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Holistic Mission and Discipleship: Helping Hands, Holy Hearts

Holistic Mission and Discipleship: Helping Hands, Holy Hearts
Ronald J. Sider, Philip N. Olson and Heidi Rolland Unruh

“The best way to disciple in the way of Jesus Christ,” asserts Rev. Bill Borror, pastor of
Media Presbyterian Church, “is to have Christians involved in hands-on ministry.”
What is a holistic approach to discipleship? God's plan for the church, according to
Ephesians 4:12, is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body
of Christ.” In this design for discipleship, spiritual growth and outreach of word and deed
are an interlocking spiral. The more solid our grounding in God's Word, the greater our
openness to the voice of the Holy Spirit calling us into mission. The more we know
about who God is and what God is doing in the world, the more we act on it; the more
we carry out God’s will, the richer our insights into God’s character and the closer we
grow to Christ (Matt. 12:50). Devotion to Jesus leads us to follow his example of
evangelism and social action; the experience of hands-on ministry deepens our
devotion. David Apple of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia summarizes the
relationship between study and action: “Christians need to know what they’re doing.
And Christians need to do what they know.”1

Many churches, however, approach discipleship as a two-stage process: first you study
and learn the disciplines of a vigorous personal spiritual life; then, after you have
achieved a sufficient level of spiritual maturity, you may graduate to active ministry duty.
Jesus’ teachings and example, however, indicate that even for fledgling believers,
engaging in acts of ministry should go hand in hand with instruction in the faith. A
wealthy young ruler approached Jesus with the classic seeker question, “Good
Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus first answered with basic spiritual
principles. Then, knowing that this “head knowledge” of the way to God was not
enough, Jesus gave the man some startling instructions: “Sell all that you own and
distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come,
follow me” (Luke 18:18–22).

Setting new believers to work in sharing good news and good works makes the
teachings about the Kingdom come alive, and tests their commitment to a life of
discipleship. “The initial ministry assignment should follow close on the heels of
conversion,” advise urban ministry specialists Edgar Elliston and Timothy Kauffman.
“Passive, unattached, uncommitted believers risk being stunted in their spiritual
formation and ministry maturity.”2 As new believers work together with more mature
Christians, the supervision and mentoring that take place within a ministry project can
be a vital component of discipleship.

Service can also be an important ingredient of youth ministry programs. By ministering
alongside adults, youth learn that Christianity means reaching out to others in word and
deed. Service projects broaden kids’ horizons, often exposing them to multicultural and
cross-class settings and relationships. Including youth in community outreach helps
them find meaning and self-worth in serving others. It also develops future ministry
leaders. As a result of taking their youth group on a Habitat for Humanity work trip, for
example, Media Presbyterian Church ended up adding youth representatives to their
Faith in Action outreach committee.

Many church members credit participation in service projects with making their faith
more meaningful and alive. Bob transferred to Media Presbyterian Church from another
church, where he was on the fringe of the congregation and his spiritual life had grown
stagnant. At Media, Bob was soon put to work in the Carpenter’s Club ministry. As he
built handicap ramps and did home repairs for low-income home-owners, his faith grew
by leaps and bounds; he became active in other areas of church life, and within a few
years was appointed deacon. The Sunday after about 150 Media Presbyterian Church
members returned from an annual trip to blitz-build a Habitat home for a poor family in
North Carolina, participants gave testimonies about their experience. One person after
another stood up to share how they had gone expecting to help someone else, but to
their surprise, in the process they discovered new spiritual truths and reached new
depths in their relationship with God.

