Book Review: Reforming Mercy Ministry, by Ted Rivera
Ted Rivera, Reforming Mercy Ministry: A Practical Guide to Loving Your Neighbor. InterVarsity Press, 2014.
Maybe your church is “big” on mercy ministries: weekly food pantry distributions for dozens of clients, successful winter coat drives for local elementary school kids, well-attended legal clinics, among several other initiatives. Everyone seems to be excited about those ministries, but something doesn’t feel right. For the most part, all of these ministries are facilitated and run by paid church staff. Though most church members are happy to give financially to such ministries, they rarely come in touch with the people who are on the receiving side of their aid.
Or maybe your church doesn’t have anything along the lines of mercy ministry. Some members have complained that the church isn’t doing enough—or anything at all—to care for the needs of people in the surrounding community. Others like not having it, thinking that mercy ministry will set the church on an irreversible road to liberalism. Yet others are eager to do something but don’t know where to start.
If your church is in a scenario anything like the ones above, I commend Ted Rivera’s Reforming Mercy Ministry: A Practical Guide to Loving Your Neighbor. It will be a helpful resource for your leaders and members as they seek to biblically think through, or rethink, mercy ministry initiatives. Plus, it’s a brief and easy read.
Rivera defines mercy ministry as “a way of referring to the various ways we, motivated by our Christian faith, attend to the needs of others.” His purpose in the book is to show how mercy ministry relates to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), and to help Christians “think more clearly and biblically about the ways we attempt to help one another” (7). Thirty-three brief chapters follow, each one devoted to illustrating a particular way in which Christians can identify and practically care for their neighbors’ needs with the gospel in view.
Two main ideas run throughout the book. First—and this is the basic thesis—there is no conflict between helping other humans and evangelism; in fact, Christians are called to do both. While these two activities should never be confused with each other, one shouldn’t consume the other either. Rather, Rivera argues, “serving others is often the soil in which the gospel best flourishes” (7).
The second idea permeating the book is that engaging in compassionate service is hard. Like evangelism, mercy ministry implies establishing personal relationships with people who are needy, flawed, and disappointing—just like you, just like me (10, 14). Ministering to the needs of others isn’t glamorous; usually it’s an expensive, time-consuming, exhausting, emotionally draining, and, many times, thankless endeavor, not to mention sometimes frightening and dangerous. The Lord Jesus never said that Christians should love their neighbor as themselves only insofar as they could stay safe, comfortable, and detached (Lk. 10:25-37). Many Christians today, especially in the West, need to be stirred from their “cocoons,” and that’s one of the things Rivera wants to do (p.9).
Below, I will highlight six commendable aspects of Reforming Mercy Ministry:
1. It broadens the scope of mercy ministry.
For those who are uncreative when it comes to mercy ministry, Reforming Mercy Ministry serves as a catalogue of ways to help your neighbor. Some of those ideas you probably expect to find in a book like this (e.g. “Feed the Hungry,” ch. 1; “Supply Clothes to the Needy,” ch. 6; “Provide Disaster Relief,” ch. 8), but others might surprise you (e.g. “Fight Pornography,” ch. 15; “Fight Racism,” ch. 21; “Show Respect,” ch. 32). There are plenty of ways to help. Even if you don’t have a lot of resources, there is something you can do.
2. It’s highly practical.
Each chapter of the book closes with a “For Further Reflection” section that offers concrete steps toward action. To feed the hungry, Rivera says, do research about hunger in your area and raise awareness in your local church. To fight racism, become friends with someone from another ethnicity. To fight for fair wages, pay fair wages. Picture yourself in someone else’s situation. Pray boldly—woe to those who think prayer isn’t practical!—and consider steps beyond prayer. Some issues will call for more thought before taking action, and here Rivera reminds us that being effective is better than just doing something.
3. It’s balanced.
Have you ever read a book that was intended to inspire you to live selflessly and compassionately but, in the end, it actually left you discouraged and almost paralyzed, feeling like the impossible burden of reversing the consequences of the Fall lied squarely on your shoulders? Reforming Mercy Ministry is not that kind of book. Rivera is clear that Christians cannot bring heaven on earth. But he’s also clear in insisting that, by God’s power, they can make a difference in this broken world. After all, we Christians have the sovereign Lord of the universe on our side, the one “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20; cf. 116). What keeps us from praying that he would do so?
4. It encourages lay member entrepreneurial ministry.
While this is not an explicit point in the book, it seems to me that Rivera puts the ball on the lay Christian to come up with service initiatives. Mercy ministry, then, is not the sole responsibility of the paid church staff; it’s a ministry of the church, of every Christian. Any Christian reading this book, regardless of his or her position in their own local church, will be encouraged to pray for, be aware of, and do something about the needs of those around them.
5. It includes ministry both inside and outside the church.
Some people may think of “mercy ministry” exclusively as outreach, and thus apply it only to people in need outside the local church. Those people should probably get to know their fellow church members better! Though Reforming Mercy Ministries does have a general outward-looking focus, Rivera also suggests that, in all likelihood, we may have more than a few people who are hurting and in need in our own churches. Won’t they be our neighbors? Won’t we, at some point, be their neighbor? (cf. p.7, 10).
6. It keeps the gospel as the ultimate goal of mercy ministry.
Probably the most commendable aspect about Ted Rivera’s book is that gospel is not absorbed by the plethora of ways he suggests to care for our neighbor. We might not always have an opportunity to share the gospel with the people we serve, but the gospel must always be our motivation and our goal (p.29). Consider the following paragraph:
All around us, there are hurting people. And all around the world, there are billions of such people, and we have failed them. I have failed them. I regularly fail them. Too often, because of our own fears, and because of our own spiritual blindness, we have failed to connect how intimately human need is related to one’s openness to the truths of Scripture. When we are able to meet them at their moment of greatest need, we win a hearing. When we speak without addressing how they will obtain that evening’s meal, or when we fail to listen when they are in pain, we lose a hearing. So also, when we bring material comfort, but fail to share the glories of our God in Christ, we provide only temporary solace. We must do more. (178-179)
In sum, Reforming Mercy Ministry is what it promises to be: a practical guide to loving your neighbor. Thought-provoking and challenging, this book is a guide that church leaders and church members will find helpful as they seek to form, or reform, their own mercy ministries.