reconciliation, as summed up by Spencer Perkins
and Chris Rice: “admit, submit, commit.” One of the signs of authentic reconciliation is multicultural worship. Such worship anticipates
John’s glorious vision of heaven, in which every nation and ethnic group comes together in adoring
the Lamb on the throne (Rev. 7:9). Some congregations enter into “sister church” relationships
outside their ethnic group; some congregations share building space and hold occasional joint
worship celebrations; some congregations become fully integrated, from the leadership team to the
language of worship to the foods served at fellowship meals. Reconciliation in holistic churches
extends beyond ethnicity to other barriers to unity, such as economic class, physical and mental
abilities, and family status. Sundays at 11:00 is still the most segregated hour in America—but not
in holistic congregations that embrace God’s delight in the diversity of humankind. Such churches
become “a little picture of what heaven will be like.”
Cross-cultural “yokefellows” in ministry—such as the relationship between Chris Rice and the
late Spencer Perkins, or an effective urban-suburban church partnership—provide powerful models
of reconciliation. True cross-cultural partnerships bring a power and credibility to ministry,
especially in ethnically diverse communities. When people hear that Jesus is Lord over all, they may
not be inclined to believe it; when they see diverse followers of Jesus working together for the good
of others, they cannot deny the evidence that “the Lord is One” (Mark 12:29). Jesus indicated the
evangelistic impact of Christian unity: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you
have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Cross-cultural personal relationships are an important fruit of reconciliation, but it does not
stop there. Holistic reconciliation also means examining and changing entrenched social patterns
that keep members of the congregation segregated from others (especially other Christians) who are
different. This could mean forming a study group to examine how racism has affected the family
history and current lives of church members (for better and for worse); fostering changes in the local
community to make it more open to diversity; lobbying for public policies that promote racial
justice; or supporting the relocation of “missionaries” from the congregation to forge relationships
within other ethnic communities. Such actions, immersed in prayer, have a transforming ripple effect
from the congregation to society.
4. Focus on community development to express God’s love for persons and neighborhoods.
Many ministries focus largely on individuals — providing material assistance, nurturing
behavioral change, or offering relational support. But individuals live in communities. If the
community is unhealthy, the people who live there will fight an uphill battle to realize the quality
of life God intended for them. Often, people have needs that go beyond personal transformation,
such as the need for affordable housing, jobs, health care, and safe places for children to play.
Holistic social and economic development ministries address people’s needs at the community level.
Community development ministries work to shape the community to be more consistent with
God’s design for shalom. They help guard against paternalism and break cycles of dependency by
creating opportunities for people to become self-sufficient. As a matter of stewardship, development
ministries redistribute public and private resources (e.g. through access to assets such as loans and
grants) on behalf of the most vulnerable in society. They leave a legacy of new or renewed
institutions, such as schools, credit unions, and health clinics, that give community residents the
opportunity to build a better future for themselves and their children. By inviting the participation
of residents, they increase their investment and empower them to address their own problems.
Holistic community development integrates concerns for both social and spiritual well-being.
Modeled after Jesus' example, guided by the Holy Spirit, inspired by passionate worship, and
strengthened through prayer, church-based community development ministries have a vital spiritual
dimension lacking in secular programs. Faith-based development serves as a tangible expression of
the Good News the church proclaims in evangelism. It nurtures an environment which affirms the
church’s message of God’s love and human dignity. By identifying the church with the good things
happening in the community, it points people to the reign of Christ. It creates new opportunities for
church members to come into relationship with non-Christians in the context of ministry, and it
makes community residents more receptive to invitations to attend church or to hear the gospel.
Holistic community development also guards the fruits of evangelism. Faith-based development relieves the conditions that drive people to despair, abuse, or crime. It also recognizes the dilemma faced by community residents who experience a radical spiritual transformation. As they achieve greater stability in their personal life, they naturally want to move out of the community
to create a better life for their children. Community development ministry builds the church by
giving people hope and a purpose for remaining where they are and becoming part of the solution.
5. Focus on justice ministries that embody the empowering message of the Gospel.
Where there is injustice, service and community development ministries may significantly
improve the living conditions of residents, but do not get to the root of the problem.
