Digging Wells and Planting Churches

We were with a great group of people today talking mercy ministry and the church and that always gets me stirred up, so be warned – random thoughts ahead.

Just imagine someone asking whether social ministries are hindering church planting in Africa. In other words, are there too many Christians who are going out to do things like dig wells without actually making disciples and helping establish biblical local churches?  

Now this is a funny kind of question, because it is two questions pretending to be one. Are there too many professing Christians who are going out to do social kinds of work without a passion for the local church and gospel ministry and planting biblical communities in Africa? That’s the first question. My guess is yes. I actually don’t think I would have to guess. Yes. (But we could ask this question another way then. Is someone doing effective mercy ministries if they are not concerned about discipleship and establishing local churches? No way. So we could just ask, are there too many people who are doing poor, ineffective social kinds of ministries because they are primarily concerned about digging wells and less concerned about people’s spiritual condition? For sure. But mercy without truth is hardly mercy. Now, would I actually want these same people to stop digging wells and start doing church planting? Is that the answer? No, not really, I would want them to be discipled first. If they can’t dig a well without caring about someone’s spiritual condition, then I certainly wouldn’t want them to start a church.) The point is, the problem isn’t nearly as much with the fact that someone goes to a village in Africa and wants to love the people there and notices that they don’t have water and so he works alongside of the people he loves and he disciples them as he does and shows them the love of Christ and shares the gospel with them as he does so. The problem instead is with the fact someone can claim to be a Christian and think he is actually caring about someone without actually caring about helping them become part of a biblical local church.  Are there too many people who are just doing things like digging wells without a concern for the gospel and church planting? Probably. But don’t stop there. Ask the second question. Is this hindering church planting?  Well, be clear, are you asking, is it really a concern for helping people have water that is hindering church planting or is it more immature believers who aren’t churchmen being sent out as missionaries who are hindering church planting? I think it is actually the latter. The solution is not as simple as stopping sending people to dig wells and to start sending church planters. It is not that simple because the problem is deeper. The problem is not that we have too much compassion, it is that we don’t have enough. How can I claim to have compassion for someone if I don’t care about their long term spiritual good? (Now, at the same time, how can I claim to have compassion for someone’s long term spiritual good if I don’t care about their physical needs? That question always gets me. Here’s someone who says he really cares that someone is suffering spiritually and he doesn’t give a rip that he is suffering physically? Seriously? It doesn’t even take faith necessarily to care about their physical needs. If I am not human enough to care about their physical needs, it is difficult to believe I really care deeply about their spiritual needs.)

Let’s take this a step further for fun. Say, I am a church planter who goes to a village in Africa that doesn’t have a biblical local church and doesn’t have a well. Now, do I say to myself, I am only a church planter, so I don’t have to be concerned that people don’t have water. I mean really, would you want someone who says that kind of thing to himself even to be a church planter? Is a man who can teach the Scriptures to someone who doesn’t have water and have very little concern that they do not have water even qualified to be a church planter? I don’t think so. Definitely not. A person who doesn’t have enough compassion for the people he is preaching to to care deeply about such obvious, blatant physical needs isn’t going to be the kind of missionary who is going to be able to come alongside those same people and understand them well enough to effectively communicate the gospel and help them apply the gospel to their actual lives. He will instead come down to them from above, and it’s not likely that he’ll plant a biblical, life-transforming church in the long run. Instead, if the people do seem to respond, it may be that he ends up with a group of individuals who are merely adding the gospel to their pre-existing worldview. Yet, his lack of compassion and concern for them hinders him from knowing them well enough to even see that!

Now of course, as a missionary, it may be difficult for me to build a well and do effective evangelism and church planting. (But, maybe not. Who says when you build a well, you can’t bring someone along with you and talk to them about the gospel? Why does well digging have to be a quiet, solitary activity anyway?) Yet, say, the church planter is like me, and wouldn’t know where to begin with helping a community build a well. What if a local church in the States sent someone over to help with helping the community learn how to build wells? Not necessarily build the wells himself even, but help the community learn how to do so. Is that hindering church planting then?  I suppose it could if they sent the wrong kind of man over. But what if they sent someone with a passion for the local church, someone who wanted to see people discipled, someone who was willing to serve alongside the primary teaching missionary and help him with practical kinds of problems like this?  We might even call him a “deaconary” or something like that. I don’t think that would hinder church planting at all. It would aid it in all kinds of different ways. 

