Continuing in our study of “When Helping Hurts” – Chapter 4
There is no doubt you have come across the word “holistic” sometime in your past. It has become a popular buzzword used to describe an approach that sees the “whole” and not just the “parts.” A quick Google search found a wide variety of “holistic” approaches. I found information on holistic medicine, holistic nutrition, holistic politics (really?), holistic wealth management (seriously?), holistic tackling (yes football fans you can holistically tackle a running back…) holistic dog care (no way…) and even a holistic massage parlor in California (no thanks). While some of that sounds a little creepy it does somehow speak to this attitude of wanting to take a well-rounded approach to subjects, situations or types of care.
In Christian circles the term “holistic” or “wholisitic” (sometimes spelled with a “w”… because we’re Christians and that is what we do) has also become a commonly used term. Although used in different context the word carries a very similar meaning. Holistic in the Christian arena describes an approach to sharing the Good news of Christ through both word and deed. Holistic ministry is reaching your community with the whole gospel for the whole person through whole churches. 
My wise Indian friend once asked me this:
“Are people just ghosts?” “No” I replied. “Then why in our evangelism do we often only care about a person’s soul? Why not care for their physical bodies and emotional needs as well?” Hmmm. He made me think for a moment.
“Are people just corpses” “No” I replied. “Then why are there movements out there that strictly care for a person’s physical needs with no regard to their deeper spiritual needs?”
People are not just souls (that we should be concerned exclusively for their eternal salvation), nor just bodies (that we should exclusively care for their food, clothing, housing, and health), people are holistic beings made in God’s likeness, possessing unique and wonderful physical and spiritual capacity.
Why I want to skip a section of this book
It is in the realization of this truth that I find some conflict with parts of chapter 4. Skipping to the end of the chapter you will find a section labeled “Finding your Niche”. In general the case made in this section is that it is extremely difficult for a person or organization to provide all of relief, rehabilitation and development in a single situation. The church (for example) is encouraged to pick one and do it with quality while partnering with others who focus on the other two parts. It is pointed out that each of these elements is demanding and that a church runs the risk of “spreading itself too thin” by trying to provide all three. (pg. 120)
While I agree that we cannot always be everything for all people I also recognize the fact that such a picking and choosing takes the most important element out of the process of poverty alleviation – relationship. Which is where the concept of holism also seeps in.
A focus on relationship
Our approach to loving the poor should be about loving the whole human being. By meeting them in times of need and providing relief we create a trust and relationship with them that allows us to speak into their deeper emotional and spiritual needs as vital to the elements of rehabilitation and development. Providing relief and moving on is like witnessing to a corpse (sticking with the analogy as used above), while entering in at development is like trying to speak to the deep emotional/spiritual needs of a person without ever demonstrating to them that you care about their most immediate and sometimes painful situations. (like witnessing to a ghost)
To me the effectiveness of the “stages” is in the effectiveness of the relationship created. Without relationship the stages simply become about moving people from one position to another with only the end goal in mind. But in relationship one sees the beauty of what happens in the process as both the “wealthy” and the “poor” recognize need and become shaped through service.
There is much said in the book about the devastating effects of relief void of rehab and development. My fear in “finding your niche” would be that we end doing the very things the title of the book advocates against; helping while hurting. Our help (meeting physical needs through relief) really hurts (neglect of long-term relationship elements) because we find ourselves done with our task and waiting for someone else to do the difficult time consuming stuff of rehab and development. To me, “finding a niche” seems to contradict the excellent message portrayed in this book.
With that said I recognize that seeing relief through to development is a long and tedious process. It requires lots of knowledge, understanding and patience, which is often tough to come by. Thus my proposal is as follows:
Don’t focus on one, instead focus on 1. What?? You might ask. Here’s what I mean. In place of focusing on one category and leaving the other two categories for another group, person or church, instead focus on 1 person and carry it out to the finish. Our tendency is towards numbers. Helping 20 people in one stage is probably better sounding than helping 3 people through all three stages. However, when the importance is put on the process not the end results than those 3 people will be seen as the huge success they are. Not to mention the beauty and mutual transformation that will come to them and us as we work together through all of the challenges, decisions and teaching that comes through those long-term relationships.
By skimping on the relationship that could be built in order to find a niche, I think the church is doing the poor and themselves a big disservice.
Holism in ministry should see the whole person, (body and spirit) through the whole process (start to finish, relief to development). When we do that I think the possibility for mutual life change is significantly increased.
So let’s just scratch finding our niche and embrace the joy of walking with the poor through to the end. Simply put, it’s as easy as replacing one with 1.