EMBERS OF THE HOLLYWOOD Adventist Church in California believe in wholistic ministry, which they describe as “going beyond service to include advocacy and social change.” That’s why church leaders and members there are learning to implement the skills of community organizing.
“We are conducting one-on-one interviews with our members and people outside the church to learn what the needs of the community are,” says Ryan J. Bell, senior pastor of the 170-member congregation. “So far we have been involved in the struggle for access to quality health care for all children and affordable housing throughout Los Angeles, including a specific plan to provide housing for the homeless. Our work has taken us to city hall, Sacramento, and to Washington, D.C., as we speak out with and for those who are on the margins of our society.”
The Hollywood church has become known in the community as a leader in promoting social justice—and is a prime example of wholistic ministry in action.
The Method of Jesus
Seventh-day Adventist Church cofounder Ellen G. White summarized the contextualized theological concept of wholistic ministry in The Ministry of Healing, page 143, when she wrote, “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’”
Paraphrased, the above statement says Jesus mingled with people, identified their needs, met their needs, and developed a trust relationship. Through the trust relationship He built a bridge—a bridge of trust—and then said to the people, “Follow Me.”
Jesus dealt with the whole person. He addressed not only the spiritual but also the physical, social, and mental aspects of the human being. Although He and His disciples implemented ministries that resulted in the development of organized congregations, Jesus’ ministry was not centered on the membership increases of religious institutions. He was a social entrepreneur, as evidenced throughout the Gospels, and He and His disciples focused on wholistic ministry. He longed to make the world a better place to live and prepare humans for eternal life. The purpose of the church, therefore, is not to be a membership social club but a lighthouse that will bring people to Jesus and build up the kingdom of God.
What Does “Wholistic” Mean?
According to a Hebrew/Greek lexicon, the root of the word is shalom [peace, well, welfare, salute, prosperity, safe, health, perfect, whole, full, just], suggesting that God desires for us a complete, safe, peaceful, perfect, whole, and full life. In fact, it is the most important covenant that God made with His children. Keeping the covenant relationship is our duty and responsibility as Christians, not only to God but to others.
The purpose of wholistic ministry, then, is not only to proclaim the good news, the word of salvation, but also to demonstrate the love of God to people who are in need. Glenn Rogers, academic dean of the Genesis Alliance Institute of Cross-cultural Church Planting in Dallas, Texas, describes wholistic ministry as “balanced outreach that involves a proclamation of the gospel as well as a demonstration of God’s love and concern for every soul. It is seeing and ministering to the whole person.”
At the Grassroots Level
In Des Moines, Iowa, members of the Adventist church meet weekly in different members’ homes for fellowship, a meal, and Bible study. Then church intern pastor Shane Davis and his wife, Hayli, initiated these gatherings, which they call wholistic small groups. Their mission is to equip people for ministry.
Church communication secretary Joyce Barrett describes five elements she says are vital to the success of the meetings:
• Community (growing strong together);
• Equipping (members can grow from a “baby” Christian to a group leader);
• Accountability (members are paired in same-gender partnerships to facilitate fun and spiritual growth);
• Leadership (as members’ skills improve and develop, they become mentors and are equipped to lead their own group); and
• Evangelism (reaching out in friendship to those who don’t have a relationship with God).
An icebreaker activity follows the meal, promoting conversation and the development of “community.” The group then delves into the Word of God, and each person is encouraged to share their perspectives and understanding of the Scriptures and how they apply personally to their lives.
Those involved see this endeavor as a way to worship God and to fellowship with other Adventist Christians, complementing the regular church worship services.
Twenty-first Century Benefits
Especially in the twenty-first century, the Christian experience and wholistic ministry are more important than ever before. Church members often argue and confront others over biblical doctrines. Many people today, however, are committing their lives to a particular religion or church through friendship evangelism. By befriending others, we also help them come to know Jesus and accept Him as their Friend and Savior.
Patterned After Jesus
Jesus is a model example of the wholistic method. Through-out His ministry we witness His genuine wholistic approach toward humanity, especially people who were marginalized, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised from society—the poor, the sick, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors—all outcast as sinful people. Jesus expanded the kingdom of God to places, people, and cultures in which the Jews had never considered God to be interested. He was, in fact, the fulfillment of the Messianic job description found in Isaiah 61. This chapter indicates the means by which God’s people will be enabled to live righteous lives, which will in turn draw all nations to God through the Anointed One, the Messiah.
According to Matthew 11:2-6, John the Baptist, when he was being held in prison and began to doubt his convictions that Jesus was the Messiah, sent his disciples to Jesus to ask Him: “‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see:
“‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.’” Jesus was simply reminding John of the Messianic job description in Isaiah 61, and readdressing the Messianic kingdom in a way that was different from what John the Baptist and his disciples had expected. Rather than through the violent overthrow of the Roman Empire, the kingdom of God was coming person to person as they experienced for themselves the life-transforming good news of the gospel. For Jesus, making a difference in the lives of people was part of His work as the Messiah. His approach to ministry was wholistic, and through wholistic ministry we, too, can give people new hope, motivation, dignity, and self-esteem.
