The Kingdom Gospel in Latin America: Holistic Missions

by Bill Richardson

billrichardson[Dr. Bill Richardson has been an important part of the Christian Urban Development Association since its inception. CUDA was honored to have him speak at the benefit dinner hosted at the 2014 Global Missions Conference on October 17th. Dr. Richardson has been a vital part of my formation. He is a teacher, mentor, and friend whose faithfulness to Jesus and love for Latin America has been an inspiration. The following is the manuscript of his thoughtful and heartfelt lecture.]

I first traveled to Latin America in the summer of 1979, accompanying the Jerry Hill family overland to Guatemala following their one-year furlough in Abilene, Texas.  I was enthralled as we crossed the Mexican border, drove along the Gulf coast, traversed from Vera Cruz to Tapachula and entered Guatemala.  In that brief visit, I determined that I would be a missionary to Guatemala.  In February of 1981, my bride of nine months and I took up residence there.  It was a very troubled time and our stay was far too short.  But it was my first experience in Latin America—a land of abundant natural resources that have been mismanaged and misappropriated by corrupt governments so as to impoverish, disenfranchise, and marginalize those who would otherwise be the rightful heirs of these riches.

It was my first exposure to these warm, passionate, hospitable people we know as Latin Americans, who struggle with their own sense of identity and worth—descendants of both conquerors and the conquered—inheriting the values and world views of Maya, Aztec, and Inca as well as those of fifteenth-century Iberia.  These are resilient people who have survived the atrocities of the Conquest, European disease, miscegenation, the imposition of European laws, and subsequent wars, natural disasters, poverty, inequities, oppression, gangs, drugs, and heartache.  And, through it all, they have retained, for the most part, a belief in God and the spiritual realm.  This is our beloved Latin America, the context in which we labor, anticipating the day when the repercussions of the conquest of those Iberian kingdoms give way to the redemption, liberation, and wholeness that attend the kingdom of God.

The brief eleven months in Guatemala was also my introduction to the divide between evangelistic efforts and any attempt to improve the physical or social condition of the people.  As part of that generation baptized in McGavran’s church growth axioms, I learned to be concerned with too much lift following redemption,  the phenomena of “rice Christians,” and the paternalism and dependency issues that result from the unwise use of American dollars.  It is worthy of note that before Donald McGavran wrote The Bridges of God in 1955, many denominational mission agencies were content to maintain a mission station and, in many settings, missionaries served primarily in hospitals, schools, orphanages, and seminaries, pursuing a strategy of  “gradualism” that McGavran disdained.

I have now lived long enough, and was fortunate enough to sneak into the academy when hiring practices were extrememly lax, to be teaching missions to a new generation of would-be missionaries who have experienced their own baptism into relativism, political correctness, and all manner of movements vying for the rights of people to live life according to their own standards so as to make the notion of people actually being lost appear as unloving, intolerant, and contrary to the very heart of Jesus.  

In short, in my lifetime, I have only had a few true glimpses of holism and otherwise have experienced prime examples of halfism: In their extreme manifestations, on one end of the spectrum is found an urgent evangelism that cannot take time to serve people’s needs or to discover effective ways to equip and empower national Christians; and on the other end is a de facto universalism that is too often reduced to pre-1955 gradualistic do-goodism that never gets to the point of personal conviction so as not to offend.  These easy generalizations will probably raise the ire of brothers and sisters on both sides and are admittedly unfair and incomplete evaluations, but I risk being misunderstood on this point to make a more critical point:  We are easily swayed by the prevailing winds of our times.  We are adoptionists, missiological band-wagoners.  We have been indoctrinated by sociology and philosophy, persuaded by pragmatism, humanism, liberalism and other –isms and have been content to let others decide our approach to missions.

Which brings me to the operative term in my theme:  kingdom gospel.  By using this term, there is no intended inference that there are multiple gospels.  There is but one gospel.  This is the good news that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, lived as the true manifestation of the image of God in man, and surrendered his life on the cross in atonement of all those who will surrender in obedience to his lordship.  He has been raised and ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, reigning authoritatively until the last enemy is placed under his feet.  He has sent his spirit to convict, intercede, transform, and guide his people until he returns to take us to be with him where he is.  This is the gospel.  The kingdom gospel is all about the king!

But kingdom gospel allows us to see results and implications of the gospel that we perhaps do not normally conceptualize.  The gospel touches my life personally in making atonement for my sin and reconciling me with my God.  But God’s kingdom is bigger than my personal atonement.  In God’s kingdom, the Lord God reigns and we are his subjects.  God’s agenda dictates.  This is missio Deiand God, in his mercy, includes and entrusts us with the gospel.  My atonement allows me to be a participant in this kingdom that is so much greater than I.

The scope of God’s kingdom is greater.    

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18-23)

Everything that was touched by the fall is now affected by the cross.  It is an uninformed Christian who says, “I have been washed and forgiven and now am just waiting for the heavenly kingdom.”  This would be to overlook the immediate presence of God’s rule that evokes a lifetime of worship, service, devotion, and transformation.  It would be to overlook the purpose of this lifetime of blessed relationship and preparation.  That is to say that the Kingdom of God does not just commence in the hereafter but is a present reality in the here and now.   

