Let me tell you the story of two churches’ approach to mercy ministry (ministry to the physical needs of local non-Christians).
Mercy-for-the-City Bible Fellowship talks a lot about mercy ministry. Their staff is tireless in caring for the poor, though the church is clear that the ministry of the Word is primary. They advertize dozens of mercy-focused ministries on their website and in “infomercials” during the service. Their members love being part of a church that takes social justice seriously.
But as you dissect members’ lives, you realize that their concern for the poor largely starts and stops with church activities. They gladly sign up once each month to deliver food and gospel tracts to low-income housing units, but they don’t really know their own neighbors. Strangely, the church’s very public commitment to mercy ministries has dampened the responsibility that individual members feel to care for the poor in their own circles. And it’s more than a little awkward when “the poor” show up to be part of the church: Mercy-for-the-City seems to think of “the poor” as “them” and not “us.”
Then there is We-Are-the-Elect Reformed Bible Church. Their pastoral staff has been very careful to keep the mission of the local church simple, as Jesus intended it. Their job is to make disciples of all nations, and so the church as an institution limits itself to proclaiming the gospel and discipling believers. “Love your neighbor” is preached from the pulpit as the pastor faithfully preaches through the Gospels. But the effect isn’t quite what the pastor would like.
The church’s neighborhood includes a large refugee population from East Africa with significant physical needs. The pastor cannot point to any one member and say that he or she is “in sin” for ignoring these needs. After all, his members are quite busy doing good things with their lives. But the fact that nobody sees these refugees as a priority just doesn’t seem to square with what he sees in the New Testament.
PROGRAMMED MINISTRY AND ORGANIC MINISTRY
How should your local church support mercy ministries?
Sometimes we think that the answer falls into only one of two categories—the options in the story above. In the first category, which I’ll call “programmed ministry,” churches build a mercy ministry into their institutional life. They will fine-tune their budgets, staff, and vision statements to make sure that the ministry is integral to who they are as a church.
In the second category, which I’ll call “organic ministry,” the church simply leaves responsibility for mercy ministry in the members’ hands.
BOTH APPROACHES CAN FALL SHORT
The first category wires mercy ministry into the institutional church; the second leaves it to individual Christians. While both of these approaches may be appropriate in different situations, both can at times fall short.
Take a job training ministry, for example. On the one hand, should we integrate job training into the structure of our church as a programmed ministry? Probably not. While important, providing job training for needy non-Christians is not integral to the mission that Jesus gave us as a church, whereas Word ministry is. And I want my congregation to understand that Word ministry is something that we must do as a local church. Job training is something that individual Christians may find useful in what they must do: obey Jesus’ command to love their neighbor.
On the other hand, given the specifics of this job training ministry, I may not want to leave it to the members as organic ministry either. Perhaps the members of my congregation, left to themselves, will not take as much initiative as they should in caring for their neighbors in our community. Perhaps if we don’t highlight at least some ministries like this as important, they will think that areas of service like this are unimportant to the Christian life.
The programmed approach does a good job of helping Christians to love their neighbors, but it can compromise the primacy of preaching for the institutional church. The organic approach puts the primacy in the right place and keeps the Word central, but it can push mercy ministry too far off the radar screen of the individual Christians who make up the church.
A THIRD OPTION: RESPONSIVE MERCY MINISTRY SUPPORT
Therefore, it’s worth considering a third level of support, which I’ll term “responsive ministry.”
In this model, we lead with the preaching of the Word, including commands like “love your neighbor.” Then as church leaders we watch to see where that Word is taking root and flowering into action, and we respond by using church resources to support the most strategic pieces of that work. Resources could include:
- budget dollars;
- coordination of volunteer resources through a weekly prayer meeting or online bulletin board;
- highlighting member initiatives in sermon application,
- and creating a deacon position to facilitate that work.
If interest wanes and members determine that a different initiative or ministry would bear greater fruit, the church may slowly reallocate its resources in response.
A REGULATED FREE MARKET APPROACH
Think of this as a regulated free market approach to supporting mercy ministry. On the one hand, it is a free market. Rather than telling people how they ought to love their neighbor (as the programmed approach effectively does), we’re watching to see what naturally takes shape as the Holy Spirit convicts through his Word. And then, reactively, we get behind that activity.
Yet on the other hand, this is not laissez faire capitalism in the church either. We are deliberately helping the best ideas to prosper, and unapologetically using the resources of the local church to do so.
THE ADVANTAGES OF DELIBERATELY RESPONSIVE MINISTRY
The deliberately responsive, “regulated free market” approach has a number of significant advantages.
Advantages over the Programmed Approach
I believe it’s better than the programmed approach for three reasons. First, it increases responsiveness. By fostering a “free market” of good deed opportunities, the responsive approach avoids pouring more and more congregational time and money into ministries that are no longer the most valuable areas for investment.
Second, it leaves responsibility with the congregation. The programmed approach can leave mercy ministry in the hands of staff members, with church members essentially “outsourcing” their responsibility to their staff. The responsive approach leaves initiative and responsibility squarely in the hands of the congregation.
Third, it protects the primacy of Word ministry. The responsive approach makes a clear distinction between the primary mission of the church (proclaiming the gospel and making disciples) and the church’s role in fostering specific ways for members to live out their obedience to Jesus in the world. The programmed approach can sometimes blur this distinction.
Advantages over the Organic Approach
But I also believe the responsive approach has two advantages over the organic approach. First, it broadens participation. As convicted as a Christian might be from Scripture to love his neighbor, it is almost always easier to do that when joining an existing initiative rather than creating one from scratch. By using church resources to coordinate efforts and get new initiatives off the ground, church leaders can lower the bar for members to put Scripture into practice.
Second, it focuses participation. By choosing which initiatives to highlight and support, church leaders can focus church involvement on those ideas that are the best conceived and that focus on meeting both temporal needs and eternal needs.
NO SURFACE SHEEN, YET A DEEP CULTURE BENEATH
In our church, we’ve often used this responsive approach to supporting mercy ministry. And on the whole, I’m pleased with the kind of ministry focus it has given us.
When you first look in on our church, our concern for our neighbors doesn’t seem particularly impressive. There’s no banner on our website, no brochures about food programs in our lobby, no large 501(c)(3) that we’re running out of the church, no “director of mercy ministry” on our staff. But when you open up the church, poke around inside, and start talking to members, you discover a whole world of activity going on. Further, most of this “love of neighbor” activity is gospel-focused and carried out together with other church members.
In other words, the sheen on the surface isn’t there, but the culture is deep. And I think that’s healthy. We can certainly still afford to grow in this area as a church, but with God’s blessing this responsive approach has served us well.
Jamie Dunlop is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
 Presbyterians often refer to the diaconal work of caring for a church’s own poor as “mercy ministry.”
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format, provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 1,000 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by 9Marks.