Mercy ministry can be dangerous for the health of a church.
For instance, its appeal can seduce us away from less immediately rewarding priorities. It’s hard to measure the effects of preaching, counseling, and mentoring in people’s lives. But you can count the number of sandwiches distributed to the poor, and you can know exactly how many coats your church gave to needy children. Not only that, but people are (usually) very grateful for the help that you give them; far fewer people are ecstatically grateful when you preach the gospel to them. Add in the applause of the watching world that doesn’t find much else about Christianity worth celebrating, and you have ministry that will be popular inside and outside of your congregation.
Because of this, churches can sometimes find themselves distracted from the proclamation of the gospel by the demands of mercy ministry. It’s easy to allow more and more of the church’s efforts and resources to go towards deeds of practical service and allow the proclamation of the gospel to fall by the wayside. That is dangerous for the life of the church, so I am glad for those who have raised a flag of warning. I am grateful for the precision and faithfulness that many have displayed in calling the church to remain faithful to its central charter and mission. I really am.
But I’m also worried.
HOW MUCH IT COSTS TO HELP THE POOR
You see, if your church really wants to help needy people, it is going to cost you corporately and individually.
In the United States, churches tend to think of mercy ministry in terms of financial assistance to needy people. And while that is often very important, it is only part of the larger picture. Poor people themselves tend to define their needs less in economic terms (“I need more money”, “I need more food”) and more in emotional and social terms (“I feel invisible”, “I feel hopeless”, “I feel insecure about the future”). So a church with a vibrant mercy ministry will try to show love to their neighbors by addressing a whole spectrum of their needs: physical, emotional, and spiritual.
In addition to sharing the gospel, this might mean helping people find food, friendship, housing, counseling, literacy and job training, or detox programs. That can be a daunting challenge. Frankly, it’s easier not to get involved.
And if you get involved in helping needy people, it’s going to get messy quickly. For every one person who genuinely needs your help, there seems to be two people who are trying to take advantage of you.
People who are experiencing significant needs—whether their suffering is self-inflicted, or they are victims, or a combination of both—usually have a complex ecosystem of problems and challenges. The problems often seem overwhelming; making a difference for even one person can be exhausting. The fact that there are so many people in need makes it seem like mercy ministry is an exercise in emptying the ocean with a thimble.
THE TEMPTATION TO HIDE DISOBEDIENCE BEHIND NUANCE
Given all this, and given the worst tendencies of my own heart, I know how easy it is to hide behind theological nuance and ecclesiological carefulness to excuse our sinful lack of care and mercy. Our selfishness often encourages us to avoid loving our neighbors.
Therefore, we need to be on guard against the temptation to disobediently neglect the call to show mercy, justifying our sin with theological formulations.
Honestly, I do not have anyone specifically in mind as I write these words. I simply want to point out the danger. There’s a reason why Jesus told so many parables teaching us to be loving and merciful.
ASSESS YOUR HEART, YOUR PEOPLE, AND YOUR STRUCTURES
So if you are a pastor, take the temperature of your heart. Has the gospel borne fruit of compassion and mercy in your own soul? Or do you find yourself making excuses for why you cannot be bothered with the needs of the people outside your church?
Next, take the temperature of your congregation. Are the people under your care compelled by the gospel to show Christ’s love to people in need around them? Do you see evidence that the people in your church are more concerned to help the poor and the weak than the average non-believer is?
Finally, take an honest look at your church structures. Are there ways that you could be encouraging your people to this kind of obedience? Are there subtle social pressures that keep members of your church from pursuing needy people?
LOVING THE POOR IS, AND SHOULD BE, A JOY
The fact is, loving the poor and needy around us is a source of joy for God’s people, even if it sometimes feels like a burden. The gospel message reminds us that God moved toward us to provide for us in our time of need. When Christians internalize that good news, it moves them out in kindness, forgiveness, and compassion towards the poor and helpless. Therefore, embracing all the nuances and necessary cautions, our churches should nevertheless be characterized by diligent, heartfelt care for those who are in need.
Mike McKinley is the senior pastor of Guilford Baptist Church in Sterling, Virginia, and is the author, most recently, of Am I Really a Christian? (Crossway, 2011).
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