About ten years ago I walked into an Urban Outfitters store when I had the sudden realization…there is nothing urban about this outfitter! The urban of today is not the urban of yesterday. It is no longer quarantined to the “inner city.” The urban of today is marked by density, diversity,1 and disparity.2 If you want to reach our neighbors in this context – neighbors who likely don’t look like you or talk like you – then you must engage with a holistic gospel.
Somewhere in the course of your evangelical life, you’ve probably heard the phrase “save the soul and the rest will follow.” And you’ve likely heard some well-intentioned folks defend it and some other well-intentioned folks argue against it. I won’t sit here and deny the importance of saving the soul. I think it is absolutely critical. But somewhere along the way we bought into the idea that the gospel is one dimensional. Think about this in terms of raising your kids. As a parent, do you only engage with the spiritual needs of your children? Of course not. First of all, that would be ridiculous. Second of all, you wouldn’t have custody over them for very long if you neglected their physical needs, their educational needs, their medical needs, and the other variety of needs that children bring! As a parent, you are rightly concerned with the holistic health and well-being of your children. Our engagement with our neighbors through the gospel should be no less.
But let me clarify from the other side of the spectrum. A holistic gospel does not mean it is one devoid of spiritual power and reduced to goodwill. In my neighborhood, there are over twenty non-profits. My neighborhood does not need more goodwill. My neighborhood needs the gospel made visible through the local church. My neighborhood needs a family. This is the very need and desire that often drives people to join gangs. I once watched a documentary called “If Streets Could Talk Atlanta Part 1”3 and it really helped open my eyes to this. Over and over again, the gang members kept saying things like, “These are my boys. These are my people. They were there for me.” What are they saying? “This group of people was here. They never left me. They didn’t forsake me.”
Sadly enough, people find love, belonging, commitment, and acceptance within a gang often times more easily than they can find it in a local church. I tell this to church planters all the time and encourage them not to go and start a church but to truly establish a family. Think of how different our churches would be if we ran them with same holistic care and intentionality that we prioritize in caring for our nuclear families. If our church family lived like that and loved one another in that way, then the world might “know that we are his disciples because of our love for one another.” (John 13:35) This type of family, this is what our neighbors are longing for.
Sometimes we get scared of holistic ministry because we’ve seen it done in the extremes. So we farm out the social stuff to para-church ministries or liberal organizations. We’ve seen Christian organizations turn secular because of a watered-down gospel. In turn, we responded by focusing on the soul. But we have to recognize that the needs of people are not one dimensional. Yes, people have spiritual needs. But they also have emotional needs, economic needs, and social needs. And our gospel has answers for all of those needs! To love well, we must be willing to engage people with the holistic truths of the gospel.