The Mission Yearbook entry of Presbyterian World Mission, the global mission arm of the Presbyterian Church (USA), for Feb. 15 is remarkable in citing without apology or defensiveness what Presbyterians in Sudan are calling Community Health Evangelism.
In addressing communal conflict between the Murle and Nuer that is aggravated by abductions that are, in turn, prompted by low birth rates brought on by an epidemic of syphilis, Community Health Evangelism “equips communities to engage in a participatory process to assess their health and development needs and mobilize to address them using local resources.” This is fairly standard development-speak today.
What follows is far from standard in development circles:
There is a strong biblical/evangelistic component to this program, which will be introduced to the areas suffering with a syphilis epidemic. CHE seems a perfect fit for addressing one of the causes of the interethnic conflict in a way that ministers to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the community in order to grow Christ’s church deep and wide.
Obviously, this would be beyond the pale of secular development work. However, even many church advocates of health work in mission through the mainline churches would raise their eyebrows at this kind of public health initiative being undertaken with “a strong biblical/evangelistic component.”
The comments and questions that would typically be posed include the following: “Isn’t it inappropriate to mix public health work with evangelism?” “This sounds like the wolf of proselytization in the sheep’s clothing of health care.” “What’s the real motivation: helping people in a syphilis epidemic or ‘winning souls’ and filling the churches with them?” “Why not just help people with their health, and then share the gospel if they ask why you’re doing what you’re doing?” “Isn’t there a danger of making health care conditional on accepting Christianity?”
My response is to lift up this initiative as an excellent example of wholistic mission. Christians in mission are motivated by the love of Christ. They have been moved and transformed by the story – the evangel, the good news – of God’s initiative with the human family through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. To ask them to keep quiet about what prompts them to reach out beyond themselves – whether from Murle to Nuer or vice versa, or from Missouri to Sudan – is to ask them to be less than whole, less than the full people they are.
More important, they are reaching the wholeness, and reaching for the wholeness, of the persons with whom they are working. The patterns of sexual behavior that result in a syphilis epidemic are not patterns that are going to be resolved by simply distributing condoms and talking about safe sex – an important lesson of the AIDS epidemic in Africa and elsewhere. The whole person needs to be addressed – physical, emotional and spiritual in community.
The Sudanese women addressing these issues, and their international Presbyterian mission co-workers, are seeking to heal communities, and they know that cannot be done piecemeal and certainly not by deleting a dimension they know is crucial. They are motivated by compassion and vision amid the anguish and discord between their ethnic communities, between men and women, between husbands and wives. They know that spiritual centeredness will affect relational commitments, and that will affect sexual behavior. They would not dream of making health care conditional on accepting Christianity. They are simply offering a whole gospel to the whole person.
This is wholistic ministry – whole persons ministering from their whole being to the whole being of others.
[I address the issue of wholistic mission including evangelism as well as “development work” more fully in Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference.]