Integral Mission Theology

Integral mission is the church speaking of and living out its faith in Jesus Christ in an undivided way in every aspect of life.

Below you will find our theological underpinning for this view. On the right you will find links to various resources – from an introduction to integral mission through to where to study integral mission at university.

A Theology of Integral Mission

by Dewi Hughes, Theological Advisor, Tearfund

Theologians and church leaders have torn apart elements of the Christian mission that should never have been separated. Liberals reduced the mission to social action and in response evangelicals reduced it to making individual converts by proclaiming the ‘gospel’.[1] This polarisation was hardly ever complete but enough heat and suspicion was generated for social action to be damned by many evangelicals for its association with liberalism and for proselytising evangelism to be damned by liberals for its association with obscurantist fundamentalism.  From the evangelical side theologians have been trying to exorcise the demon of associating social action with liberalism for over half a century and will probably have to continue doing so. Meanwhile where the evil spirit has been cast out we need to focus on how to live integrally. This will mean:

1. Having a robust biblical understanding of God’s plan for the earth and its people.

God created the earth and everything in it and declared that it was all good. He is intimately concerned with what happens to the creation that continues to depend upon him for its existence. God chose to focus the meaning and history of the earth in people, the dominant species that he created. Very early in human history people chose to reject God’s authority. Ever since our history has been dominated by violence and destructive exploitation of each other and the rest of creation. This is the root of poverty.

But running in parallel with this sad human story is the story of God’s plan to redeem human beings and restore the earth. Focused on Israel in the Old Testament, the story is eventually summed up in Jesus Christ who through his life, death and resurrection opened the way to a better life through restored relationship with God, between human beings and with the rest of creation. This restoration will reach its culmination when Jesus returns to fully establish his kingdom in a new heaven and earth from which all evil will be banished.

We live in the time between the arrival of the Holy Spirit’s new redemptive power on earth following Christ’s resurrection and the consummation of all things when Christ returns. The power of evil is still great. We see it in disasters, war and the way the rich protect their own interests at the expense of the poor. But as the Holy Spirit works in and through communities of disciples of Jesus Christ true peace, justice and prosperity – the qualities of Jesus Christ’s rule – can be experienced now as a foretaste of what is to come in the new heaven and earth.

2. Cultivating a deep experimental involvement in God’s story.

This will mean:

Deepening our experimental knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our evangelical tradition has rightly focused on Jesus as the one who forgives the sins of those who believe in him. In fact evangelicalism has historically been at its most vibrant when declaring this truth in the power of the Spirit in periods of deep spiritual and moral declension. But evangelicalism at its best has always seen this initial experience of Jesus as a door into a growing understanding of his lordship. Jesus is Lord is the foundational Christian confession. Growth in grace is growth in submission to the lordship of Jesus. Under the new covenant established by Jesus submission begins in individual hearts and from there is meant to permeate every aspect of any individual’s life. Every individual believer is an actor in a host of different relationships that impacts the lives of others – marriage, family, church, village, town, nation, organizations of many kinds, the economic and political community etc. The privilege and joy of Christians is to represent the Lordship of Jesus in all their relationships.[2]

Cultivating our dependence on Jesus. What is in view here is cultivating a conscious communion with the Lord Jesus Christ in our hearts – what Brother Lawrence called practising the presence of God. Our fundamental premise is that we can achieve nothing apart from Jesus[3] and the only way to make sure that we are ‘in him’ is to assiduously practice the fundamental spiritual disciplines of meditation on the truths of the Bible, prayer and fasting in the context of the church. This is the context where we realize that even our striving to overcome poverty is not ultimately a struggle against flesh and blood ‘but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’[4] The most significant victories against evil – including the evil of poverty – are won on this level.

Living in the power of the Holy Spirit. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is the greatest gift won for us through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. What happened at Pentecost was the general dissemination to every believer of everything that was glorious about the old covenant as represented in its prophecies, visions and dreams. Intimacy with God now became the norm and with it knowledge of God’s will and purpose for now and hereafter. We have God’s word in the Bible but through the Spirit we can now expect the sons and daughters of God to speak God’s word into their generation and together to be able to envision a better world and the path towards it.[5] Because of what the Son achieved on the cross the Spirit is now at work in God’s children moving the creation towards its final destiny of glorifying the Father. Those engaged in the integral mission of God expect to be led and empowered by the Spirit.[6]

3. Affirming the centrality of churches as the earth moves towards its final destiny under the direction of the Spirit.

It is through the church as a caring, inclusive and distinctive community of reconciliation reaching out in love to the world that the multifaceted wisdom of God is made known to the hostile ‘rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.’[7] The church is not the means by which we can deliver ‘development’ to the poor but the most convincing evidence that we now have of the outworking of God’s purpose to redeem his creation. United together by the indwelling Spirit Christians become communities in which the fruit of the Spirit is manifested – ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’[8] It is not surprising that from the very beginning of church history the communities infused with these Spirit-induced qualities could not abide poverty in their midst and that their love has always overflowed to the poor outside the churches as well.

