Posted by: amylamb | August 18, 2013

“You Feed Them”: Why We Need A Holistic Approach To Evangelism

“You feed them.”

Faint illumination seemed to emphasize those words as I sat in a foreign city thousands of miles away from home, skimming nonchalantly through Mark chapter 6. Images of the poverty I had seen in the weeks prior swirled through my mind as my eyes were drawn again to those three words:

“You feed them.”

As if I was transported into the live scene conveyed in the passage, I echoed the disciples’ confusion:

“‘With what?’ they asked.”

“God, I came here simply to tell people about you. I don’t have the time or the money or the skill to help all these people …” I thought with more intent to lighten my own burden than to seek God’s response.

“You feed them.”

Thus began a long struggle from which I have not yet escaped — the struggle to learn how to effectively and practicably meet the needs of a world lacking so much.

I wrote a brief introduction to this topic last month and received numerous responses about people and organizations who are offering physical, emotional, and economic assistance hand in hand with the opportunity to know the Source of all good things. That encourages me, and I will continue to learn from these. However, the most common problem with this model is the ease in which we can slip into offering physical or spiritual assistance while neglecting the holistic nature of the person and the contexts that perpetuate the problems they face. Most often, I see those offering physical assistance while neglecting the spiritual need therein.

In other words, it’s too easy to over-simplify. Forgive me for going all academic on you, but consider the widely accepted motivational theory of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

Diagram from Sean McLeod, 2007

The premise of the theory is that everyone is motivated by need fulfillment. We start at the bottom of the pyramid with the desire to fulfill our physiological needs. As these needs become met, we ascend through the pyramid, focusing our energies on fulfilling the next category of needs.

Though this too is likely an oversimplification of human motivation, it can provide insight into how we can most effectively serve. I myself am guilty of walking into an impoverished community with only a gospel presentation and nothing else. I leave emptyhanded when the message is rejected, and most tragically, the people I came to reach walk away emptyhanded, too.

The point is that we often offer solutions for needs that aren’t ready to be met. A community lacking basic food, water, and shelter provisions will likely not be prepared to accept a solution to their spiritual need because their energy is focused first on survival. It’s not that the gospel has failed, but that its recipients aren’t ready to receive it.

Jesus exemplified this well in John 4. He met the woman at the well, seeking her where she could be found rather than requiring her to find him. As she fulfilled a physiological need for water for both of them, he identified other needs in her life (for example, the need for social acceptance and strong relationships). He then offers her “Living Water,” as a metaphor to the fulfillment that comes only through Christ Himself.

Note: I’m not saying that Maslow was follower of Christ (or even vice versa). But Christ’s behavior in Scripture reflects the tendencies in human nature on which Maslow builds his theory.

Church, Christ asks us to feed them. Not only that, but he asks us to walk the extra mile with them up the pyramid, so to speak,  to join them along their journey to self-actualization (which, in churchianity terms, sounds mysteriously like ‘discipleship’ and ‘sanctification’).

And when we ask, “with what,” remember: with everything He is and all that He gives us. He provides us with everything we need to see His glory made known among the nations. Even more, His Holy Spirit is already working among those to whom He has called us. As we are obedient to “feed them,” He is  faithful to multiply our meager sacrifice.


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