How and why holistic ministry works to bring about lasting transformation.

Posted on May 28, 2014
How and why holistic ministry works to bring about lasting transformation.

Hope is a powerful thing. Many of us can recall times in our lives when hope was all we had to get through difficult circumstances, such as illness or significant loss. But what happens when hope is lost? For those of us living in affluent parts of the world this may be difficult to even imagine. Deep down most of us believe that no matter what, tomorrow can be better than today. But for some people, often those living in poverty stricken parts of the world, hope has been lost. In some places generations have lived in the midst of maximum poverty. Lives there can often be defined by lack of food, shortages of basic necessities like medicine or clean water, rampant corruption and injustice, and random violence. In some settings things get so bad that children aren’t even given a name until they reach a certain age since so many die as infants.

Hope can be lost, and when that happens everything changes. Without it, people grasp at anything, and they begin living with a day-to-day mentality that whispers to them that they are powerless, life is hopeless, and they cannot change things. They can become convinced that life has always been a desperate struggle for survival, that it always will be that way, and that nothing they can do will ever make a difference.

Often when affluent people see situations of hopelessness we are filled with sympathy and pity and want to do something – anything really – that might make things better. So we tend to give needy people whatever physical and economic help we determine they need. While this seems like a wonderful response, it alone is not sufficient because in reality it starts a very damaging cycle if not done in the context of empowerment. When people in need of hope and confidence are instead given things their immediate misery may be alleviated, but their hopelessness continues. In fact, the help reinforces their erroneous belief that they can’t do anything for themselves and that they really are powerless. It breeds a mentality that is dependent upon handouts from others and time is spent waiting for the next affluent visitor to bring them more. Well intentioned as it is, help like this simply backfires and ultimately leads to a repeated cycle of more hopelessness and despair. In short we can’t help someone by doing and giving things that ultimately keep them helpless.

One often-used analogy tells us that “If we give someone a fish we feed him for a day, but if we teach him to fish we can feed him for a lifetime.” But is that really true? What if our method of fishing is to rent a boat, go into the deep water with a fancy fishing pole, catch some game fish and put them in the freezer until we thaw them out to cook them on the grill? We can try to teach them to fish like we do. But the people we are trying to help don’t have any of that equipment, and may not even like to eat fish. The basic shortcomings with the “teach them to fish” approach are that it assumes: (1) the person’s most pressing need is to have fish, and (2) that our affluent methods for fishing can be modified to work for the people we want to help. Most of the time, however, neither of these assumptions is true.

So what can be done to really bring about lasting change? One approach that can break the cycle of those living in abject poverty in a way that restores hope and brings lasting change is holistic transformation. Holistic means all of the needs of the person being helped are addressed. If we only deal with one problem, most often the economic one, we neglect the emotional side of the situation – the feelings of powerlessness. And if we neglect spiritual needs we fail to provide the truth and inspiration that will restore hope. It is tempting to apply quick-fix, band aide economic solutions to deep-seated problems, but they simply do not work. Instead transformational ministry takes into account the whole person, and deals with their physical, economic, emotional, spiritual, mental, and social needs. If we address one or two of these issues, any improvements we provide will only be temporary. Holistic ministry addresses all of these needs, and the results are permanent and the changes are radical.

Instead of the “teach them to fish” analogy, consider the fire starter analogy. It goes like this: we don’t make a fire for people; nor do we teach them how to make a fire. Instead, we show them that they have within themselves the capacity to make a spark. People realize that they can make a fire using the spark that is already within them. Then they figure out for themselves what kind of fire they need and how best to build it in their unique circumstances. This realization rekindles hope within each person that generates confidence that they can make a difference and that tomorrow can be better than today. It begins with an individual, and then spreads to families, and finally entire communities are transformed. This is what ultimately leads people to give milk from their cow to help to another family, or provide vacation Bible school for their children, or attend a marriage seminar, or start a new business, or dig new water wells. All of these and many more become possible once hope is restored. Thus the key to holistic transformation is its ability to restore hope that has been lost.

Transformational, holistic ministry is not a quick-fix and it takes time. It is a long-term solution which starts small, but then snowballs as more and more people see what has happened to others. Then they jump in to try it themselves, but results do not happen overnight. Affluent people frequently want to see immediate results; however with holistic ministry change usually occurs more like an expanding ink blot than an explosion. Supporters of this type of ministry must be patient and understand that the work is a process. We must realize that something that has been broken for so long cannot be fixed overnight – but it can be fixed.

Another critical aspect of transformational ministry is that the people helping must show deference and respect to the people being helped. So often we observe a poverty-based situation and immediately propose a solution to what we determine is the most pressing problem. We then want to help them find a solution to the problem as we see it. But often those in need of help do not really agree with us what the problem is at all. They may defer to us, but if we would let them tell us what they need help with, we would most likely find an altogether different problem should be solved first. Part of the process of restoring hope includes allowing those who are being helped play the key role in selecting the critical project. It is very easy for those of us who are affluent to extrapolate from our experiences and try to impose a solution for what turns out to be the wrong problem. Transformational holistic ministry is premised upon recognizing that the people to be helped must be the ones to prioritize and select the needs that should be addressed.

Similarly, after problems are defined local solutions must be found and implemented which provide sustainable and practical ways to meet the needs. Such local methods will almost never be the same as those affluent people might use to solve similar problems. Instead the people to be helped know what resources they have to bring to bear, and thus they often design different solutions to a problem than affluent people might. Tempting as it is to just provide what is needed after a problem is defined, to do so undermines the entire transformational process. When done properly the transformational process involves understanding, owning, designing and pursuing local solutions for local problems as determined by the local people.

We must never lose sight of the underlying truth that the best solutions are always determined, owned and implemented by those who are being helped. For that reason the best ministry model is one that insists the work “must be done by those in need for those in need” regardless of how much assistance is provided by more affluent people living elsewhere. In some instances this will mean that neither the “problem” selected for primary emphasis nor its solution is the same one that an affluent partner might suggest. In those situations the affluent partner must be willing to yield control, difficult as that may be.

Surprising as it sounds it is vital to realize that the objective of holistic transformational ministry is not really about fixing a particular problem at all. Rather at its core transformation is about empowering those who need help to believe that they can improve their own lives in their own way. This is what allows them to fix not only the most critical problems facing them today, but also other problems and needs they will face in the future. Transformational ministry ultimately provides hope and confidence, and that is what has the power to transform both a life and a nation.

Meeting a person’s economic, physical, and social needs is still not enough. At the core of holistic ministry is a laser-like focus on spiritual needs, which can only be met through Jesus Christ. As Christians we are told to be ready to explain to others the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). Most extreme poverty situations around the world appear overwhelming and have proved virtually impervious to change despite the amount of money thrown at them. But we know that with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). Rich and poor must acknowledge that regardless of our earthly circumstances, God is good and that a glorious inheritance awaits all of us who place our faith in Him. As we live in expectation of this reality the things of this world take on a new perspective, and we find a way to bring glory to God and love our neighbor regardless of our temporal status. Lawlessness and violence decrease, generosity increases, love abounds and hope endures.

Perhaps this was best stated by Dr. Tokunboh Adeyemo, an African professor, theologian and author, who said, “People who are transformed by the holistic gospel of Christ move from degradation to dignity, from poverty to prosperity, from fear to faith, from sin to salvation, from sickness to health, from despair to hope, from oppression to wholeness, from rags to riches, from wickedness to holiness.”

By Merrell McIlwain