However wonderful they can be we have to recognize that the churches on earth are never perfect. They are always made up of people that are at different stages of being made perfect and the fruit of the Spirit is not always in evidence. There is also a strong tendency for individuals and groups to usurp the authority of the Lord of the churches. But Jesus remains Lord of the churches and we know that in every age his churches have continued to manifest the fruit of the Spirit. It is our privilege to be continually looking for such churches within the worldwide evangelical community that we may encourage them in their integral mission.

The Holy Spirit also gives a whole range of gifts [charismata] to the churches so that they can fulfil their high calling. Interestingly in the context of the debate about evangelism and social action the gifts can be divided into two main categories – speaking gifts and practical service gifts. Peter makes it clear that both types of gifts are required to achieve the end of God’s purpose for his creation, which is his praise and glory through Jesus Christ.[9] We needs both types of gifts to fulfil our calling but we are particularly eager to stir up the gifts of service most of which are primarily focused on the poor.

4. Showing mercy to the poor and acting justly on their behalf.

Showing mercy and acting on behalf of the poor belongs to the essence of the church. By definition a church is a gathering of people that cares for its poor. A church that does not care for its poor is not a true church. There is probably some scope for thinking about the precise responsibility that rich Christians in the West bear for their poor brothers and sisters in the South but there are strong precedents in the New Testament for expressing practical care for poor Christians living at a distance.[10] The key principle seems to be knowledge. If a Christian knows that a fellow believer is in need and has the means to relieve that need a failure to do so is evidence of a lack of true knowledge of God.[11] Where the infinite compassion of Christ towards the poor is expressed within the fellowship of the church in the power of the Spirit it will inevitably overflow into society at large. The great challenge for us is to be true church at every level from the most local to the most international.

We accept as consistent with the Bible the development community’s analysis of poverty as a lack of empowerment, opportunity and security and emphasise that the poor are denied power, opportunity and security by the rich and powerful. Much of the pro-poor legislation in the Old Testament does not prescribe charity but empowerment and opportunity. Right through the Bible the widows, orphans and immigrants are the prime subjects of God’s special care and attention because they are most vulnerable to exploitation because most dependent on people that have power over them. God singles them out because they need protectors – in political terms they need good rulers.[12] Showing mercy to the poor, therefore, often requires a lot more than a handout although in an emergency a handout/alms may be required. To show mercy requires a whole range of different actions and gifts needed to reduce the vulnerability of the poor. These actions and gifts also cost money.

This focus on the responsibility of the rich and powerful is underlined by the large body of material on wealth in the teaching of Jesus. Jesus warns us about the grave dangers of wealth and possessions and makes it very clear that following him involves using what wealth and power we have on behalf of the poor. Integral mission also has a bottom line!


[1] This was a case of what is common in the history of theology of a bad argument being countered by an equally bad one. Even great theologians are not immune. The sixteenth century Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine argued that Protestantism could not be of God because Protestants did not engage in converting the heathen [foreign missions]; Calvin countered by arguing that the Great Commission [Mt 28:19-20] had been fulfilled in apostolic times and was no longer binding on Christians and thus stymied the development of a robust Calvinistic missionary theology for 200 years. Theologians bear a heavy responsibility!

[2] A lot could be said at this point about our calling to focus on those aspects of submitting to the Lordship of Jesus that have a bearing on poverty.

[3] John 15.

[4] Ephesians 6:12.

[5] Even old/er men will have dreams of a more glorious future under God in this world and beyond, which is a great comfort to me! Acts 2:17d.

[6] The doctrine of the Spirit is the least developed aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity. The tentative suggestions in this paragraph flow from a conviction that the Spirit must not be neglected in formulating a theology of integral mission.

[7] Ephesians 3:1.

[8] Gal 5:22-3.

[9] 1 Pet 4:10-11.

[10] Aid from Antioch to Jerusalem, Acts 11:27-30 and Paul’s major collection again for the poor believers in Jerusalem.

[11] 1 John 3:16ff. Where knowledge is expressed in terms of seeing – theōreō which means a prolonged look rather than just a quick glance. Cf. Luke 10:33 – it is seeing [horaō] the beaten victim of robbery that brings out the Samaritan’s compassion.

[12] Cf Mt 9:36: ‘When [Jesus] saw the crowds he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ This would be crowds of the poor of the land that Jesus saw with compassion as people who lacked good government because biblically the shepherd is a metaphor of the ruler.