I actually wouldn’t mind asking the original question back slightly differently. Do church planters who have little concern for the physical needs of the communities in which they serve hinder church planting in Africa? Definitely! Are you kidding?  For example, imagine a very financially wealthy church that teaches the Scriptures in a community that is very poor and that wealthy church has very little concern for the needy around them. Do you think that makes witnessing and evangelism easier or more difficult?  Much more difficult. What’s more, if they teach the Scriptures and yet don’t have a plan for helping people in crisis, it is going to be very difficult for people who are in crisis to benefit over the long haul from what they are teaching.  What’s going to happen is that they are only going to be able to reach one segment of the population. (And probably poorly at that.) But imagine a prostitute comes to that church and is interested in becoming a believer, yet she feels she is on her own, and gets the impression from the church that they are only willing to teach the Bible to her, but there is no one who will help her find a new job, get off drugs, whatever. That is like asking a baby to run a marathon by themselves and then looking down on them when they aren’t able to do it. What’s more do you think that many people in a wealthy church are going to begin reaching out to people in these kinds of crises without the church encouraging and helping them think through how to do so? That’s not the way we usually roll.

Or let’s take another example, if you send a church planter into a poor African community and he isn’t concerned about the physical needs of the individuals within that community, now let me help you think through some of the obstacles that puts up. Say you are very poor, what are your resources when you are in trouble or a crisis, your resources are the people in your community. Now you become a Christian and that puts you at odds with your community, and you go to a church that teaches the Scripture, does that mean now you don’t have these very real, difficult kinds of crises in your life anymore? No, your children still get sick and you don’t have a way to get them to the hospital.  You still don’t always have food in your refrigerator and on and on.  But, who can you look to now?  If your church is cold and says, no, we aren’t concerned about these kinds of things, we don’t want to be distracted, we are just a classroom where you come to learn, then you are in very real trouble and certainly it will be tempting to go back to your old community which actually was there for you when you are in trouble, and what’s more, what a terrible witness for the gospel, when we are saying, you become a Christian and you are part of a new family, and this new family ends up caring less about you when you are in trouble than your unbelieving family did before.

Sometimes these discussions just become silly. Yes, we shouldn’t send out people who think they can be concerned about showing mercy without speaking truth. Of course. But really the problem isn’t with them showing mercy, necessarily, because the reality is, if they are only concerned about showing mercy like that that they don’t really understand showing mercy in the first place.  And certainly the answer isn’t, well let’s raise up men who are only concerned about speaking truth because, the fact is, if they are only concerned about speaking truth without being concerned about people, then they don’t know the truth that well and the truth hasn’t penetrated them deeply enough to where they can share it.  And definitely, we shouldn’t hinder their ministry of the proclamation of the truth in very needy communities by saying, go out there, by yourself, preach the word, and you know, if anyone wants to come help you and disciple others and serve the physical needs of the community, well, we can’t send people like that because we don’t think missions is only digging wells.  We don’t think that either!  We don’t want the guy to only dig a well without helping with the planting of the church! And we want to free up the man who is gifted in preaching and teaching to focus more on that, while still caring about the fact that the people he is serving are going hungry or dying of diseases unnecessarily and so on, because he has a godly man alongside of him who is helping with some of that. 

These kinds of questions aren’t theory for us. God’s helped us plant a church in the inner city and a big reason the church even exists is because we started trying to really care for some of the needs of the people around us. It was actually opening our eyes, caring for people, getting to know them, trying to be a good friend to them, coming alongside of them and trying to bear some burdens with them that even actually helped us start the church. Now, here’s the rub, and this is what makes it so difficult to have this conversation I think. Sometimes when people say mercy ministry, they imagine rich people going in somewhere and giving stuff to people who don’t have as much and doing stuff for people who don’t have as much, but that’s not at all what I am talking about. I am talking about developing a real relationship, a friendship, a loving friendship, where you are not coming from above, but coming alongside and really you are learning as much as the other person is and you are being helped in different ways but as much as they are and you are not really as much offering hand outs and programs as you are a biblical friendship. Now here’s the thing, if I don’t do that, if I just come from above – whether I am a church planter or only doing social ministry, that’s the problem – that’s the problem! that’s hindering effective church planting. We don’t want those kind of people doing either church planting or mercy ministry. But if I come from alongside, how can I not be concerned about the troubles you are facing and try to help and how can I not be more concerned even about your spiritual condition and try to help you become part of a biblical local church? Now those are the kinds of people whether they are digging wells or preaching who are going to be part of actually helping start good, effective, God-honoring local churches.

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