Loving the Unlovely and Unwanted
The prayer meeting had ended, and a small group of Tenth Presbyterian Church members were bundling up in their coats to go home. They were about to step around the lump of blanket huddled on the church steps when something stopped them short. Here they had been in God’s presence in prayer, while right outside the church was one of God’s children, suffering in the cold. One member turned to another and said, “We need to do something about that.” (from Churches That Make a Difference, 33)
That is how ACTS Ministries started here at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Tenth members saw a need and responded, and since 1985 ACTS (Active Compassion Through Service) has provided evangelism, fellowship, and hospitality to homeless persons, drug addicts, people with AIDS, prison inmates and their children, nursing home residents, divorced and separated individuals, and people with special needs. ACTS has one full-time paid staff person and over 200 volunteer staff from Tenth and other area churches.
Tenth’s outreach is to its immediate neighborhood, and also to greater Philadelphia and beyond through expository preaching (webcast on www.tenth.org), small groups, Christian education, campus ministry, local and overseas missionary endeavors, church planting, international student work, and mercy ministry. Tenth’s bulletin states: “To all who are spiritually weary and seek rest; to all who mourn and long for comfort; to all who struggle and desire victory; to all who sin and need a Savior; to all who are strangers and want fellowship; to all who hunger and thirst after righteousness; and to whoever will come—this church opens wide her doors and offers her welcome in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Tenth’s “open-door policy” has encouraged the creation of safe, hospitable space for many considered unwanted, unlovely, or unworthy. In this way, Tenth’s mercy ministry is an alternative to what the world provides.
NO MERCY WITHOUT EVANGELISM
Further, Tenth believes there is no mercy without evangelism. Others may do good works, but Tenth’s priority is pointing everyone to the source of all mercy—Jesus Christ.
Here is an example. Tenth provides a community dinner for those who are homeless or poor. But it is not a soup kitchen where people enter, grab a tray with food, sit, eat quickly, and leave. Instead, we welcome our guests to a service and afterward dine together, restaurant-style, with dinner elegantly prepared by our ministry team and served by the church’s youth. Each table has Christian hosts who provide friendly, gospel-oriented conversation and invitations to worship and Bible study. According to one of our homeless neighbors, “It just makes good plain sense to come to Tenth to hear the Word and be fed a good meal rather than revisit the emptiness and junk food offered elsewhere.”
MINISTRY PRINCIPLES: GOOD, PLAIN SENSE
The principles of our ministry are also good, plain sense: show up, get involved, establish relationships, and offer hope. God will do the rest, as seen in the lives of Annie, Moses, and Frank.
One Sunday Annie was not feeling well and missed our nursing home worship. Later when she saw the worship leader near her room, she called to him, “I couldn’t attend. What was today’s sermon about?” The leader asked if he could come into her room, and he repeated the entire sermon to her. When he finished, Annie said that she wanted to accept Jesus as her savior. They prayed together and she asked Jesus to be her Savior and Lord.
Moses was homeless, drug-addicted, and slept in an alleyway near Tenth. For several months one of our members talked to him and would often bring him a sandwich. She also invited him to attend Fellowship Bible Study, an ACTS ministry to homeless persons. After growing “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Moses finally came to the Bible study and over a few years he received the help he really needed. He has been clean and sober, restored to his wife and family, and a new creature in Christ for twelve years now.
Inmate Frank, a new believer who regularly attended ACTS’ prison Bible study, had just received a twenty-three year sentence. He had hoped for a reduced sentence and was angry that he would be incarcerated for so long. Then God used him to bring salvation to another inmate who was equally discouraged. With an interesting look on his face Frank said to the Bible study leader, “Now I know why God is keeping me inside—to bring good news.”
SEEKING TO BE USER-FRIENDLY AND REPRODUCIBLE
ACTS Ministries seeks to make ministry user-friendly for its volunteers, and also to make it reproducible in urban or suburban settings and in large or small churches. We have helped other churches develop new ministries and have crafted a biblical paradigm for the use of members’ gifts. We have also helped other churches get involved in their communities, establish relationships, and offer hope in local schools, libraries, hospitals, retirement and nursing homes, and elsewhere.
Reproducing our ministry model requires little. Many times it simply requires asking the right questions. Who can we come alongside? What opportunities are there to show that our church cares? Where can we visit “orphans and widows in their distress” (Jas. 1:27)?
What usually follows is making contact with a community leader (the “gatekeeper”) and asking him or her, “How can we help you?” God, in his faithfulness, will open doors and help with the next steps.
MERCY MINISTRY DOESN’T HAVE TO BE BIG
Mercy ministry doesn’t have to be big. It can be any size—there is no small service. And mercy ministry can be tailored to fit any context. So pray for it, work at it, trust God for it. And then, as Tenth did with ACTS Ministries, watch it grow.
(For more information on ACTS Ministries, see articles, FAQ, and links under “Learn More” at www.compassion.tenth.org, http://www.urbansermons.org/f/wiki/profile-tenth-presbyterian-church, and http://byfaithonline.com/page/in-the-church/doing-mercy-in-the-suburbs.)