In May of 2011, I was meeting with the leadership team of OM Near East. We were discussing the situation in the area – which was clearly heading towards all-out civil war – and we agreed quite clearly that we were not going to get involved in relief work. We had teams in the region with strong discipling relationships with some local believers, and we were working on training and equipping - and working alongside - some of those believers in church planting initiatives. Getting involved in relief would be a distraction from that, and besides, previous experience reminded us big relief efforts can become never-ending and all consuming. We just weren’t going to get involved.
Within a year we were running a large relief project serving both locals and those in the neighbouring countries.
Why this dramatic change in our thinking and actions? Well, we had good relationships with a number of local believers and churches, and the biggest thing happening in their lives was the war. They had to respond to the needs around them. Could we have really said, ‘we’ll help with discipleship training, but about the biggest thing happening in your life right now, we won’t get involved’? What kind of gospel would we have been proclaiming or demonstrating? So, we got involved, working in partnership with local believers and churches who had a passion for their community and for the communities around them.
We sought to work together with certain distinctives, however. In the Near East you help your own people: Sunni help Sunni, Shi’ite help Shi’ite, Catholics help Catholics, Evangelicals help Evangelicals. We were set on being different, because the gospel is different.
Together we designed relief projects with different distinctives, and we wanted to be truly holistic. As we designed and regularly reviewed the projects, we asked a number of questions: Are we providing relief where it is most needed? Are the projects being run with transparency? Is access to relief being provided according to need and regardless of religious affiliation or spiritual openness? Are our projects providing opportunities for local, Christian-background believers to engage with people of other religious backgrounds? Do people have the opportunity to hear the gospel – in its fullest sense – through our projects? Do those that are spiritually open have an opportunity to join a Bible study (or some other follow-up possibility) which could potentially lead to them being part of a new community of believers?
There were many other questions we asked. We felt that if the project design and implementation was not integrated in this way, our work would not be holistic, and it would not be a demonstration and proclamation of the gospel. That the assistance was given according to need and regardless of someone’s spiritual openness, and that there was a clear pathway between the project and potentially vibrant local fellowships of Jesus followers was fundamental. In fact, if that were not the case, we believed that we would be doing a disservice to those we were seeking to serve and to the gospel itself.
I am really encouraged that we as OM are increasingly wrestling with what ‘integral’ or ‘holistic’ ministry means in the light of our mission statement. I think it is a bit of an untold and unknown story in OM that where we are seeing fruit, the context is often a holistic approach. I believe this is true in the majority of the cases. That may include development projects in Central Asia, sports coaching and self-help groups in Africa, relief projects in Europe and the Near East, or simple community engagement in a whole range of other ways – and there are often many advantages in simple community engagement over big projects.
We need to proclaim and demonstrate the gospel and live it out vibrantly in our own lives among least-reached peoples and communities. Our prayer is that the new communities of Jesus followers that emerge will themselves be a witness to the transforming power of the gospel, making a tangible and sustainable difference in their societies.
Stephan Bauer* presently serves as the Associate International Director for Field Ministries and says it is an exciting (and daunting) time to be involved in this kind of leadership.
*name changed for security