Racism—“America’s original sin,” as Sojourners’ Jim Wallis describes it—along with sexism,
political corruption, failing schools, environmental abuses, corrupt criminal justice systems, and
unfair economic structures all undermine the good created by converted individuals and effective
community development. Unjust systems and institutions block people’s access to opportunities,
stunts their human dignity, and robs them of shalom.
Theologian Darrell Guder describes the church’s calling to pursue justice:
Shalom envisions the full prosperity of a people of God living under the covenant of God’s
demanding care and compassionate rule. In the prophetic vision, peace like this comes hand
in hand with justice. Without justice, there can be no real peace, and without peace, no real
justice. Indeed, only in a social world full of a peace grounded in justice can there come the
full expression of joy and celebration.
Through advocacy ministries, churches grapple with the reality of social sin and follow in the
prophetic tradition of serving as “God’s voice,” proclaiming a biblical perspective on institutional
or systemic social problems. Sometimes churches are able to work within channels of official power,
sometimes they organize together to exert pressure from outside the system or create alternatives
to the system, and sometimes they raise a lone voice of protest, witness, or solidarity. Advocacy
ministries might lobby for higher earned income tax credits, or confront city officials about zoning
regulations that restrict affordable family housing, or educate the public about an upcoming proposal
to legalize gambling. The goal of holistic advocacy ministries is not to force change through
violence or threats but to “speak the truth in love” and “overcome evil with good.”
Holistic ministries of systemic reform well up from a deep fountain of spiritual commitment.
They integrate spiritual nurture and support evangelism in the same ways as community
development ministries. They also call Christians to grieve over sin and the brokenness it begets,
and remind us afresh of our need for the whole gospel. Worship services renew those who seek
justice with a celebration of God’s promise that all of creation’s goodness will one day be restored.
6. Focus on reaching skeptics by demonstrating that the church makes a difference.
The evangelical church’s witness has been sadly tarnished by decades of infighting and
skepticism about social ministry. Stereotypes of fallen television preachers, abortion clinicbombings,
and finger-pointing political activists leap all too easily to mind in association with the
word “Christian.” The church is often perceived as self-serving, hypocritical, and irrelevant.
Cynicism and alienation can be just as much a barrier to evangelism as hunger and homelessness.
Holistic ministry in the spirit of Christ-like servanthood challenges the unbelieving community’s
perception of the church and Christianity by modeling a meaningful alternative. The holistic church
stands out like the “city on a hill” that glorifies God, a beacon of integrity and hope. “Let your light
shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven”
Letting the church’s light shine also creates opportunities for personal evangelism. In our
materialistic, me-first culture, sacrificial service is a curiosity! Many people can’t help but wonder
why that bunch of Christians should care so much about helping others. Imagine a conversation
between a non-church-going co-worker, and a Media Presbyterian church member:
"So, what did you do on your vacation?”
“I built a house.”
“Well, our family went to North Carolina, along with about 150 others from our church, and
we spent a week putting up a house for a poor family there, working with Habitat for Humanity.”
“Wow ... why would you spend your vacation doing something like that?”
This co-worker has just handed the church member an evangelistic opening equivalent to, “So,
tell me about Jesus.”
Developing a reputation for social activism makes churches especially attractive to spiritual
seekers who value justice and compassion without knowing the God of shalom. The church’s lack
of concern about social issues led many social activists in the 1960s and 70s to think they had to
leave the church in order to make a difference in the world. Many disillusioned activists are now
seeking ways to bring together social concerns with spiritual fulfillment. Baby boomers, especially,
crave a sense of belonging to a meaningful effort to improve society. Younger generations are also
showing an increasing attraction to activism.
Churches that combine word and deed, that minister to body, soul and spirit, draw in people
who hunger for more than superficial Christianity. As the Director of Servant Development at First
Presbyterian Church observes: “I think people today are not interested in a lot of hypocrisy, and they
are not impressed with a lot of ‘sounding good,’ but not living out the Christian faith. When they
see what we are doing, that draws them in, because they know we are trying to put it into action.”
Adapted from Ronald J. Sider, Philip N. Olson and Heidi Rolland Unruh, Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching
Your Community with Good News and Good Works, chapter 1. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker
Book House Company, copyright (c) 2002.