Holistic Mission (Creative Tension part 3)

Continuing his guest series on creative tension, Andy Wier encourages us to look beyond the slogans and strap-lines of ‘holistic mission’.

Over the years, I’ve encountered lots of talk about churches being holistic in community mission. “Do More, Do it Together, Do it in Word and Deed” – that was the original strap-line of Hope 08 (now Hope 2014).  “Sharing faith through words and actions” – that’s part of the mission of Church Army, with whom I’ve just started a new job.

There’s all manner of strap-lines and slogans we can use to talk about being holistic. But in practice, being holistic is easier said than done.

This was one of the main findings of my recent research on the way charismatic-evangelical churches engage in urban mission. The churches I studied all experienced some kind of tension between “the spiritual-evangelistic” and “the socio-economic”. The quotes below highlight three different dimensions to this:

1. Personal tension – individual Christians feeling torn: 

“We’ve had meals together, we’ve gone on trips, and we’ve helped them with their CVs… All of that’s really important but it’s not the ultimate… For them to be totally transformed they need Jesus in their life.”

(Rowena, Youth Worker)

 2. Group dynamics – Tensions within a group of Christians:

“For some people, I think the aim is very much to convert Muslims – they’re saying that to know Jesus is what we want the women to experience. For other people, the kingdom values are to go and welcome the stranger and whether or not that results in an actual conversion no longer matters so much… That can sometimes set up a tension in the group”.

(Caroline, Leader of a Conversation Club for Refugee Women)

3. External tensions – difficulties relating to secular organisations and funding bodies:

“The more blatantly evangelistic you come across, the less well-received you are”

(Nathan, Church leader)

‘Kingdom Christians’ and ‘Cross Christians’

The wider backdrop to all this is that over the years Christians have spent vast amounts of energy debating (and sometimes arguing about) the relationship between evangelism and social action. And despite all the holistic rhetoric, this issue continues to be a source of tension in the contemporary Church. As Tom Wright puts it, the Church is often divided between ‘Kingdom Christians’ with a social action agenda and ‘Cross Christians’ with a saving-souls-for-heaven agenda.  Or as the following graphic from Jon Kuhrt illustrates, different church traditions sometimes appear to have completely different understandings of ‘the gospel’.

John Kurt thing

As with some of the other tensions we’ve looked at in this series, I’d suggest that many of us have a tendency to lean one way or the other.

At times in my Christian journey, I’ve found myself emphasising the need for personal conversion and transformation through encounter with Jesus (the blue part of the diagram) while at other times I’ve been particularly drawn to a biblically inspired vision of social justice (the orange).

What about you? Which way do you lean? In your understanding of the gospel, do you veer more towards the orange or the blue?

I think it’s both inevitable and healthy that different Christians find themselves drawn to different dimensions of the gospel. But within this, we also need to be continually reminding ourselves of the bigger picture. The biblical vision of salvation encompasses both Kingdom and Cross, social justice and personal conversion. So as Jon Kuhrt argues:

“Instead of seeing the range of emphasises on key theological issues as opposing each other we need to understand them as a dialectic that is in-built into the Christian faith – that truth always involves holding contrasting factors in tension.”

Where’s my blind-spot?

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that perspectives from Christian traditions that are different to our own can be really helpful in making us more aware of our theological blind-spots. And nowhere is this more important than in discussions about the relationship between social action and evangelism. Here I’d suggest that perspectives from the orange and the blue can provide much-needed correctives to each other.

As Stephen Cox observes, there’s a “coyness in speaking about Jesus” within some Christian social action circles.  In this sense, I think that churches which veer towards the orange part of Jon Kuhrt’s diagram need to listen to and engage with Christians who emphasise evangelism.

On the other hand, there’s been a general lack of attention among many ‘Bible believing’ Christians to the parts of the Bible that talk about poverty and social justice. Here, I suggest that ‘blue’ churches which tend to emphasise personal conversion have much to learn from Christian traditions that emphasise ‘the orange’.

If the mission of our churches is to become more genuinely holistic, we need to become more aware of our own blind-spots.

Where’s my blind-spot? Where’s yours?

Andy Wier, February 2014

Andy Wier is a researcher and consultant with a Doctorate in Practical Theology from the University of Chester. He works part-time for Church Army as Research, Review and Training Officer and part-time as a consultant to churches, charities and community organisations.

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