For a wider view of these issues from a prioritism point of view, see Christopher R. Little’s articles, “The Case for Prioritism: Part 1” and “The Case for Prioritism: Part 2,” from The Great Commission Research Journal 7:2 and 8:1.
Churches are missional organizations and communities. Church plants, at times, hold the missiological nature of the organization or community to be even more centric than established churches. Further, church plants, especially in their beginning phases, do not have clearly embedded missional organizational values because there is little-to-no shared history, organizational memory, or established missiological narratives. While there might be aspirational values that are captured on paper and even taught and reinforced, the church plant values are still being formed in the hearts and minds of its people. As a result, it is part of the church planter’s role to be aware of their own personal missiological make up that will be imparted to the church plant and to help the church plant navigate her emerging missiological make up. Further, it is likely that people drawn to the missiological nature of church plants will be enthusiastic about mission, without being aware of their own missiological tradition or philosophy. Their passion may unnecessarily emphasize missiological differences and provide undo strain on the plant and its members. With this in mind, here are two main missiological approaches, presented in broad strokes. Having a working knowledge of these two broad categories can help church planters to become self-aware in their missiological identity, facilitate the missiological identity of the church plant, and ease undo stress in the church plant.
Prioritism affirms that the primary mission of the church is spiritual transformation. Alienation from God is the main problem that the church must address. To simplify, if the human person a make up of body and spirit, the primary work of the church is to the spirit. Prioritism does not deny the importance of working for social justice and alleviating poverty and other physical suffering, but that the prior problem and underlying cause of such challenges is spiritual brokenness. By focusing on announcing that a person can have a restored relationship God through Jesus Christ, the church will have ongoing impact on other sociological issues. People who hold to prioritist missiology, even unaware, might emphasize evangelistic preaching, outreach events that draw people to the church building or special services, and evangelism through tracts and personal witness. Some representatives of prioritism would include Don McGavran, David Hesselgrave, Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and John Piper.
Holism, on the other hand, emphasizes that the church is meant to reflect the Kingdom not primarily in word, but in deed. Holism prioritizes feeding the hungry, housing the exposed, loving the broken, healing for the mentally and physically sick and wounded, and belonging for the outsider and alien. Mission is not specific about a certain kind of good works, but includes a vast array of good works, all of which may reflect the Kingdom of God. If the human person is understood as a complex being of body and spirit (or as an ensouled body), then one cannot minister to the body without ministering to the spirit—and vice versa. People holding to a holist missiology might emphasize compassion ministries to the poor, outreach events that symbolize the good news (such as giving away school backpacks at a local center rather than the church building), and evangelism through spontaneous conversation. Some representatives of holism would include C. Réne Padilla, Ron Sider, Gary Haugen, Richard Stearns, and Chris Wright.
Obviously these are two different approaches to mission. By emphasizing the differences, there might be strong tensions; by emphasizing the priority of Christ, there might be weak tensions. The differences between mission philosophy may be deep, including theological and anthropological disagreements. The differences may also be shallow, simply rooted in one’s prior experience or even personality. Undoubtedly, churches, church members, and their leaders (including church plants and planters) who are passionate about mission will skew in one direction or the other. Church planters must be aware of basic differences to discover their own missiological make up, to help their plants navigate tensions, and to ease unnecessary conflicts among the congregation or leadership.