The Church Has a Mission
The risen Christ gave his people a mission: in the power of the Holy Spirit, they were to preach the gospel and form churches out of the new believers. In Matthew 28:19–20, Jesus sends his disciples out to make disciples of the nations and to teach them to obey. In Acts 1:8, he tells his people to serve as his witnesses to the end of the earth. So while a church may do a lot of different things in the service of that mission, everything that it does should be aimed at those final goals: proclaiming the gospel and helping people to grow in their obedience to God. Starbucks sells coffee, Listerine makes mouthwash, and the church holds out the gospel and trains people to obey by doing the work of ministry. If we don’t do it, no one will. If we do anything else, we are getting off track.1
Mercy Ministries Can Serve the Mission of the Church
Mercy ministries can be a helpful way for a congregation to fulfill that mission. For example, they can provide an opportunity for people to obey Jesus in practical ways. As people’s hearts are captured by the compassion of Christ, part of their growth in godliness may well take the form of increased care for the physical and emotional burdens of needy people. After all, the Bible is full of instructions for Christians to be caring, generous, and merciful people. In that sense, a food pantry ministry or a drug and alcohol recovery program may be the fruit of a church full of Christians obeying Jesus.
Deeds of mercy can also show the power of the gospel to change us. When we help our neighbor, we give evidence that our message is true. If we claim that the gospel has the power to change lives, then our mercy is one of the things that proves it. In a world where most people keep to themselves and only take care of their own, Christians have an opportunity to stun others with our inexplicable love and selfless service.
When we help others in practical ways, we are acknowledging that God created us as physical beings. The state of our flesh greatly impacts our lives. Life is more difficult when we are hungry, cold, intoxicated, sick, or in danger. And so evangelistic proclamation that doesn’t recognize the physical factors at work in the lives of its hearers risks being tone-deaf and insensitive. It is important that we recognize that there is an order to our needs, and that sometimes our greatest needs are not our most immediate needs. So we can say with confidence that the greatest need of every human being is to be reconciled to God through faith in Christ. But if someone comes to your door with a gaping head wound, that need, though lesser, must be tended to. First you must take care of the head wound, and then you should share the gospel.
It’s also important to recognize that mercy ministries can generate opportunities to share the gospel. We all like to be around people who are kind to us, who take an interest in our lives, and who demonstrate a desire to help us. So showing practical care to others is an easy way to build bridges into your community. A few examples from Mike’s church:
- A church planter ministering among the working poor takes a few bags of food with him when he goes to visit people in their homes. The gift goes a long way toward cementing a friendship in which the gospel can be shared.
- People from the church help desperately poor children at a local elementary school. The church members build relationships with the students and their families and invite them to get involved with a church plant in their area.
- A group of at-risk teenagers are hosted at the church each week. They get a meal, a chance to hang out with their friends in a safe environment, and an opportunity to build relationships with positive adult role models. Each week they hear a lesson from the Bible that presses the gospel into their lives.
Mercy ministry needs to be done in the context of relationships and accountability.
Of course, we should all be sharing Christ with the people whose lives naturally intersect with ours, such as neighbors, friends, and coworkers. But moving toward needy people with deeds of mercy provides opportunities to build relationships with those with whom we might not otherwise come into contact.
Mercy Ministries Are Dangerous
With that said, we are very wary of the way that many churches approach their mercy ministries. Frankly, most churches that wander into the wilds of helping the poor in practical ways wind up doing more harm than good. While this is not the case in every situation, here are some of the things that we have seen on the ground that give us pause:
Mercy ministries are easily abused. I (Mez) lived on the streets in my late teens and early twenties. I could always find places that would give me breakfast, clean clothes, a shower, and some food. Those of us who lived and breathed within this largely invisible subculture knew how to play the system. We knew exactly what to do and say in order to get the things that we wanted with minimum engagement. Churches were particularly good targets because the people were generally nice, they would be kind to you, they were less savvy than government agencies, and all we had to do was sit through some God-talk and maybe take a booklet. Then we could be on our way. The constant stream of questions could be annoying, but once we figured out what the church people wanted to hear, we could easily placate them. They would get to say their bit about God and be nice to a poor person, and we would get what we wanted. What looked like a thriving mercy ministry was really just an easy mark for selfish people.
Mercy ministries support sin. While this is not true of everyone, we have to be honest: a significant portion of the people who avail themselves of church mercy ministries are living in sinful lifestyles. Feeding a lazy man simply encourages his sin and enables him to avoid the consequences of his actions. Giving clothes to a drug addict may simply provide him with something to sell in order to buy his next fix. Providing shelter to a homeless person might remove his motivation to reconcile with his family.
