Prominent Christians, like Rick Warren, have recently taken up humanitarian work — to the delight of some Christians and to the chagrin of others. When it comes to the Church’s role in humanitarian efforts, Christians often seem to divide into two camps — spiritual and physical ministries.

One camp believes they shouldn’t get involved in humanitarian issues, but, instead, should focus on sharing the gospel with people. Their motto is, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?” The other camp believes their main role is to help the poor and sick. Their reply to the first group is, “But an empty stomach has no ears.”

I pitch my tent where the two camps meet. I grew up observing that the most loving and strategically effective ministry is not either-or. It’s both-and.

My parents were missionaries in Ivory Coast, West Africa. Often I tagged along with Dad when he traveled to remote villages to share the gospel. When I was eight, we discovered a village in mourning. Children were dying, and no one knew why. 

My father met with the village chief, who held a very sick young boy in his arms. His mother wept in despair that she had already lost her two younger children to this mysterious illness. My father’s tears fell with hers. He knew that the message we came to deliver would fall on deaf ears.

He asked the chief, “Where do you get your water?” The chief led us to the village water hole. Animals roamed around the mouth of the well, and signs of their waste were everywhere. The ground around the well sloped so that spilled water ran back into the well. It was a health hazard of gigantic proportions.

“I think I can help you with the problem of your sick children,” my father told the chief. Along with some of the village men, we got to work cleaning out the well. A thorn bush barricade was raised to keep the animals from roaming nearby. The mouth of the well was raised so that spilled water ran away from it. Meanwhile, a mission hospital provided medicine for the sick children.

As the children’s health improved, my father’s credibility grew. Now when he spoke at the village meetings, people leaned forward to hear his words. At one of the gatherings, the chief asked my father, “What was it about us, sir, that so pleased you that you did for us this great kindness?”

Even as a young boy, I sensed this was a divine moment, a breakthrough. Here was the opportunity to reach the village for Christ. Physical needs had opened the door to spiritual ones. My father’s demonstrated love for these suffering people had illustrated his God’s love for them. Dad shared the gospel that night. It wasn’t long before many of the villagers became Christians.

But when Dad told the story in our family newsletter to financial supporters, he left out the part about the well. When I challenged him on it, with downcast eyes he explained, “Wess, the people who sent us to Africa expect us to do spiritual things, like preach the gospel and translate Scripture. I don’t think they would understand my spending three weeks deep in the mud digging a well.” That was my earliest realization that a false dichotomy existed between spiritual and physical ministries.

Certainly, headway has been made since then. Formal declarations were drafted by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and others emphasizing the value of holistic ministry. But sadly, the ministries of relief, development and social justice are still viewed by a number of churches and mission organizations as a lesser priority.

Meanwhile, other groups are quite willing to feed the hungry and bind up the wounded, but they get skittish about using the “J word”: Jesus. They are afraid to clarify their motive for humanitarian assistance. In contrast, our official tag line at Compassion International is: “Releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name.” Children need not be Christians to receive Compassion’s assistance. It is our privilege to serve everyone, with dignity and respect, through indigenous churches that are challenged and equipped to live out the whole gospel. And last year alone, 102,159 people who were helped by these churches gave their lives to Christ.

To present a gospel that does not integrate the whole of our beings as God created us — spiritual and physical — is shortsighted and often unproductive. The most compelling reason why we should minister to the whole person is because that’s what our Lord taught us to do, by modeling this in His own earthly ministry.