It is an inestimable privilege for me to “do God’s work” and to be a “fellow worker” with God (1 Cor 3:9).1 This high calling makes me very nervous, however, because I take doing God’s work very seriously, and I have always carried within me a deep fear of being counterproductive. Over the years, I have come to see that this fear has been beneficial, because it has motivated me to seek God more and has allowed me to become involved in very fruitful, multiply productive ministry.
One way of being hugely counterproductive is to do ministry in a programmatic manner. I am very convinced that ministry must not be carried out programmatically but rather through genuine relationships. The process of the gospel is not a program but a relational tool for doing God’s work. It creates a relational foundation for very effective ministry that will be multiply productive rather than counterproductive.
Earlier this summer, we took students from our Doctor of Ministry class on a tour of ministries in Greater Boston.2 We picked ministries that we felt demonstrated integrity, long-term practice, fruitfulness, and cooperative participation across the body of Christ. On our visits, I heard each ministry leader cite relationships as the most critical factor in their overall success.
Indeed, working through relationships is one of the primary ways God goes about his work. The Bible tells about one relationship after another that God established with individuals, families, cities, and nations.
God’s work of redemption requires that his message be planted among us, understood by us, and that it grow and bear fruit. This all comes through relationship. We know this is true, but I want to understand how God does it. What actions does he use to create relationships with his fallen children? How does he introduce, communicate, and affirm his message? And then, how does he go about planting his message in our hearts and nurturing that message to maturity? I believe that if we can get a handle on how God does his work, maybe we can learn to do our work in the same way. And if we learn to do things the way he does, I believe there is a stronger likelihood that our work as ministers of the gospel will bear the fruit God desires to see.
Consider what Jesus did during his ministry on earth and how he communicated the Father’s message to us. In other words, what is the process he used to bring us the gospel?
I identify six stages of the process of the gospel:
- Positive Appreciation
- Relevant Communication
- Meeting Perceived Needs
- Meeting Basic Needs
Here is what God did: God observed his fallen creation. Our sin condemned us to death. We were eternally lost without him. Because he knows us and loves us (positive appreciation), he sent his Son who communicated relevantly through his life, his parables, and his teaching. When Jesus walked among us, he identified and met our perceived needs with miracles, as he meets our needs today, and then he met our basic, core need through the atoning work of his death and resurrection. Finally, he prepared his disciples for his leaving, laying the groundwork for the multiplication of his kingdom through his church, made possible through the coming of the Holy Spirit.
These stages describe a pattern that God has designed to allow the power of redemption, working in and through living systems, to grow his kingdom. By definition, a living system is an orderly, highly complex, and highly interrelated arrangement of living components that work together to accomplish a high-level goal when in proper relationship to each other.3 When people come together, living systems like families, churches, cities, and nations are formed.
Because the process of the gospel helps us to align with and engage God’s living systems, it can be used not only for ministry with individuals, but with larger social systems, such as a local church or an entire city. This cycle can be repeated many times in ever-widening realms of influence, from an individual person to a neighborhood or a local community of faithful people, to the community of faith in an entire city, to many cities working together. It works in one-on-one relationships, in ministry development, in cross-cultural missions, in church planting, and in community organizing. With it, one can reach the poor and the rich. It can work in both sacred and secular settings. It can and has transformed entire cities and has allowed Christianity to grow throughout the world.
I call this six-stage pattern an archetype because these elements work together as a unit, an entire process that follows an enduring, stable pattern or model that transcends time and space across all human history.
For almost five decades through our work in Boston with the Emmanuel Gospel Center,4 we have found countless opportunities to use this approach, and it has helped us to avoid counterproductivity while consistently producing long-lasting fruit for the kingdom of God. The fruit we have seen God bring during this time is not insignificant. We have been privileged to experience an incredible revival in Boston that we call the Quiet Revival. In four decades, the number of churches in Boston has nearly doubled, from approximately 300 in 1970 to 575 in 2010. Also, the estimated percentage of the city’s population in churches has increased from about 3% to about 14% and has demonstrated many of the characteristics of healthy growth, including increased unity and prayer, trained leadership, and effective ministry that produces significant social change.5
It is an exciting place to be at work in God’s kingdom, and it is from this context of vibrant and sustained growth of Christianity that I write today. Let me first share with you how I stumbled across this pattern.
