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Plumbline: Biblical holism is at work in Africa

By Ron Vos

For decades, there has been a separation between what some have called a deed ministry and word ministry as it relates to missions. Much of this has occurred because of the way Christianity is practiced by a large number of Christians in North America. Some have referred to this as "upper story" Christianity, a focus on saving souls while dealing with how people live out their lives Coram Deo is ignored. This "upper story" view emphasizes personal piety and down plays the idea that Scripture is intended to be the basis for how we live every part of our lives.

About one-third of conference participants were involved in agriculture, one-third were pastors, and the remianing one-third were made up of NGO staff members, government officials (including Muslims), and people from other continents.

About one-third of conference participants were involved in agriculture, one-third were pastors, and the remianing one-third were made up of NGO staff members, government officials (including Muslims), and people from other continents.

Thankfully, this view is beginning to change. The concept of biblical holism-that every part of our lives should be Scripturally directed-is being embraced by Christians around the world as an exciting and enriching way to view faith and a refreshing new way to live. The rhetoric of biblical holism has become somewhat common in Christian academic circles over the last few years, but what is exciting for me is to see it being worked out in other places and by other people in God's Creation. That was part of the joy of attending a recent conference in Kenya.

In January, I had the privilege of attending and presenting a paper at a conference titled God and Creation: Agricultural and Environmental Stewardship. The conference was sponsored by Brackenhurst Environmental Programme, a ministry of the International Mission Board of the Baptist Church, and Food for Hungary International (FHI), a Christian nongovernmental organization (NGO) that focuses on poverty needs relating to food and nutrition. FHI had teamed up with Dordt College to present a conference held on our campus titled Biblical Holism and Agriculture (BHA) in May 2002. A book by the same title was one of the results of that conference, which was attended by people from several countries.

Because of the events of September 11, 2001, many who had wanted to attend the BHA conference at Dordt College were denied visas by the United States government. However, those people from Africa who did manage to come encouraged the planning of a similar conference in Africa. The Kenyan conference was the result, and most of the attendees were from Africa. About one-third of them were involved in agriculture, one-third were pastors, and the remaining one-third were made up of NGO staff members, government officials (including Muslims), and people from other continents.

Attending the conference was an exhilarating experience for me. The attendees' desire to serve Christ in every area of their lives permeated the conference, and it became obvious that this worldview has caught on in the last few years in the area of missions and rural development. While not using the Kuyperian name, it grows directly out of Abraham Kuyper's view that "There is not one square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ…does not cry: Mine!" In fact one of the speakers used this quote.

At the beginning of the conference, one of the native Kenyan speakers encouraged the 300 people in attendance to move from a shallow Christianity to a deeper view. He described Kenyan Christianity as a "mile wide and an inch deep," and encouraged the idea of biblical holism.

In one sense the African mind has traditionally been holistic. Africans who believe in animistic religions see the spiritual in everything. They do not have the sacred-secular dichotomy that grows out of a Greek way of looking at the world. Western Christians brought this dichotomy with them when their missionaries brought the Christian message to Africa. The resulting sacred and secular split became part of the Christian experience in Africa as it had in the Western world.

One of the results of that view has been that while new Christian churches abound, the land is being denuded. Forests are being stripped people who do not own them or care about them. The environmental effects make it harder and harder to grow what they need to feed themselves. African Christians are beginning to see that the concept of biblical holism offers a way to live out their Christianity by caring for the land they've been given. Throughout the conference there was a great deal of soul-searching, and at the end of the conference, there was a time of repentance and a commitment to action to implement the concept of biblical holism.

Based on the enthusiasm of the people attending the conference, I expect concrete change to follow. One can only imagine how different the current situation might be in Haiti if a holistic understanding of the gospel had been embraced by that country in the past.

Many evangelical NGOs such as World Vision have already publicly committed themselves to holistic ministry in their mission projects, focusing on justice and social issues as they bring the gospel. While in Kenya, I had the opportunity to meet with people from several NGOs including Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Food for the Hungry International, and World Relief. It was encouraging to learn that many of these evangelical organizations have banded together to work on problems such as the HIV-AIDS epidemic in Africa with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

My trip to Kenya also has led me to think about biblical holism in our lives as North Americans. Many of us have been raised on the Kuyperian view of Christianity. We have heard the phrases and are familiar with the vocabulary. But what difference has it made in the places where God has called us to work? While verbally and intellectually acknowledging that God's revelation in Scripture and Creation has relevance for all of life, how has that affected things at the practical level? Do our farms, businesses, and other institutions follow the prevailing models of the world with a good dose of personal piety thrown in or do they start with different presuppositions and foundations? In other words are we using the "correct" vocabulary while following a dualistic model? My prayer is that God will guide us as we seek to do his will and bring glory to his name.

In the fall of 2004, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization will be holding a Forum for World Evangelism in Thailand (www.lausanne.org). For the first time one of the issue groups will be addressing the topic of holistic mission. I have been asked to serve as a writer and specialist on topics related to hunger, agriculture, and water. Such opportunities allow Dordt College to provide leadership in the area of biblical holism to the broader evangelical community. We can be thankful to God that he has placed us in his kingdom for this type of service at this time.