How does “hands-on ministry” enrich our discipleship?
* It allows us to enter into God’s heart of mourning for sin and brokenness. “Seeing
the needs firsthand softens our hearts and makes them ‘break for the things that
break God’s heart.’”3 We realize in greater depth the deadly power of evil, and
the even mightier power of the cross.
* It confronts us with areas in our own lives where we need to repent and seek
God’s transforming grace: lack of faith, materialism, all forms of prejudice,
hardness of heart, laziness, the idolatry of comfort, a shame to confess the
* It yields new insights into the Scriptures, as we see them brought to life in the
course of ministry. We can study about God’s compassion and love, but until we
encounter the man wounded on the road to Jericho, bathe his wounds, and pay
for his care, we can’t know fully what it means to be a good neighbor.
* It brings us closer to God’s passion for justice. When we minister to people who
lack access to quality, affordable health care, housing or education, we join with
Jesus and the prophets in the cry to “release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
*  It strengthens our faith by giving us tangible evidence of God’s hand at work,
while at the same time demanding a deeper level of trust, and casting into relief
our areas of doubt.
* It leads to greater dependence on God’s grace and wisdom. As one volunteer
confessed, working with people with HIV has “forced me to rely on God in a
continual way that I never had to before. I recognize that without the Holy Spirit,
I’m clueless.”
* It drives us to draw closer to Christ. “Many times, when we go out,” says Rev.
Richard Kyerematen of Germantown Church of the Brethren, “we find out how
unprepared we are, and we need to come back and study some more and to
pray some more. Jesus sent his disciples out and let them see what they
needed; and when they . . . came back, he did more teaching.”
* It helps us discover and develop spiritual gifts we might not otherwise have
known about: compassion, hospitality, evangelism, intercessory prayer,
administration, healing.
* It expands our understanding of God’s providence, particularly in congregations
that are insulated from poverty. “In a white, middle class church, we learn how
God intervenes, equips, provides and graces us for the trials of white, middle
class life,” writes Amy Sherman. “Our spiritual lives are diminished in some
measure because we are exposed primarily to our own experiences with
God—and the experiences of those like us.”4 When we are exposed to new
contexts for God’s saving work, we gain new perspectives on God’s character.
* It deepens our appreciation for our own salvation. A lay leader at Life in Christ
Cathedral of Faith put it this way: “Sharing the gospel increases your faith. It
draws you closer to God. It keeps you constantly reminded of what Christ has
done in your own life. . . . It keeps your heart humble and grateful to God.”
* When we encounter Christians among those who are served, we learn “important
lessons from economically poor but spiritually rich fellow believers”—such as
contentment, joy in adversity, hope, and faith in receiving “this day our daily

Holistic churches believe, as Amy Sherman reminds us, that “outreach to the poor and
needy is not only a matter of obedience to Scripture, but also a necessary component of
spiritual growth. In other words, they believe they need the poor as much as the poor
need them: They assert that their own spiritual health is impoverished if they are not
entangling their lives with the lives of others different from themselves.”6 When the path
of discipleship focuses exclusively on our personal relationship with God, our
Christianity tends to become self-centered and narrow. We forget that a central purpose
for our salvation is to reach and serve others—that we were “created in Christ Jesus for
good works” (Eph. 2:10).

Another cost when discipleship is divorced from active involvement in holistic ministry is
that spiritual truths can become just so many words. To believe in Christ is something
that you do, not just a mental process. The Bible includes only two instances of the
passive word “belief”—and 173 instances of the active form “believe” (New Revised
Standard Version). Just as our witness in the world is hurt when we do not integrate
word and deed, so our discipleship suffers when it is reduced to propositional learning
without the complementary experience of Christlike engagement with a suffering world.
The flip side is equally important. For holistic outreach ministry to be effective, a church
must have a strong program of discipleship. A ministry leader at Life in Christ explains:
There’s a lot of churches that call themselves community oriented that have a lot
of outreach ministries, but the essential part of an outreach ministry is having a
good follow-up discipleship component that keeps the people. I could reach out
all day long, and tell people about Christ all day long, but if I have nothing to help
them grow and to deal with their problems besides Sunday and Wednesday
night, then I’m going to lose them.

Through holistic discipleship, persons with needs to be met by the church become
persons with gifts to be shared through the church. What a loss when discipleship and
outreach are assumed to be competing rather than complementary tasks! Discipleship
ministries sustain the commitment to outreach; and in turn, hands-on ministry energizes
spiritual growth.

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. Used
by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, copyright (c)

1. David S. Apple, “Wholistic Ministries at Tenth Presbyterian Church” (master’s thesis,
Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1994), 52.
2. Edgar J. Elliston and J. Timothy Kauffman, Developing Leaders for Urban Ministries
(New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 90.
3. Sherman, Restorers of Hope, 230.
4. Ibid., 229–30.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., 29.

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