The process of the gospel evolved out of suggestions originally intended for short-term student participants in urban ministry. To guide the students in properly relating to people in the community, I reflected on what had worked well for Judy and me in the past. Several basic characteristics of our relationships with our neighbors surfaced over and over again and I wrote a short teaching paper to help my students navigate relationships with our urban neighbors. It eventually became evident that the relational approach we suggested to these students was the pattern Jesus had followed in his ministry. Therefore, in using it, we would be doing what Jesus did. The “process of the gospel” was born as I realized that what I had originally penned as “steps to short-term involvement” was really something deeper.
Definitions and Warnings
Because living systems are at issue, readers must resist the temptation to take the easy way out, to try to make the process of the gospel into a program, rather than allow it to become an integral part of who they are. Those who make it into a program will be missing the point entirely, and missing the opportunity for fruitfulness, which is the goal.
A simple definition of process would be “a series of actions directed to some end.” Although that captures the heart of it, I see it as so much more. It is important to make the distinction between process and procedure as we are not talking about a new procedure for ministry, but an age-old process.
I view procedures as isolated steps we need to do in order to complete a task in a systematic, orderly way. Process is different. The goal of process is not merely to complete some isolated task but to see transformation or change in something, to move toward a desired outcome that is much bigger than ourselves and is beyond our control. While procedures are people-driven, processes are driven by the larger living systems we engage. For example, to grow tomatoes, we work within the rules and powerful forces that already exist in the environment, including the weather, the presence or absence of pests or diseases, the need for nutrients in the soil, and so on. We might follow certain procedures for growing tomatoes, but the actual process is very complex, and the result of all we do is really up to God.6
The same holds true for the process of the gospel. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Cor 3:6). So it is never about how well we follow the steps and do the task. Rather, it is about how well we work with the complex and interrelated processes God has already put in place. He is the Author of all life and the Lord of all living systems. In the end, he will get all the glory for all he has done.
Stage One: OBSERVATION
I love the city. I love to be in an inner-city neighborhood with all the people sitting on their stoops, the children in the playground, the youth playing baseball, the neighborhoods that seem filled with baby carriages, poor people, or elderly folk. My city has a pulse, and I feel it beating.
The highest levels of observation are required to perceive social systems, large or small, as living realities. When we are able to do this, we do not simply see streets and buildings, but a complex social organism called Boston, Philadelphia, or New York, for example.
The Old Testament prophets addressed entire cities and countries as though they had the characteristics of a living person. New Testament writers wrote to cities as though each city, represented by its one church, were persons who could receive a letter.7 They understood the “body of Christ” and the “kingdom of God” as living systems.
God himself models this skill of observation for us. Moses wrote, “God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them” (Exod 2:25). God’s compassionate observation of the children of Israel in slavery under Pharaoh moved him to action. His observation is very thorough. Is there anything about us he does not see? The writer of Hebrews says no. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4:13). He knows every intimate detail about us. “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matt 10:30). He knows what we are thinking now and what we are going to think later. “Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely” (Ps 139:4).
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a full thirty years went by before he began his ministry. What was he doing for thirty years? We know little about those days, but we can be sure he was observing and learning about the people who lived in Nazareth and the surrounding region. Most of Jesus’ earthly life was lived in the critical observation stage, through which his Father was preparing him for the day when he would begin to proclaim the kingdom of God.
Observation is a humble skill. Anyone can do it. No college degrees are needed. But it challenges the greatest intellect to assimilate and make sense of what one sees. We study the situation. We try to see real people in the way they really operate. We pray, “Lord, give us eyes to see!” And here, of course, we are not merely asking for physical eyes but for deep insights, revelations, intuitive understanding, and subconscious vision.
Since the mid-1970s, the Emmanuel Gospel Center has had a full-time researcher on staff. Over these many years, Rudy Mitchell has gathered information on Boston’s neighborhoods and churches to help us see and understand what God is doing in our city. Not only has our research informed our own ministry decisions, but we share what we learn with others to help them make wise decisions about their ministry objectives. Today, a lot of our research incorporates team learning. By engaging others in the learning process, we work with the community to deepen everyone’s understanding of the issues, obtain new information, clearly articulate the issues, and assist those affected to develop and implement an appropriate response.8 The conversations that emerge from this observation and research process lead everyone involved to deeper understandings and positive appreciation of the people and issues involved. This paves the way for practical responses that make sense both to those seeking to serve and those being served.
