Differing approaches to serving overseas

This is a wonderful time to have a global perspective. God’s people are serving all over the world: interacting with people and discovering their needs. As a result of this engagement the church has expanded what it does to respond these needs. Global service used to be perceived as “Bible focused” (such as Bible translation, church planting, and theological education). However, due to the church’s involvement in the world it’s service has expanded to include humanitarian work, community development, micro-finance projects, capacity-building in health and education, promoting justice for the poor and marginalized, and working to oppose and prevent human trafficking. The list just keeps growing.

As it stands now, no matter what one’s gifts are, if one has caught of vision of God’s love for the world, there is a way to get plugged into God’s world.

Not only have the opportunities to engage in God’s world expanded, but segments of the church have learned from the successes and shortcomings of those who have gone before us. Reflective of this learning is the recent Cape Town Commitment (from the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization). If we pay attention to it, the Cape Town Commitment can keep us from repeating one mistake in our recent past that continues to plague us. This mistake is to dichotomize the work in terms of “proclamation” or “social action.” The Cape Town Commitment informs us that God’s global design is integral engagement. Integral engagement means that appropriate and meaningful communication of the gospel and social action are foundational aspects of God’s work. Without both we are not truly engaged in what God is doing. Without meaningful communication our work can be humanitarian and noble, but it is not completely what God is doing. Without being socially engaged, being involved in the real problems of people’s lives, our work is not true to our call to image God. Due to our tendency to dichotomize reality in either-or terms, seeing God’s engagement as integral engagement has been something we have been slow to realize.

At the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town we were told about a sharp disagreement that arose between Billy Graham and Rene Padilla in a small committee meeting at the end of the Lausanne Congress in 1974. Billy Graham viewed the task of the church in either-or terms. Evangelism was the work of evangelicals and social action was the work of liberals. Billy Graham was simply reflecting the sentiments of most evangelicals in the US. These evangelicals were mainly Caucasian and the civil and political infrastructure in the US worked for them. They were free to focus solely on evangelism. Rene Padilla was not free to dichotomize. He lived in South America where the members of his churches were constantly afflicted by social problems and political injustice. Rene Padilla saw God’s design as integral engagement- as meaningful interaction and social action. The church had to act differently than the prevailing culture. Believers had to act justly and compassionately toward one another. They had to intervene, help the poor, and speak out about injustice when it happened. Without social action and meaningful interaction about what God has done and is doing for us in Jesus the church cannot be faithful to its calling.

The two men argued vehemently for their positions.

At the end of the meeting the committee voted to support Padilla’s paradigm of integral engagement. Billy Graham left in a furor. However, when Billy Graham returned home he had a change of mind. He called Rene up and apologized. After serious prayer and reflection he too realized that God’s design for the church was to be involved in transforming society, not just individual lives. Integral engagement as a biblical paradigm was truly born.

However, almost four decades later some of us are still trying to come to grips with our inbuilt tendency to dichotomize God’s design in either-or terms. A friend’s experience highlights this ongoing problem. My friend was finishing up his studies at Wheaton College. He was talking with a classmate about going overseas. He told his classmate that he wanted to reach out to Muslims in the Middle East. His classmate responded by saying: “I would rather give a cup of cold water to the thirsty.”

This tendency to dichotomize global engagement plagued the region in which I worked in the 80s and the 90s. All of us had bifurcated the work into either church planting or holistic development. Those who came out to do church planting looked at work as a platform in which to enter the country and as a necessary evil. Without the work we would not have had the opportunity to engage in the “main thing,” which was proclamation.

What we advocates of church planting failed to accept was that our church planting paradigm had some fundamental flaws. Our attitude toward our work lacked integrity. Our work was only a “platform.” It was not an authentic demonstration of who we were as disciples of Jesus. This caused three problems. First, we were confronted with a moral conundrum. We said we were there to work but we knew that the work was just a means to an end. Second, we failed to recognize how valuable the workplace was. We did not understand how valuable our lives were. The workplace was a place of discipleship by demonstrating godly character and articulating our values, pointing out the reasons why we made the decisions we made and why we behaved the way we did.

