Tag Archives: Mercy Ministry

On Helping without Being a Fool

3 Mar

Helping people is complicated.

It is always complicated, and becomes only increasingly so, when you are attempting to cross cultures. Now obviously there is a big difference between complicated and impossible. And as believers, we have tremendous advantages as we go to help people, in that we have a Word that transcends cultures, a God who is not bound by our culture, and the Spirit who speaks to people in all sorts of different cultures. But, we are going to have a difficult time really benefiting from those advantages, if we don’t at least acknowledge, that helping people cross culturally is complicated.

In an interesting article on what’s happening with the non-profit, Invisible Children, the author quotes someone who tries to help us appreciate just how difficult helping others cross culturally can be.

He writes,

“Imagine you had some really well-meaning Japanese high school student who is really motivated by what he sees on the television about Ferguson. He shows up in Ferguson and he wants to help, he wants to make a difference. He doesn’t speak English, doesn’t have much money. What’s that person going to do other than get hurt or cause trouble? Nothing whatsoever.

“Now imagine this guy was a millionaire. Whatever this guy does is just going to be a disaster. How could it not be? You look at that and it’s obvious. Just try to put yourself on the other side of this. Now we’re the Japanese billionaires. We’re just as foreign. We’re just as clueless. We’re just as relatively wealthy.”

Again, I don’t think this kind of illustration means it’s impossible to help. In some ways it is a bit of a caricature. Because, it is assuming the person is foolish and not willing to learn and listen. Plus, the reality is, sometimes people from different cultures can see things that those within the culture cannot. But, with all of those qualifications, it does make a point, doesn’t it?

It is very difficult to help others if you don’t at least start by recognizing your own difficulties in understanding and then moving from there to really loving them and listening. I personally think one of the best helps I have had towards becoming a missionary was receiving training in biblical counseling, because when it comes to helping people, truly biblical counseling emphasizes the importance of involvement, entering into the world of the people you are counseling and asking questions and listening to the answers.

Helping people doesn’t end there, but that’s a good place for it to start, and it seems especially difficult for many of us, who are American Christians.

Losing Sight of Forever

24 Jun

Missions is changing. 

At least, that is what some people say. And there’s no question, they have a point. There seem to be more and more people who are sent out to live in foreign countries with less and less of a concern for proclaiming the gospel and establishing and strengthening biblical local churches. 

Now, we don’t want to exaggerate the problem. 

Because there are many godly missionaries out there who are steadily plodding away to advance the cause of Christ in this world. And there have always been missionaries who didn’t fulfill their calling as well as they should. But, still it’s true, it does seem like there are many people who seem to be more concerned about helping with people’s physical needs than they do pursuing their eternal good. And you know, to illustrate that, it wouldn’t be surprising if these kinds of ministries get more college age students excited than perhaps ministries that seem more word oriented.

The question is, what might be causing this?

Perhaps someone might think it is the concern for people’s physical problems that is causing this. Is that true? Does a concern for people’s physical problems automatically and necessarily lead to a lack of concern for their spiritual good? Or maybe more specifically, does thoughtful and deliberate action taken towards relieving people’s physical problems lead away from a passionate pursuit of their spiritual health?

I am not so sure about that.

Instead, to me, this solution seems to be a case of identifying a symptom and then misdiagnosing the cause. 

If people being more passionate about helping with people’s physical needs than spreading the gospel is the symptom, what is the cause? Is the cause their being passionate about helping with people’s physical needs? Is that why they aren’t passionate about spreading the gospel and the local church?

I really don’t think so.

Instead, I would think the cause has more to do with a general pre-occupation in the church with this world and what is happening now instead of the world to come and heaven and hell and judgment. Why aren’t we as concerned about preaching the Word as we are digging a well? We don’t really believe that there are people in hell right now who are in absolute anguish crying out for even a drop of water on their tongue, but we do believe there are people in villages who don’t have access to clean water.  (Maybe that’s even why we distinguish between preaching the word and digging the well and say things like digging a well is mercy ministry. What? If you believe in hell, preaching the word is definitely mercy ministry too!)

We have lost sight of forever and so we can only focus on the now. 

