The question still haunts me. It was early 2005 and a team sent by our church was delivering aid to victims of the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia. These missionaries, motivated by their desire to join Jesus in His mission, were distributing water, food, temporary shelter, and bedding to people who had lost all their possessions. And respecting a hastily agreed upon arrangement with government officials, they were trying not to “proselytize.”
“Why are you here?” some of the tsunami victims asked. “No one cares about us.” This very remote fishing village rarely saw outsiders.
“We are just trying to show our love for you,” came the reply. But the villagers were not having it. They persisted in their questioning: “Why are you here?”
Finally, someone said, “It is because of Jesus.”
The reply was immediate, “Jesus who?”
It was 2005 and the name of Jesus had not been uttered in that village. In our desire to meet the immediate and physical needs of these people as an expression of the mission of Jesus and His love, we came close to failing to lift the name of Jesus!
On the first day of His public ministry, Jesus read these words from the Prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18)
In launching His ministry with these words, Jesus was, in essence, giving a mission statement. And as we join Jesus in His mission, we are bringing our lives into alignment with this mission. But there are two levels in which this mission can be understood, and holistic mission must embrace both.
- “Proclaim good news to the poor” – In the physical realm, that often means providing food to the hungry and clothing and shelter to the exposed. In the spiritual realm, it equally means proclaiming the gospel, the “good news” of the abundant life available in Jesus.
- “Freedom for the prisoners” In the physical realm, this can often mean helping people break free of addictions or life circumstances that hold them hostage. In the spiritual realm, it also means letting people know that through Jesus Christ they can find release from the bondage of sin and death.
- “Recovery of sight for the blind” – Again, we know that the mission often involves helping people find healing from physical ailments and injuries, often through modern medicine and prayer. Spiritually, however, it is also important for people to be brought from the darkness and spiritual blindness of a sin-filled life into the light of Christ.
- “To set the oppressed free” – Many people today are involved in justice ministries in solidarity with the oppressed, the trafficked, the enslaved, and the abused. Yet in the spiritual realm, there is a deeper truth summed up in the words of John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
- “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” – This proclamation is not only an expression of the tangible gifts of the abundant life in Jesus, but also of the wonderful, amazing grace of God; that unmerited favor the Lord so freely gives us in Jesus Christ.
To join Jesus in His mission in holistic ways means to make explicit both aspects of this mission. We meet people where they are, touching their physical needs in practical ways. But we also understand this mission at the spiritual level, making the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ known to those we are engaging in mission. This is the heart of evangelism. And it is what Paul was referring to in Romans when he wrote:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15, NIV)
Late in the day in that village in Southeast Asia, some members of our team sat down with the people and shared with them the story of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ. With tears, one of the elders of the village said, “We are so grateful that you have brought us this good news. And we believe this news is for us.”
Yes, they needed food and shelter and bedding. But how sad would it have been to meet their physical needs for the day without giving them the benefit of having the abundant life in Christ for all eternity?
Today, a vibrant church stands in that village. A significant majority of the people there are baptized believers. The food we delivered is long gone, the clothing worn out, and the tents have been replaced by homes. But the eternal love of God remains. And that is not only reflective of holistic mission, it is also very good news.