No matter where you find yourself in ministry, become a learner. Humble yourself to be open to what God will teach you as you look around. We do not start by doing. We start by observing. Take the time to do the research. The deep understanding we gain from keen observation will naturally flow into the next stage of the process of the gospel, a positive appreciation of the people around us and their unique environment.
Stage Two: POSITIVE APPRECIATION
The second stage, positive appreciation, means making room in our hearts to respect honestly and actively and care about people and their potentially foreign cultural context. There is a marked difference between respecting people for who they are and helping people merely because they have needs. In fact, if you jump in to help people because they have needs, without respecting and loving them first, you may be accomplishing nothing at all. Is that not what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3)?
If our relationship with someone is not based on affection that emerges from esteem, but is only built on our ability to give some service or thing to the receiver, there is danger that the relationship is paternalistic and dehumanizing. That kind of relationship produces short-term results or dependency or both, but not spiritual fruit. So, the rule of thumb is this: until you can first honestly appreciate people, do not try to reach them with your message or your acts of service.
Our model for positive appreciation is God himself. God’s unthinkably huge sacrifice, the selfless death of Jesus on our behalf, flows from his perfect love for us. Jesus expressed immense positive appreciation of people. He wept over them as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). John said of the cross, “Having loved his own, he showed them the full extent of his love” (John 13:1).
The person or group we want to engage may not be willing to engage, either because of fear, hostility, ignorance, brokenness, lack of self-esteem, or some other obstacle. Positive appreciation is not necessarily reciprocal at this point, nor does it need to be. Jesus loved us and died for us while we were yet sinners (1 John 4:19). His giving did not depend on our positive response to him.
If we really care about people, they will sense that, and even when we make mistakes—for we will make them—they will forgive us because they know we care about them. We will offend and be offended; we will misunderstand; we will act defensively, prejudicially, or chauvinistically. But most people will eventually forgive us if they know we have a genuine love for them. As the Apostle Peter says, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).
Positive appreciation may not come easily. But the more we practice it, the more it is going to be perfected in us, though there will always be a huge gap between the way God loves and the way we love. This gap is a reality, not a problem. This is what the fallen world is about. As we walk through the stages of the process of the gospel, we must always keep in mind that we are in a redemptive process, we are always confessing sin and always submitting to God, who will show us what to do.
Stage Three: RELEVANT COMMUNICATION
I think the real goal of relevant communication is congruency—that what you think you are saying is what the other person is actually understanding you to be saying; and that what you are hearing is what the other person is really intending for you to hear.
Relevant communication creates a deep connection between people. Your words will connect, first to the matter at hand, but also to the heart of the listener. What you say will be practical and applicable. Your listener will have a sense of inner satisfaction that he or she is being heard, because what you say is congruent with their needs, their interests, their requests, and their worldview. At the same time, we carefully listen, hear, and receive from them.
God communicates through his “Word,” Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews makes this point clearly: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1–2). God spoke all of creation into being, and Job says, “God’s voice thunders” (Job 37:5a). When God spoke to Elijah, however, he spoke in a “still small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12). Our God is a God who speaks! And he is also a God who hears our cry, who is closer than a brother, whose Spirit intercedes and groans inexpressible words within us (Rom 8:26, 27).
From the beginning of our time in Boston, we would often have people living with us, whether they were people from the streets, ministry students, or fellow workers. The street people who lived with us taught us to be clear in what we said, because they were looking for honest love, and if we said something we did not mean from our hearts, they would pick it up immediately. They were our textbooks on developing integrity and transparency. If we said we would do something we really did not plan to do, we would see their hopes crushed, and distrust would creep back into their eyes. Many of the people we met had been injured in multiple ways, and trust was not easy for them.
Relevant communication goes beyond words. It goes into the depths of who we really are and how we are communicating who we are. Communication also involves nonverbal cues such as hand gestures and a listening posture. Relevant communication means knowing what people are saying and, to a degree, what they are thinking, and then carefully using stories and other ways to communicate clearly.
Are we listening well enough so that what we hear is really what people are intending to say? Are we speaking carefully, so that what we are saying is really what we intend to say, and our listeners are hearing what we intend them to hear?
Stage Four: MEETING PERCEIVED NEEDS
The Gospels are full of stories about Jesus meeting the perceived needs of the people around him. You know the story of blind Bartimaeus. When at last he stood before Jesus, the Lord did something very unexpected. He looked at him and asked what seemed to be an odd question: “What do you want me to do for you?” The man was obviously blind! But it was important for Bartimaeus to verbalize his own perceived need. Jesus waited for relevant communication that revealed the man’s own perceived need before he took action.