In the last several hundred years there probably hasn’t been a single preacher more concerned with heaven and hell and eternal issues than Jonathan Edwards and yet throughout his writings you often find him consistently stressing the importance of mercy, service to the poor and on and on we could go.

Obviously, his concern for the poor didn’t stop him from focusing on eternity as well or cause him to get his priorities out of a place.

It doesn’t have to distract us either.

When you see people who are more concerned about a person’s present physical needs than they are his eternal spiritual problems, the solution is not to downplay the importance of being concerned about a person’s present physical needs but instead to maximize the importance of his eternal condition. 

I actually come at this issue the other way.  

If I meet someone who has no concern for someone’s physical condition but tells me it is because they are so concerned about their eternal condition, I have a hard time believing that. It doesn’t take much faith for me to see that someone is suffering physically and if I don’t have the compassion to care about that, why would I have the compassion to care about their eternal suffering when believing that takes faith? At the same time, if I meet someone who is only concerned about a person’s physical suffering and has no concern for their eternal condition I don’t think that’s because they are loving the person too much. How can they truly love someone if they don’t care about their eternity?

Imagine the two of us driving someone home from an appointment where they just found out they had cancer. We are in a car accident where that individual’s arm is broken, you wouldn’t say to me, why are you concerned that his arm is broken, he has cancer! Of course not. But if I am only concerned about his broken arm over the weeks and months ahead, then you might want to warn me that I do need to get some perspective. A broken arm is a problem, but cancer is much more serious.  

And the same is true with mercy ministries. If someone is truly and selflessly seeking to show the love of Christ to people in extreme physical distress, we shouldn’t look at them suspiciously or attack them for doing so.  But we certainly should wonder if as they go about doing that, they don’t go the next step and seek to care for that person’s spiritual condition as well.  For as John Piper once put it, we as Christians should be concerned about all suffering, especially eternal suffering. 

Thinking Out Loud about the Church and Mercy Ministry

8 Apr

Sometimes when people talk about the responsibility of church leaders to help the church care for the poor, they think what’s being said is that church leaders have the responsibility to organize institutional strategies and programs for the church to reach out to the poor in their community. 

I don’t think however that is necessarily true. 

I know it is not true at least for me.  It should be obvious.  But if a church as an institution never has a feeding program or clothing distribution center or an orphanage, it still can be a church.  Now, if the church as a church, stops preaching God’s Word and the gospel, it is no longer a church. 

Where communication may break down a bit however, is that I don’t think that principle means the leadership of the church has no responsibility when it comes to helping Christians care for the poor. When Jesus told us to go and make disciples, he taught us to teach them to obey all that God’s commanded, and therefore, part of our responsibility as disciple-makers in the church is to help the church learn to obey what the Scripture teaches about our individual responsibility to the those in need.  We have a responsibility after all to help our people learn to live righteous lives, and God’s Word makes clear that part of living a righteous life is having a concern for the poor. 

While I do not doubt that the writers of Scripture could look at a church that has no organized way of caring for the physically needy and still see it as a church, I do doubt that these same writers would look at an individual who says that he understands the gospel and yet has no concern for the needy, and especially of course needy believers and think they are actually a Christian. 

Ken Jones has said, “If the church never offers a single hot meal but preaches the gospel, then she is true to her calling.”

I don’t really have a problem with that statement, I don’t think, given that he’s talking about the church as an institution.  

But I just wonder, if the same could be said about an individual Christian. Could we say of an individual Christian, as long as he says the right things, but never actually moves out in love to those in need, he is true to his calling? 

I don’t think so. 

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to him, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things need for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him.”

Now, I know people say that’s just talking about other Christians in need. O.k., sure. (Though if everyone who made this argument loved Christians like this, I don’t think we would really have much of an argument at all.) 

But how about this then, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…For you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same?”

It may be helpful I think in conversations about the church and the poor to recognize that not everyone who is saying the church is not required to help the unbelieving poor means by that it is acceptable for individual Christians to be compassionless or to opt out of helping those in need. On the other hand it would also be helpful to recognize that not everyone who says leaders of the church need to be concerned about helping their congregation think through how to show Christ’s love to the poor means by that it is required for the church as an institution or organization to have programmed mercy ministries.    

