What Is Holistic?  (ministry philosophy)

Holistic is a popular term, but when I hear it, I wonder how many people using it agree on what it means. The word has an almost romantic appeal; people are enamored with the idea. Who wouldn’t prefer being whole rather than partial? Think about it. If “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “art is what I think it is,” then holism can mean nearly anything. People don’t even agree how to spell the word. Such ambiguity obligates us to define what we mean when we use the term “holistic.” This is my understanding of three possible meanings for the word and a little about the implications of each:

1)    Entirely humanitarian

Holism can be a synonym for humanitarian assistance when multiple human needs are met through several interventions. For example, a community development program is termed holistic when it provides health services, education, income generation, etc. That is one version of holism: multiple interventions, but still exclusively humanitarian. Actually, combining programs this way is good development practice. I applaud good humanitarian work such as progress in recent years toward the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (www.un.org/millenniumgoals). Those goals can fit within a Christian agenda. There is no question that God cares for the poor. He wants us to engage with them. I spent years building programs for poor people.

It troubles me, however, when humanitarian programs are over-spiritualized. An extreme example is the Episcopal Church of the United States which adopted the UN Millennium Development Goals wholesale as its missions program (archive.episcopalchurch.org/ONE). That wipes out any Christian distinctive.  Some will and have used the term holism to steer the Church away from soul care.   

2)    Blended - humanitarian and spiritual combined

Another approach to holism calls on the Church to be actively involved in care for both body and soul. That is biblical. James 2 speaks of faith and works. Other passages talk about words and deeds. I have no hesitation about that, but I have questions. Where is the balance? Which dominates? In international development circles this is called “double bottom line.” It simply means that programs are meant to have two kinds of positive outcomes. The term became especially popular with the microfinance antipoverty movement once it became possible to both help the poor and, at the same time, make a profit for investors. In recent years, though, this fragile balance collapsed in practice when a few players apparently forgot that the original goal was to help the poor. For them microfinance became primarily an investment opportunity, which became usury exploiting the poor! It served the lenders’ interests rather than the poor’s. Unfortunately, this error severely damaged the microcredit movement in wide areas of India and elsewhere. There is a world of difference between lifting poor people out of poverty and being a loan shark.

Something similar is at issue with missions programs that attempt to serve both body and soul. This requires fragile balance that risks falling over. Take care not to tip away from soul care. I believe the deciding factor is intentionality. For instance, there are two Christian organizations that appear on the surface to be nearly identical providing credit to poor people. They are both Christian microfinance NGOs. In practice, however, they are quite different. One is purposeful about integrating the Gospel throughout its programs. The other is not. Many well-known “Christian” international groups are also much further from intentional communication of the Gospel than their supporters realize. This trend is troubling.

3)    Entirely spiritually centered

This is the least common definition of holism. Yet it is the one I adhere to and think is the most biblical: whole life discipleship. It insists that Christ is the very source of life, and that everything good radiates out from Him (James 1:17). I love and care for hurting people, not because I have pity on them, but because God loves them, calls me to help them, and He takes it personally whether I respond (Matthew 25:40).

So, how is this different from the second definition of holism? It all depends on how intentional the focus is on new life in Christ. Does that come through? This does not require a sermon with every meal given to a hungry person. But does the message of new life in Christ ever get delivered? What are the lasting outcomes of the programs?

Today I see growing emphasis on mercy ministries, or whatever you might prefer to call humanitarian and justice programs, among Evangelicals. Is this a good trend? The jury is still out. To the extent that humanitarian programs supplant the Great Commission, it is dangerous erosion. Conversely, to the extent programs reflect redemption of all parts of life, physical and spiritual, they are certainly God’s agenda. Count me in.

These are important and familiar issues to me. I directed large-scale microcredit programs in 30 countries. I wrote a general market book, A Billion Bootstraps, on antipoverty programs for a secular publisher. I directed many millions of dollars worth of funding for programs that spanned the entire spectrum of holism described above.

All that experience leads me to prefer language like “whole life discipleship” rather than “holistic missions.” I hesitate to embrace language like holism because its meaning is so fluid. While we may not always be able to avoid the term, we should at least think carefully when using it, since it can be so easily misunderstood. In any case, holism must never be an excuse for mission drift.

Here is a concrete example of what I promote. Two years ago I initiated a program for orphans and other children at risk. It qualifies as holistic by either definition 2 or 3 above.  At the core, it points the children to new life in Christ. From there it branches out into character development and practical life skills. It nurtures the kids to overcome their deep emotional wounds and prepare them for successful lives as adults. Those two areas might appear humanitarian, but they are saturated with a Christian worldview.  This program is quickly being adopted around the world (globalchurch.com/orphan-initiative).

My study of the Bible teaches me that lasting change comes from the inside out. That is why I advocate whole life discipleship. This contrasts with work at the humanitarian level alone that, in my view, often treats symptoms rather than root causes. I believe the essence of Christian mission is for people to turn to Christ, grow as disciples and become change agents who work to improve every aspect of their lives and others’.


© Eric Thurman 2015