Bartimaeus was very clear about what he wanted. “Rabbi, I want to see,” he said.
“ ‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road” (Mark 10:46-52).
Jesus came to provide the answer for our most basic need, that we would be redeemed from sin and death, but on his three-year journey to the cross he responded to many, many perceived needs that people were concerned about. The gospel is not only what Jesus said, it is what he did.
God has created us to help others. Paul says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10). Why does Paul say we are created to do good works? Surely it is not to earn our place in heaven. That work has been accomplished on the cross. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16; emphasis added). In a very real way, our good deeds, prompted by love, are the gospel message, without words. We do the gospel. At the same time, of course, we preach the gospel using words. God has given us his special revelation, and he wants everyone to hear and know what he has to say to us. The point is, we want the way we live to speak as loudly as our words.
Meeting felt needs is an important step, because it is incarnational ministry. For the recipient, it is spiritual reality experienced through practicality. “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (Jam 2:15). James makes it clear that our words are not enough, and actions, including helping to meet perceived needs, spring from faith.
Those of us in ministry are always faced with the immensity of human need all around us. There is no escape from the press of need, and knowing that Jesus is the answer to all our problems, we want to help in his name.
When Judy and I first came to Boston, we felt our lives were coming apart because of the craziness of trying to respond to the needs around us. Judy clearly remembers how busy we would be meeting the needs of just one person: taking her to the outpatient clinic, to the grocery store, to the social security office, to apply for food stamps and fuel assistance, to the welfare office, typing up forms and applications for her, and helping her deal with her addiction and relational problems. And that was just one of scores of people at our door every day of the week.
Here are a few things we learned along the way: after carefully listening to what the person or group say they need, it is best to choose a need that can actually be met. For especially those people who have lost hope many times, we cannot afford to make promises we cannot keep. Choose something you have every reason to believe you may be able to accomplish with and through their participation, and then pull out all the stops to make sure it happens. Make room for the person or group to fully participate in meeting the need. This should not be a give-away program. Their participation in the process will build their confidence and ownership of the solution.
Change must come from within, not from without. It is through helping to address a felt need that hope is built in people, and that hope will help them begin to surface their more basic, core needs.
Stage Five: MEETING BASIC NEEDS
When we move from meeting perceived needs to meeting basic needs, you may think that this is no big deal—that we just go from a focus on surface needs to deeper needs. But in reality, a seismic shift takes place as we move between these two. If you miss the importance of this transition, you will miss the power that comes from the process of the gospel. Your ministry may very well stay on the surface, and you may not see the abundant life you want to see take root and grow in the life of your friend.
Here is the best way to tell the difference. Perceived needs are identified by tangible solutions where the meeting of the need is finite. The solution does not internally transform the person, though it certainly brings a measure of hope and relief. The change is additive. But on the other hand, you know basic needs are met when the solution brings an ever-widening range of other needs also being met simultaneously and spontaneously. There is an explosion of life as one door after another opens in the person’s life. The change is multiplicative. When, for example, a long-term alcoholic becomes sober, a whole series of needs begins to be met at the same time. These may be physical needs, employment, family issues, a sense of self-worth and value, and gaining a purposeful life.
In meeting basic needs, the transaction is between God and the individual, and unless the individual participates with God in his or her restoration through willingness, obedience, and dependence on God, nothing of any lasting significance happens. We cannot force this. We cannot make it happen. God must do the heavy lifting. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain,” Solomon wrote (Ps 127:1). My role is to support and nurture the individual and make sure he or she is connecting to the broader body of Christ as God is at work doing things I cannot do and as he brings redemption and restoration. The basic need is only fully met when my new believer friend is nurtured within a new family of supportive believers that is part of the larger extended family of the body of Christ. Nurturing these family relationships is a good way to “engage God’s living systems” and is the heart of Living System Ministry.9
There are some basic needs common to all humankind that have arisen because of the fall, such as sinfulness, our fallen human nature, separation from God, and rebellion against him. Paul puts this matter very strongly. “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior” (Col 1:21). Our most universal, core spiritual need, then, is for reconciliation with our Creator and the subsequent transformation of our sin nature.
We might think that the end goal of the process of the gospel is to see someone come to faith in Christ. But there is one more step beyond that. The sixth stage of the process of the gospel is multiplication.