Note the recorded words of Jesus:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mk 1.15)

“If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Mt 12.28)

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Lk 17.20-21)

In the same way that God’s Spirit is at work in me presently, God at the cross has begun his current work in all of the creation to reverse the fall, to restore the entire created order, to redeem all things from bondage and to fully restore its glory.  

The power of God’s kingdom is greater.  When we think of power we tend to quantify.  We think in terms of numbers.   As a recovering disciple of Church Growth principles, I can appreciate that God is interested in numbers.  Donald McGavran was a devoted and godly man but, based on reflections provided by Ebbie Smith and Peter Wagner, close colleagues of McGavran, we may note that he was a practitioner rather than a theologian.  As such, he was highly pragmatic.  He was not so interested in what should bring people to Jesus but very interested in what does, in fact, bring unbelievers to Christ.

We must take great care with the easy success of pragmatism.  Pragmatically I know how to attract enough Latin Americans to fill an enormous soccer stadium.  Before I tell you my secret method, I want to signal the importance of why they are there.  What has caused this multitude of people to assemble themselves together?  If they have gathered to form a community dedicated to the praise of God’s glory, to pursue the exercise of Spirit-bestowed gifts in ministries to the body and surrounding community,  to live exemplary lives of purity and sacrifical love, and to engage thoughtfully and devotedly in the mission of God, what will sustain them in these efforts?  Which is another way of asking, to whom or what have they been converted?  Now I can reveal my method for filling the stadium with people.  Host a soccer match.  Try it!  It works!!  Pragmatic genius!  Do we see the importance of asking why they are there?

A pragmatic approach can also build and fill church buildings.  But we need to ask the important questions.  For this reason the Apostle Paul writes “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.”  If we have attracted them by our own clever methods, what will sustain them?  It should concern us that far more books have been written about the pragmatics of missions than the theology of missions.

Kingdom economics is mysterious because too often it is qualitative rather than quantitative.  How else can we explain Jesus investing so much time and energy into twelve disciples when it was manifest that he possessed the ability to gather the masses?  The Gospels reveal that Jesus values germinal mustard seeds over sterile fig trees.  He invested in those who had no where else to turn but to Him who had the words of life and allowed the “loaf and fish” disciples to stumble upon his hard teachings. 

In the mysterious economy of God, the demands of the kingdom are greater than many calculate.  “If you wish to gain life, you must lose it.”  “If you wish to follow me, deny yourself, take up your cross daily.”  It is not that three times per week in a Christian assembly will punch your ticket to heaven; it is if the Lord Jesus Christ reigns in your heart and has transformed your deepest desires.  Kingdom citizens do not have a peculiar way of looking at certain things in life, they have a certain way of looking at everything in life.

And on and on and on we could go with our reflection on the greatness of God’s kingdom.  These illustrations are given to demonstrate that holism is inherent in God’s kingdom.   It is a manifestation of our misunderstanding of God’s kingdom that we would ever coin the phrase “holistic ministries.”  Service in God’s kingdom cannot be anything but holistic.  

I observe that when we speak of holism, we usually focus on human methods.  I believe this leads to a false dichotomy that pits evangelists against servants.  Instead we should focus on divine results.  The gospel is holisitc in the sense that it makes broken, bankrupt, alienated, hurting, dying men and women whole, integral, entire once more.  As God’s Spirit wields his sword and breathes new life into the penitent, obedient believer, he restores God’s very image in deformed and disfigured humanity.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Unless a man is born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  The kingdom gospel brings new life!  Its aim is to make people whole again!  

When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”

At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Luke 7:20-23)

The hallmark of the kingdom is wholeness.  The king’s rule is absolute even as his salvation is complete.  When God’s kingdom breaks into the human predicament, nothing remains outside the reach of his compassion and power.  Scripture teaches that salvation is not just forgiveness of past sins, but it is God’s Spirit empowering us to say no to temptation and sin.  It is the washing of present sins as we walk in the light and confess to our faithful and just Father.  It is complete salvation, complete renewal and it touches all facets of life.  In similar fashion, we are involved in a ministry to restore and renew men, women, boys, girls, families, communities, people groups, nations, and creation itself.

I mentioned earlier that I have been privileged to witness a few instances of holistic ministry.  The ministries that I have seen the Smiths and McKinzies pursue in Arequipa, Peru are among the finest attempts to display the kingdom of God drawn near to people in need.  They have worked to establish neighborhood libraries but have gone beyond to teach school teachers to help children with literacy.  They have worked to empower people living in new neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city to put in septic systems and have gone beyond to encourage neighborhood associations of cooperation and communication.  They have established a program of micro-loans and gone beyond to train each recipient of a loan in principles of business ethics.  These good works are commendable but there are three important postscripts.  PS #1.  They have prayerfully abandoned all projects that they have judged unsustainable; PS #2.  The sustainable works have been passed on to Peruvian Christians who have been empowered to continue the ministry; and PS #3, all of this has been accompanied by the proclamation of Jesus as Lord.  It is a tribute to their love for people and their obedience to Jesus that they would emulate his own ministry among the Arequipeños.  The fruit of their labors are a small but devoted band of disciples who are enjoying the refreshment of fellowship with the triune God.

May we all pray to possess such a vision and understanding of God’s kingdom.  May we seek to be such servants and then to join forces with such servants, so that we can also pray with clarity and confidence:  “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

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