In yesterday’s post, I tried to give you a little overview of the triperspectival paradigm and in particular how it draws from the incarnation of Christ (John 1:14) and the outworking of His mission. In this post, I want to dig a little deeper into the relationship of the physical, relational, and spiritual in regards to how Christians on missionaries penetrate the culture. But first, the illustration . . . (click to enlarge)
Summary of the Three Tiers
I argue that the most effective starting/entry point for engaging the culture is the physical tier where practical needs of the community are met by an enduring presence and endearing passion to love your neighbors well. We know that God loves us because He gave Himself to us by sending His Son in the flesh to die in our place. Likewise, the culture around us will know that we love them by giving ourselves as a sent people who serve with an undying compassion put in them through the sacrificial death of their Savior. In many ways, the deeds of mercy and justice performed by Jesus opened the door for the word of salvation, and this pattern is also demonstrated in the early church.
My argument is that if you do not know how to love your neighbors and serve them well, you will likely not have much of a platform to advance the gospel in your culture. The physical tier in many ways creates the relational tier which become the gateway to the spiritual tier. The old saying is true: people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. They know that you care when you show up and discover meaningful, tangible ways to minister to those in your community without strings attached or some other form of hoops to jump through. They discover that you don’t view them as a “project” or “statistic” to add to your resume, but people to love, serve, and give yourself away. When that happens, physical needs are met, plausibility structures are confirmed, and the community around you considers you a legitimate stakeholder in the welfare of the people.
As you minister to the physical needs of people, relationships are formed as the attention is turned away from the deed being done to the person receiving the blessing. You begin to learn people’s stories and how they have come to that particular place in their life. They give you permission to go beyond simply meeting a superficial need to inviting you into their life. This includes sharing meals together, increasing levels of disclosure and transparency as people come to love and trust you, and a shift of focus from the external, superficial needs to the internal, profound needs of a person. Through the growing network of relationships forged by investing your life in the community, you find yourself become more and more woven into the fabric of the culture that is broken and needing healing, despairing and needing hope, dying and needing life.
A great example how meeting the physical needs of people fosters relational community can be found in times of crisis. As I write this, hundreds of tornadoes are hitting the Southeast US, destroying thousands of homes and wiping out in some places entire communities. The enormity of the physical needs are overwhelming, and what invariably happens is the community unites in ways they never would have otherwise. People would be opening up their homes, giving blood at the hospital, buying food for the shelters, and spending their day volunteering in relief and recovery efforts. Relationships are created because the physical needs are being addressed. My point is that those on mission should not only be applying this reality when a natural disaster strikes, but rather as a way of life. They physical needs are always there; we just tend to realize them and address them when a great crisis hits home.
The benefit of learning the baseline cultural narrative is that you learn how the gospel story breaks into the story of their lives in contextual and powerful ways to expose heart idols, functional saviors, and direct them away from all forms of self-salvation projects they have built for themselves. The most basic need for all human beings is not physical, nor is it relational. It is spiritual. The most basic need for all human beings is forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with a holy God whom they have rebelled against. Without the sowing of the good seed of the gospel, there will be no change, no transformation, no lasting fruit–no matter how many good deeds done or how many relationships you have built. Not to diminish the importance of meeting physical needs, but it is, in the parable of the soils, like removing the rocks. Building meaningful relationships is like cultivating the soil. But no one removes rocks and cultivates soil if they don’t sow the seed and anticipate a harvest!
I contend that all three tiers are necessary if you are hoping to experience long-term impact in a community. The physical dimension is the entry point. The relational dimension is the connecting point. The spiritual dimension is the transformative point. When all points are connected, there will be a healthy blend of word and deed praxis that both proclaim and display the power of the gospel to transform lives.
Those who focus only on the physical tier tend to emphasize social justice, ministries of mercy and benevolence, and felt needs. Those who focus only on the relational tier emphasize on community groups, crisis counseling, and therapy/recovery. Those who focus only on the spiritual tier tend to emphasize open proclamation of the gospel, personal soulwinning, and other forms of evangelism. In evangelicalism, it is instructive to see how these emphases set apart the approach of various camps in engaging the culture. What we need is an integrative approach that emulates the example of Jesus and commends the gospel with integrity.