In other words, sometimes when people seem to be saying the church should do less for the poor, they don’t actually mean individual Christians should stop caring as much for those who are in need but instead that the church as an institution is unique and exists to express God’s love and mercy in a unique way through the proclamation of God’s Word and the worship of God.  On the other hand, sometimes when people seem to be saying the church should be doing more for the poor, they don’t actually mean primarily that the church as an institution should begin all sorts of different programmed social justice kinds of ministry, but instead that the individual Christians within the church need to be pushed and encouraged and discipled to care deeply for and love sacrificially those who are hurting around them. 

Exegetical Matters: Galatians, ‘Only Remember the Poor.’

7 Apr

It is nice to consider the needs of the poor, I am sure, but is it biblical?  As a human, obviously, I should care about people made in the image of God, but do I have any special responsibilities as a Christian?  Or, I suppose, a better way to ask it, is it actually a biblically important priority? 

I am not intending to answer that question here.  

But I did think I could to point to a particular passage that needs to be considered. At least, that I need to consider. 

Galatians 2:10. 

Here Paul tells of his meeting with James and Peter and John who he says gave him the right hand of fellowship and encouraged his ministry to the Gentiles. He concludes, “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” It’s that statement in particular that is worth at least discussing. It seems significant that Paul ends his summary of his conversation with the leaders of the early church with this charge to remember the poor.

Now, many would say this refers to the collection for the saints who were suffering in Jerusalem. And that certainly could be true, though I don’t see here, that he explicitly says that. We have to add that in from what we know of the historical context. Even then of course, if that is what he is referring to, it does indicate the importance of sacrificial love and concern for other believers who are having difficulties and that is something that is both convicting and unquestionably important biblically.

But, as Andrew Wilson points out, Bruce Longenecker in his book Remember the Poor argues otherwise. 

Wilson summarizes his argument.  

“…the Jerusalem apostles’ exhortation to Paul was not aimed at him (as in, “please remember to fundraise for us”), but at his target audience amongst Gentiles (as in, “please make sure the Gentiles who become part of God’s people continue to live as the Jewish prophets have always urged us to, and remember the poor in their communities”). This, Longenecker argues, would not have come naturally in a world where there was a marked lack of concern for the needy amongst Gentiles, in contrast to that which existed amongst the Jews.”

I am interested in reading what Longenecker has to say, but for now, Wilson points out the following as several of the reasons that he finds the argument that Paul was simply or specifically referring to the poor in Jerusalem unconvincing. 

1.)Though the view that the poor referred specifically to the poor in Jerusalem became popular in the 4th century, Tertullian, Origen and Athanasius,along with all interpreters in the first three centuries of Christianity, took it to mean the poor without geographical restriction. He writes, “Six texts from Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius and Aphrahat suggest that, at least until the middle of the fourth century, the ‘poor’ of Gal 2:10 was not thought to refer to members of the early Jesus-movement in Jerusalem. By the middle of the fourth century, this had begun to changed [sic], as testified to by Ephrem, Jerome, and John Chrysostom … It is far simpler, however, to imagine that ‘the poor” of Gal 2:10 was ubiquitously interpreted throughout the earliest centuries without geographical specificity for good reason.”

2.) Would James have really urged that very poor communities across the Mediterranean basin send the little they have to support the poor in his own city?

3.)It seems somewhat strange that Paul would have wondered whether the offering would have been acceptable for the saints if it had been suggested to him by these leaders of the church in the first place. (Romans 15:30,31)

4.)Acts 11 indicates that the offering for Jerusalem was prompted by a prophecy from Agabus. Of course, I suppose that Peter and James could have been encouraging him in this ministry. But, it is possible at least to see why some might think, given the fact there was already was a prophecy in this regard, that it’s possible Peter, James and John were talking about something else.

In addition to these reasons for thinking Paul and the apostles were speaking more generally, others have suggested the following as well.

5.)If Paul is referring to the specific collection being made for the poor believers in Jerusalem, it is interesting that he doesn’t elaborate at all on the implications of that for the Galatian believers themselves. He doesn’t speak anywhere here of their need to contribute to this offering.

6.)When Paul does speak specifically and clearly about the collection for the poor believers in Jerusalem in other places, he nowhere speaks of it as if was influenced or being the outcome of his meeting with James and Peter and John in Jerusalem.