Stage Six: MULTIPLICATION
Living systems thrive on their own as they receive the sustenance they need. Judy remembers that when our baby daughter was just two months old, a friend said to her, “Rebecca seems to be thriving!” Judy was beaming, very proud to be a new, successfully nursing mother. “And you probably did not have a thing to do with it!” he concluded, with a laugh. This took the wind out of her sails, until she realized our friend was really saying that our daughter was experiencing the natural tendency of living things to thrive when they receive normal care and sustenance. Naturally, there came a time when Rebecca moved out to be on her own and a time when our son, Ken, left home to start a family of his own. This is a normal part of nurturing a living system. We expect to release maturing systems to grow apart from us.
Multiplication in an organic system requires that we let go. Must I empty myself of short-term goals and focus on long-term goals? Must I release the future into the hands of other people when it is easier to organize and do it myself with my group in my way? These things are hard to do but they are necessary. We must empty ourselves of the short-term goals and individualism, both of which will hinder multiplication.
In multiplication, we want to envision those we have walked beside to do the “greater things” that Jesus talks about in John 14. “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). A goal in this is leaving in such a way that life flows from the people that we are working with, so they start reaching people we could never reach. Then we have been a part of a birthing process. We want to make disciples who will make disciples. As we follow the process of the gospel, we will, indeed, participate with God in the way he builds his kingdom. We experience what it means to be a co-laborer with God!
Completing the Circle
We started out wondering how God goes about creating relationships with us, planting the message of the gospel in our hearts and nurturing it to fruitfulness. Now, as we have come full circle, the effective engagement we sought for is complete. “The fruit that remains” is the goal, and multiplication is the fruit. The recipient now becomes the giver. The point of Jesus’ death and resurrection was to redeem a lost people who will then actually and zealously join him in his work. This is the gospel: “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:14). Yet, even now, multiplication points us back to where we started. Because the gospel is alive, this living cycle of redemption starts up again in ever-widening circles.
From multiplication to system-wide balance
The process of the gospel restores relational balance to society. Rather than drawing from flawed or self-serving institutions which rely on technological, financial, intellectual, or organizational capital, the process of the gospel both draws from and builds up what I call “relational capital.”10 While the process of the gospel effectively meets real human needs on every level, this process is not needs based, but asset driven,11 because it works out from a positive appreciation of everyone involved, liberally uses the assets that flow from healthy living systems, and, throughout the process, develops reservoirs of internal relational capital that nurture the growth and development of living systems.
Dr. Douglas Hall is the President of Emmanuel Gospel Center in Boston, where he has served with his wife, Judy, since 1964, and an adjunct professor with Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. Hall holds a diploma from Moody Bible Institute (1960), a BA Degree in Sociology and Anthropology (1962) and Master of Arts Degree in Counseling and Guidance from Michigan State University (1966). He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1968 with the equivalent of a Master of Divinity Degree, and was granted an honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree from that institution in 1981 for his pioneering work in urban ministry.
The Halls with Steve Daman published The Cat and the Toaster: Living System Ministry In A Technological Age in 2010 (Wipf and Stock). Since then, the three of them and Rema Cheng have been a four-person writing team dedicated to developing Living System Ministry as a school of thought. Steve has a BA Degree in Psychology from Gordon College (1973) and a Master of Arts in Communication (television and journalism) from Regent University (1986). He has served as a missionary with the Emmanuel Gospel Center for the past 25 years. Rema has a BA in Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley (2005) and is currently working on her Master of Social Work.
1 Scripture quotations in this paper, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New International Version.
2 This course is offered through Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary: .
3 We introduce the idea of living system ministry in our book: Douglas Hall, Judy Hall, and Steve Daman, The Cat and the Toaster: Living System Ministry in a Technological Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010).
4 For more on the Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC), visit . Judy and I have served at EGC since 1964.
5 See the research articles available at .
6 Isa 26:12 says, “Lord, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us” (emphasis added).
7 For example, see 1 Cor 1:2, “To the church of God in Corinth . . .”; Eph 1:1, “To the saints in
Ephesus . . .”; Gal 3:1, “You foolish Galatians!” (here referring to a group identified by a geographical region).
8 Learn more about EGC’s applied research at .
9 To learn more about Living System Ministry, visit .
10 We will soon be publishing more on this idea of “relational capital.”
11 For more on asset-based community development as compared to needs-based efforts, see, for example, the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, .