If you give a man a fish, not only will he be back the next day looking for more, but you run the risk of reinforcing the very problems that caused him to come looking for a handout in the first place. In other words, it is one thing to give food to a person who is working (or who wants to work but is unable) and is just plain hungry. It is another thing to give food to a person whose sin compels him not to work, but to look for the handout because he thinks he deserves it. In this latter situation, you are actually at risk of affirming and enabling people in their sin, and therefore you are unwittingly encouraging their sin.
Mercy ministries can be paternalistic and self-serving. If we are honest, most mercy ministries do not accomplish much beyond making the people who run it feel good about themselves. Most church mercy ministries are run by middle-class people who love Jesus, and often these people are motivated by a mixture of godly intentions and misplaced guilt. Instead of actually helping people, too many mercy ministries are content to do things that merely appear to help people. The end result is a program that makes people dependent on handouts and help from the people who are “above” them on the social ladder. Not much enduring fruit comes from these ministries, but no one wants to cut them lest they seem unconcerned about the poor.
Mercy ministries foster mission creep. Perhaps the greatest danger is that mercy ministries can distract a church from its main mission. Mercy ministries are attractive service opportunities for Christians. You can probably get twice as many volunteers to show up for a workday in a soup kitchen as would come to training on how to do evangelism. After all, the world will applaud us for feeding the poor. Feeding the poor makes us feel good about ourselves; maybe (if we are honest) it even makes us feel like we are better than all of the other people who did not show up to help. But evangelism and discipleship don’t always come with that same burst of satisfaction. Oftentimes they will mean rejection and awkward conversations. There is a real temptation to be content with merely meeting physical needs. But that is the tail wagging the dog.
Doing Mercy Ministry Well Is Difficult and Time-Consuming
As we have said, we are not opposed to mercy ministries. We are simply saying that if we are going to operate them, we have to do so in a way that makes sense of the mission of the church. But if we are going to do that, we have to be prepared to invest a lot of time and effort.
Mercy ministry needs to be done in the context of relationships and accountability. No accountability structure works perfectly; there will always be people who game the system. We are not suggesting that you wait to start a mercy ministry until you can be 100 percent sure that people will not take advantage of you. But if there should be any difference between the state and the church’s version of a handout, it’s that the church should distribute its handouts in the context of relationships with Christians.
This will look different from context to context, and maybe different from season to season in your family’s life. But no matter what, this means Christians will have to sacrifice time, because relationships are time-intensive. It seems so much easier just to donate canned goods and feel better about ourselves, doesn’t it? But we are called to donate time as well. In my (Mike) own life, this has involved things like hosting a weekly dinner and Bible study for homeless people and playing soccer with Latin American teenagers.
When the Lord blesses our efforts and we see evangelistic fruit from our efforts, we have to be ready to disciple new converts and help them to engage and minister fully in the life of the congregation. But if we have started a mercy ministry with no plan beyond the crisis-intervention stage, we will never get beyond the very first stages of discipleship with a needy person. And so churches need to think through the long-term ramifications of their ministry to the poor. We must think about what we are going to do with somebody who comes to faith through a mercy ministry. What is the discipleship strategy? Who will care for them? Who will hold them accountable? How will we move them forward in their walk with Jesus? How will we prepare them for whatever works of service God has called them to once he has saved them? How will we identify and train the former drug dealers and homeless people and sexual predators that the Lord is calling into full-time ministry?
At Niddrie Community Church, the Holy Spirit of God is at work in bringing many to faith from the wider community. The church structure has a clear path from evangelism to early discipleship and on to God-honoring service either back in the workplace or in vocational ministry. Some in the internship training program have been sexually abused, abandoned, addicted, or written off as mentally ill; others come from stable and loving backgrounds. Of the people the church is training theologically, at least two-thirds come from a background of addiction, homelessness, mental illness, or abuse.2 In fact, Mez himself is a product of a local church heavily investing in his life after they had reached out to him on the streets and he had spent time in prison.
This is really the heart of the matter. Are we content to feed hungry people? That’s nice, but it is less than full Christian love. Are we content to share the gospel with people? That’s even better than food, but still not the end of the work. No, Christian love desires to see in people’s lives the same thing that God desires to see in them: wholehearted fruitful, faithful obedience to Christ.
- For a thorough defense of this idea (along with a healthy dose of the delights and glories of free-market capitalism), see Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).
- For more on what this looks like practically, visit 20Schemes.com.
This article is adapted from Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy by Mez McConnell and Mike McKinley.
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