Lessons from History part two: Andrew Reed, ‘While Christianity Lives, Charity Cannot Die.’

1 Apr

Is the responsibility to proclaim the message of salvation and to care for those with deep social problems necessarily in competition with one another?

It is possible for the two to compete, I suppose. But do they have to? Should we simply write off anyone who talks about the advantaged disadvantaging themselves for the sake of the disadvantaged as speaking postmodern gibberish? In this series of posts, we are looking to great leaders of the past to see if this is necessarily so. Today, we are looking at Andrew Reed.  Though Andrew Reed’s name is not as well known as Charles Spurgeon’s, his commitment to the gospel and to pastoral and preaching ministry was just as great.  

Brian Edwards writes in the foreword to Ian Shaw’s biography, 

“That the name of Andrew Reed should be better known will be obvious to all who read Dr Ian Shaw’s excellent biography…Here is the story of one of the truly great preachers of the Victorian age, who built up a church of under one hundred to one regularly numbering around two thousand, during his half century as pastor of New Road Chapel…He also maintained a world vision for gospel work across the rapidly opening continents.  Above all, Andrew Reed is to be remembered for his vital work in establishing three orphanages, two homes for what we call today ‘learning disabilities’ and a ‘hospice’ for those with severe physical disabilities…By the time of his death in 1862, this Mr. Great Heart – described in his day simply as ‘the orphan’s friend’ – had provided homes for 6400 children and adults from among the forgotten of society…Misunderstood by friends, ridiculed by opponents, betrayed by those he trusted and hampered by narrow bigotry, Andrew Reed was a giant in faith and self-discipline who passionately believed that every individual had value simply because they had been created in the image of God – and that nothing would be impossible if he reached out for the hand of God.”

Ian Shaw reminds us of Reed’s firm commitment to biblical theology and to the ministry of the Word,

“In his theology, Andrew Reed was strongly evangelical – marrying the evangelical urgency of the Evangelical Revival with the certainties of Calvinism. He emphasized the importance of Christian experience, both of salvation and of ongoing knowledge and experience of the presence of God in a person’s life…As a preacher, Andrew Reed stands amongst the front rank of his generation…His messages were warmly pastoral and thoroughly evangelistic. Under his ministry nearly 2500 new members joined his church, the majority of whom were converts through his preaching.  Andrew Reed was also an important thinker in the field of revival, and in his time helped promote a Calvinistic antidote to Charles Finney’s teaching…Reed was also a man of great pastoral sensitivity, spending much time with those in need…His burden for those who had never heard the gospel was very great, particularly in the new developing mission fields…”

Yet at the same time, Reed was thoroughly devoted to showing the love of Christ to those in severe distress. He did not see this as competition at all.  In fact, Shaw writes,

“The ministry of Andrew Reed was truly holistic – between the responsibility urgently to proclaim the message of salvation and the need to care for those with profound social needs there was ‘perfect harmony.’ Both were part of the gospel of compassion that he believed should motivate the true Christian. In 1828, speaking at the induction of a fellow-minister, he justified this approach: ‘Whatever has a tendency to meliorate the sufferings of humanity, to disperse the darkness of the mind, to subdue the vices of society, to restore man to a divine obedience, and to attach his hopes and his thoughts to an unseen eternity, you will see as in perfect harmony with the spirit and letter of your commission.” To Andrew Reed, this was the epitome of true faith: ‘the best evidence and surest nourisher of life’ was ‘action, action – holy and benevolent action! Exercise is at once the cure and preventative of a thousand religious ailments.’ The Christian was to be benevolent in the practical and devotional realm.  Spiritual riches or earthly wealth – these were to be freely shared…This compassion was directed particularly at the most needy, and is summed up in a memorial tablet placed in the London Orphan Asylum in 1863.  It depicts Andrew Reed bending down and reaching out towards three little children: in one hand he holds a plate of bread, and in the other a Bible. That was the heart of his Christian compassion – the Bread of LIfe and bread for life, both offered together…This was the compassion of Christ, and in this Andrew Reed wanted to imitate his Master.  The impulse to charity and compassion was the hallmark of the true Christian. As his own life drew to a close, this thought filled him with great consolation: ‘While Christianity lives, charity cannot die.'”

