When we talk about mercy ministry we are not talking about something qualitatively different than what is supposed to be going on all throughout the church in all its different ministries.
My father has been involved in training biblical counselors for a number of years. When we moved to Africa, he actually came along to teach biblical counseling. During one particularly intense conversation about mercy ministry with someone, they told me, I understand your father’s ministry of biblical counseling but I don’t understand this desire to serve the needy.
What is interesting to me is that honestly the two aren’t all that different.
Biblical counseling reaches out to those who are at a point of spiritual crisis. Mercy ministry does the same. Only with biblical counseling it is usually a particularly difficult event that brings the individual into your office; where with mercy ministry, it is particularly difficult life circumstance that send you into their homes.
In other words, mercy ministry is not really as unique as people sometimes think it is.
Counseling someone is definitely a mercy ministry. Evangelism couldn’t be more of a mercy ministry. Biblical preaching is a way of showing mercy. And really, even church discipline is a kind of mercy ministry. If they are not, you are not doing them right.
On the other hand, I know, I understand, it is obviously a little too broad for us to talk about all kinds of ministry as mercy ministry. If by mercy ministry we ultimately mean every ministry, then the term isn’t all that helpful when it comes to describing a particular category or work of the church.
So let me try to narrow things down a bit.
When I talk about mercy ministry, I am basically talking about an intensified form of biblical hospitality. It is focused and sacrificial love for people who are in situations the world might consider hopeless, for people who are in especially vulnerable circumstances, for people who are in crisis kinds of situations.
The words focused, sacrificial and love are especially important in that definition.
Focused means this is something we are thinking about. We obviously should be so full of mercy that we respond mercifully in any given situation, but when we talk about mercy ministry, we are talking about deliberately and intentionally trying to help others in ways that are wise.
Sacrificial reminds us that we are talking about something that costs. When my wife and I first got married, we didn’t have much and people kept giving us things, only most of what they gave us was stuff they would have thrown out if we weren’t in need. I am sure they had kind intentions and we were thankful for any help but when I speak with you about biblical mercy I hope you are hearing more than doing what pretty much anyone would.
And love is a word we hear so often it would be easy to overlook it, but when it comes to mercy ministry, we mustn’t. How can I find a way to say this so that people will actually hear it? Mercy ministry does not equal a hand out. Mercy ministry is not money ministry. If your actions aren’t motivated by real love, then I say you can keep your hand-out.
This perhaps is why it is so difficult to have conversations with people about mercy ministry. I am thinking about discipling church members to show focused, sacrificial love and other people are hearing social action or social justice. Well, I am not actually sure what you mean by those terms. Are you asking if I think I should care as a pastor if the people in my congregation are extremely prejudiced and make specific and focused efforts to help them apply the gospel to the way they think about other people? Then yes.I thought the aim of our charge was love from a pure heart, after all? Or do you mean that I think we should stop preaching and just picket places? Then no, of course not.
I am so afraid of any way of arguing or speaking that gives me excuses for not giving a rip about people. I know that’s my tendency left to myself, to move towards self absorption. Usually I don’t need any more rationalizations for being selfish. One reason we talk about mercy ministry is because we believe it is irresponsible to be neutral about helping people obey the command to love their neighbor as themselves. We believe the ministry of the Word is supposed to transform believers lives all the way down to the nitty gritty. We believe we need to help each other love our enemies. So yes, I do desperately want to help people pursue this kind of mercy ministry with everything they have got. I am not ashamed of that. I do think every Christian has some role to play in it. I am passionate about it. And I do hope some will trust in God and make crazy sacrifices for the good of those in need.
But, at the same time, you need to understand, when we talk about mercy ministry, at the core, what we are talking about is not all that radical really. I am not talking about moving to Africa or living in a slum as much as I am about opening your eyes and your hearts and seeing where people are at and how they are suffering and caring deeply for them to the point where you hurt when they hurt. I am talking about thinking carefully about how to help others who are hurting, and especially about going out of your way to develop deep relationships with people who are suffering. I am talking about becoming the kind of person who develops friendships God considers significant with people the world considers insignificant. And really, this shouldn’t be controversial.
This is just about really, deeply, actually loving people with more than just your mouth.