Outreach ministry through social services can heal the scars caused by negative experiences and relationships. We need, therefore, to pray for God’s intervention in the wholistic ministry that we are planning for our communities, listen to God’s guidance, listen to the challenges of the people in our communities, and look for an opportunity to serve and connect. By doing so, we will truly experience the genuine fellowship of the kingdom of God.
When we mingle with people as Jesus did, we will develop a new relationship with our communities. We will break down the barriers between church and community—spiritual, geographical, cultural, class, race, physical—and welcome anyone who walks through the church doors. We will begin to develop an efficient network within the community and cultivate a sense of belonging, interweaving the interests of church and community. When we take the church into the community, the community will accept the church, not as a social religious assembly but as an organization that has respect for community and is able to embrace its differences. And numerous Adventist churches are already reaping the results of this type of ministry.
The Good Neighbor Community Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, operated by members of the Adventist Church there, provides unique services for the approximately 7,000 Middle Eastern immigrants and refugees in its region. Along with helping people with basic food and clothing needs, the center also offers classes in how to obtain American citizenship, how to fill out and submit immigration papers, and computer skills that enhance a person’s ability to find a good job.
“We also provide Muslim food boxes,” says Sheila Schlisner, executive director of the center, “food they are familiar with. The coordinator of the project is Zainab Al-Baaj, a Muslim who lived in a refugee camp for three years before coming to the United States.”
Schlisner explained that Muslims in the area were surprised to hear that Al-Baaj worked at an agency owned and operated by Adventists, because they thought Adventists disliked Muslims. “But Zainab says clients that come to the center feel loved and safe here. Our goal is to help them integrate into a new culture without losing their identity and maintaining their dignity.”
The Summersville Adventist Church in rural West Virginia includes the community in all its outreach ministries. (Also see the cover story in the July 19, 2007, Adventist Review.) Three mission-minded Adventist families planted the Summersville church in 1976. After contacting community leaders to determine area needs, and involving community leaders such as the mayor, the chamber of commerce president, and the president of the ministerial association, the core church families organized a child development center. They continued to work with regional leaders to develop other community service programs, and today, more than three decades later, Summersville boasts not only an Adventist church of approximately 90 members but also a state-licensed and nationally accredited child development center with an enrollment of about 150 children. The congregation operates a food pantry that serves more than 350 families each month, an adult education program, a gymnasium, and a health education program. It is also closely involved with a free medical clinic the three pioneer couples helped to establish for families in financial need and who have no health insurance.
“It has been a wonderful ministry in cooperation with the community,” says Judy Olson, director of the child development center, “and it has done much not only to broaden the impact of the services offered but to help community members to realize and appreciate that the church wants to make a positive contribution to the area it is in. A ministry is not limited to only those it serves but also to those it serves with.”
Salvation is relational. We are drawn by faith to Jesus Christ into communion with God the Father, and as a by-product of this relationship we establish a renewed relationship with the people around us. We often focus, however, on internal issues—keeping the law, keeping the Sabbath, and our own salvation—neglecting the millions of people who are in need of Jesus as a whole person.
A Christian Duty
Caring for the suffering and the outcast is the responsibility and duty of Christ’s disciples. Works of compassion do not secure salvation, but they do confirm that we belong to Christ and the kingdom of God. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus is asking us how we have cared for those in need. If we love God, it is inevitable that we will love His people. To love others—not only family and friends but also people who are suffering, marginalized, and oppressed—is compassion in action. In fact, the theological concept of wholistic ministry is that when we care for others who are in need, we are actually caring for our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Not Just in North America
Central Coast Community Church, a new church plant in Wyong, New South Wales, Australia, and the Seoul Central Adventist Church in Korea are prime examples of community-based contextualized ministry, says May-Ellen Colón, director of the General Conference Adventist Community Services International.
The Central Coast Community Church meets in a community youth center facility, next to a skateboard park. “The church members were excited about moving there because the skateboarders were part of the group the church wanted to reach,” Colón says. “During Sabbath school and church services, skateboarders can often be seen riding past the main doors.”
“The local church should be the place that people with all types of challenges in their lives are made welcome and feel loved and forgiven,” says church pastor Wayne Krause. “Working in the community is just as important as working within the local church.”
After attending a membership class, Central Coast Community Church members sign a covenant of commitment to their church. Part of that covenant includes their being involved in a community ministry. These ministries include an Adventist-run health food company that feeds breakfast five days a week to some 50 elementary school children in a local public school.
Starting with three individuals, this church now has an attendance of more than 200.
Members of the Seoul Central church operate a vegetarian restaurant in their church building so they can connect with the community. “About 300 people from the region are now attending weekly Sabbath services,” Colón says.
The church also provides elderly people in the community with a free Sabbath meal as well as no-cost services such as health assessments and haircuts. About 50 older individuals are baptized each year as a result of these activities.
Let’s Take It Seriously
In Matthew 20:28, Jesus clarifies His purpose: “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (KJV). Here Jesus takes
a servant leadership role, a servant who is hired to do the master’s will and to serve others. So as Christians we also are called to serve the welfare of humanity and the church. We are commissioned to serve others and live a servant’s life.
Let’s not fail to take that commission seriously.