Due to our passion to find someone open and share the Good News, if we did not find someone “open” in our office, we went looking outside the workplace. One of reasons we did this is because we defined proclamation too narrowly. We didn’t realize that proclamation could be defined as appropriate and meaningful interaction within each and every context. With a broadened view of proclamation and with a bit of intentionality and creativity we could have integrated our faith into our workplace, been free to be truly diligent on the job, acted more like salt and yeast in our conversations with our colleagues, and gradually seen our co-workers move toward the kingdom of God. We could have been better stewards of all the eight-hour days we spent in the workplace.

Third, by viewing proclamation as the primary focus, our work tended to be too individualistic. We did not think about working for the transformation of communities because we spent our time seeking out open individuals. The tragedy in Rwanda and Burundi partially exemplifies this inherent flaw in over-individualizing faith. The church planting work in these two countries had been tremendously “successful” in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, many of the people in these new churches participated in the ensuing genocide that happened there (though it must be said that many did not participate in this genocide and helped those they knew who were in danger). This glaring failure of the “successful” church planting work that was done caused us to rethink the value of church planting as a missional paradigm. Church planting has resulted in quantifiable numbers but it hasn’t often resulted in communal or societal transformation.

In contrast, there were those who came out to do holistic development. Holism was seen as the antithesis to church planting. Those doing holism were more community focused. However, their mistake was that they assumed their work was an adequate means to “communicate” the Gospel.

The problem with relying on one’s work to communicate one’s faith is that the interpretation of why we do what we do is left to others to decide. What the holistic workers failed to realize is that people do not view reality through our cultural and religious lenses. Therefore, they can (and often did) come up with completely different interpretations as to why we did the work we did. Where I worked some people felt that there were two reasons why we were working there. Either we were so incompetent that we could not get a good job in our own countries, or if we were competent, we were sent to work there by our government. The problem was: if our governments had sent us, we were spies. I don’t know if it was a compliment or not, but many of the people I knew assumed that I was sent by my government.

Ralph Winter noticed this glaring absence of proclamation in the holistic missional paradigm and labeled it Donut Hole-ism (holism without the core). Donut hole-ism suffers from this weakness. Billions of dollars have been spent in holistic oriented ministries but little progress has been made in building just and equitable communities around the world. We simply cannot build just and equitable communities apart from Jesus’ direct involvement in the people’s lives. Paul gives us the reason why in Romans 8:5. We will be too dominated by our own desires to be able to create just and equitable communities.

In 2001, a group of church and mission leaders from around the world gathered in Europe. There they formulated the Micah Declaration. The Micah Declaration was intended to get the church reflecting on how it was going about its work. These leaders pointed out that with integral engagement we could avoid the inherent weaknesses of church planting and holism and we could integrate the best thinking from both.

Integral Engagement seeks to solve the problem of dichotomizing the work into proclamation or social engagement while at the same time embracing the broadening understanding of what constitutes the church’s calling (empowerment of the poor, advocacy for the marginalized, stopping human trafficking, etc). Integral Engagement encourages people to integrate their faith into their lives and into their work. Integral Mission intentionally pursues having individuals and families turn to Christ and seeing churches (communities of faith) established. Integral Mission has people lovingly engage with the needs of the people in our world. In addition, it is intentional about impacting communities so these communities are either in the kingdom and living out the kingdom or moving toward the kingdom in significant ways.

The Micah Declaration jettisoned integral engagement to the forefront in the church’s thinking. It also influenced the shaping of the Cape Town Commitment which was adopted at the Lausanne Congress in 2010. The Cape Town Commitment encapsulates in one document what the global evangelical church understands as its faith and work. The guiding assumption within the Cape Town Commitment is that authentic Christian faith produces authentic Christian lives, lives that responsibly and positively impact their communities and societies. This integration of faith and practice is a fundamental plank within the integral engagement paradigm.

As we move forward into the 21st century the opportunities to engage with the people around us have exploded. Due to these opportunities we can authentically represent Christ and be agents of transformational change all over the globe. However, the temptation and the tendency to dichotomize the task continue. We can avoid these by making the Cape Town Commitment our own commitment and by making sure whatever task we engage in, we do it in such a way so that our engagement is integral engagement.

We in Interserve are committed to integral engagement. This is why we put the “w” before “holism” and speak of wholism.