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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever
July-August 2012 | Subscribe Free!

Mercy Ministry in the Church

Over the last few years, 9Marks has offered occasional warnings about mission creep in the local church. We believe the local church exists to make disciples and to teach them to do everything that the Lord Jesus commanded. Therefore, the local church, its pastors, its public gatherings, and any joint institutional resources belonging to the body should be dedicated to equipping the membership for works of ministry through teaching the truth in love. Acts of mercy are surely essential for God’s people, but for the institutional church, teaching is essential in a way that organized and structured mercy-ministry programs are not. Teaching is the water that gives life to all Christian activity inside and outside of church building doors.

But like every kindergarten teacher knows, sometimes the line is thin between teaching a kid to build a popsicle-stick house and being willing to get glue on your fingers and to build it with her. It just may be that, from time to time, even often, the local institutional church will best fulfill its Matthew-28 and Ephesians-4 mission by getting glue on its fingers. This not only teaches the saints what it means to be a Christian, it also provides a natural vehicle for organizing and facilitating their new-found love to do mercy ministry. 

Bottom line: the local church, institutionally speaking, is called to teach. That is its job. Lose that, you lose everything. But that institution is made up of human beings who must go and do. And where institutional resources (staff time, budget monies, etc.) are available for something more than teaching, they might be wisely and wonderfully stewarded in helping church members to pursue the good deeds that Jesus commands them to do.

For these reasons, 9Marks wants to offer constructive help for how local churches might pursue such organized mercy ministry. (Clarification: some Presbyterian traditions use the term “mercy ministry” to refer to a church’s internal diaconal care for the physical needs of its own members. We are using it more broadly here.) Jamie Dunlop gets the ball rolling by offering the best big picture model we can think of. We will not fully endorse any one philosophy and method as “the 9Marks way,” but Dunlop’s model strikes us as very sensible, at least for churches in the wealthy West.

Timothy Keller then takes a step back to provide an even bigger picture: do we really think preaching is primary? Yes. What role does that leave for anything else? Read Keller.

Mike McKinley rightly connects mercy ministry to evangelism, and Kevin DeYoung offers wise counsel on how to discriminate between one need and another. Resources are finite. Where should we spend them? 

John Lauber, Jamie Dunlop, and Layla Wilder offer practical advice on more specific matters like how to speak with the down and out. And then David Apple, J. D. Greear, and Justin Holcomb offer three striking examples of how churches have become involved in good work. All three will be the first to tell you that they have not done everything wisely, and not everything may be worth replicating (we learn as we go!). Still, you might find one or two elements to inspire you. 

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