For more, see Ian Shaw, Andrew Reed: The Greatest is Charity

How new?

31 Mar

Is the emphasis on social justice among current evangelicals really something new? The question here is not whether it is right. Instead the question is whether, historically speaking, it is really all that new.

In their book, The New Evangelical Social Engagement, Brian Steensland and Phillip Goff seem to question that.

“Today’s new evangelicals are but the most recent iteration of evangelicalism’s long-standing tendency to spin off its own renewal movements. Recognizing this in no way minimizes the importance of what is happening in the contemporary moment. Today’s tumult and transformation are part of evangelicalism’s essence, and the new social engagement, many would argue, is central to its mission to the world. But our perspective casts a different light on what is new within evangelicalism. Compared to the 1980’s, recent trends mark a notable departure. Compared to the 1880’s, there is as much continuity as there is change.”

Later, they write, 

“The current breadth and prominence of social concerns is more akin to the social impulses of nineteenth century evangelicalism.”

Interestingly in his foreword to a book on Andrew Reed, Brian Edwards speaks of the nineteenth century as an age,

“when three quarters of all charitable organizations were founded by Christians with clear evangelical convictions.”

Further into the book, Joel Carpenter explains, 

“The first and rather obvious thing to say is that the evangelical tradition is filled with precedents for what we are seeing today. In nearly every generation since the Wesleys and George Whitefield, restless and visionary rebels and innovators have created new ways and means of expressing evangelical commitment…The most celebrated evangelical social movement was the antislavery campaign, led in the British Parliament, by the evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce and spreading rapidly in the United States during the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s…The new evangelical social engagement we are examining in this book has not only a continuous line of descent from earlier evangelicals but also roots in the recent past. The new evangelicals of our day have direct ties to two prior waves of new evangelicalism, one arising in the 1940s and 1950s and the other more recently, in the 1970s.  We simply cannot understand their thinking and actions today without seeing where they came from, fairly directly. We also should recall some of the classic evangelical traits that they share with their ancestry all the way back – at least to the Wesleys.”

It can seem like the proliferation of social justice kinds of ministry that we are seeing on the mission field today is something fairly new. Maybe. But I wonder if what’s new is not so much the social justice kinds of ministries themselves, but instead the knowledge we now of have of needs in other countries and the ease in which people can move and live in those countries. In other words, I wonder if part of why we didn’t see more of this in the past had more to do with the fact that people either didn’t have as extensive of knowledge of what was happening or the ability to get there and live there for a period of time as easily as they can today.

Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, that doesn’t make it right. It’s not an answer, in other words, but it is a question regarding whether or not things have changed quite as much as it seems.

Can You Feel Me?

26 Mar

The way people sometimes speak and act, I wonder if there are only two options for church planters. Social gospel guys or preaching robots. Either they are someone who is trying to make the church a soup kitchen or they attack anything that moves.

Can’t there a better way than this?

There is. And it starts with this. If we say that we are passionate about the truth, we need to look long and hard at the one who is Truth, Jesus. We need to see the Creator becoming a servant on the very earth He created. We need to watch as He serves not only His glorious Father but also His unworthy creatures. We need to listen as He speaks to them and weeps with them. We need to notice just how far his love for people took him, all the way to dying on a cross in their place. Is there any limit to Christ’s self-sacrificing love? Can you think of anything more shocking than this? That the dearly loved Son of God would care so deeply for the stubborn rebellious enemies of God that He would gladly choose to bear the wrath of God so that these enemies could enter into fellowship with God as dearly loved children too!

We need to see Jesus like this, because Jesus like this, is our example. Imitate me, Paul says, as I imitate Christ. This is who we say we follow. We serve a Savior whose heart was broken by the needs of people and whose body was broken for their good and something is drastically broken in our hearts if we say we are passionate about the truth while we are not compassionate towards people. How dare we claim to represent Jesus without being deeply and emotionally concerned about the good of the people He came to save?

Passion for truth has to produce compassion for people. Not just in theory. Not just when we are behind a pulpit. But for actual real life people.

It is important to be right but something is definitely not right if we don’t feel deeply for people the way Jesus did.