March 2, 2021

Rethinking ‘Mercy Ministries’

So, I published part one of an article last week on the issue of mercy ministries, their relationship to the local church, and their validity in claiming to really help the poor. I want to expand on that and provide a little more clarity and a few practical suggestions to boot.

Defining ‘Mercy Ministry’

Firstly, I am using the term ‘Mercy Ministry’ as any church-based work that seeks to reach the poor of their city/neighbourhood by offering free handouts. In other words, I am not criticising, nor decrying, the work done by thousands of people in charitable organisations that seek to help the poor, homeless, mentally ill, and other persons ‘at risk’ in our communities. These people are to be applauded and supported by all pastors and Christians everywhere as they work in difficult conditions.

But, these people will (largely) agree—I have yet to receive one complaint from somebody working in this sector—that this work is so complex that (a) more than one agency is required to work with an individual and/or family, (b) there are no easy solutions and (c) individuals need long-term commitment and attachment to some form of ‘stable’ family/community. Indeed, individuals with a solid, consistent support base tend to do far better when it comes to recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration back into mainstream society. It is for this reason that 20schemes believes the best mercy ministry is a healthy, gospel-centred church established in the areas of greatest need in our society. So far, so uncontroversial (I hope).

Just a small break now for some further clarification. This is a blog written by me (just to clear that up) for the benefit, primarily, of pastors, church planters, and other gospel workers within the local church. It is for men and women interested in entering the ministry or who have been in the ministry for some time. It is for those on the coal face or about to put their hard hat on. The aim of this blog is to discuss issues which particularly affect us and anything else which may impinge on our ministry.

It has been suggested by some that just because I was homeless for six years (25 years ago) that I have no right to comment on such issues today. Hmm . . . let me think about that. It gives me more right than most in Christian circles. It certainly does not make me an expert (I don’t claim to be one) but it gives me another perspective not currently open to many (one of my points, ironically).

My Own Experience

Also, I didn’t leave the streets and take to living in mansions for the last 20-plus years. I have been theologically trained and I have been involved in mercy ministry and church planting in some of the poorest places on the planet, both in South America and the UK. I have had paedophiles, murderers, rapists, the mentally ill, and the sexually abused living in my home, around my dinner table and in my life for over 20 years now. I have laughed, cried, studied the Bible, discipled, loved, baptised, and buried so many people in that time.

I pastor a church in an area of immense physical, mental, and spiritual need. We have seen, and are seeing, the Holy Spirit of God at work in bringing many to faith in our community. Within our church structure, we have a clear path from evangelism, through to early discipleship, and on to God-honouring service either back in the work place or in vocational ministry. We have people within our internship training programme who have been sexually abused, abandoned, addicted, written off as mentally ill—alongside those who come from stable, secure, and loving backgrounds. I, myself, am the product of a local church heavily investing in my life. Again, none of this makes me an expert (and, again, I don’t claim to be one) but it does, I feel, offer me a little leeway to make some commentary in an area in which I am more than overly-familiar both personally and practically. What I am advocating for actually works.

Equip Indigenous People

I still maintain that far too many local churches are failing with their own mercy ministries, (and with individuals sent to them by para-church organisations) because they don’t properly care for, disciple, train, and equip people from these backgrounds. Far too many churches with established programmes are not seeing fruit, in terms of ongoing spiritual maturity, not because God isn’t working—I think He is. I just think they are not picking the fruit that is there for the glory of the kingdom.

Many people (there are rare exceptions) who come in to our churches from a background of extreme need are often left in the pews and sidelined not because they’re not gifted by God—they must be because He has saved them specifically to serve Him—but because of a ‘cultural blind spot’ in the system. Educated, erudite people get the opportunities. They’re the ones on church internship programmes—the post grads, not the guy who was on the streets for five years and has battled all sorts of addiction issues. He’s good for a testimony night, but that’s usually about it. It’s not as if he’s purposely passed over; it’s that he’s not even considered an option in the first place. That’s what I mean when I say that often mercy ministry is the end point for men and women like this, and not the start of a wonderful journey into meaningful, lifelong service for Jesus (and by that I don’t mean confining them to working the powerpoint and putting the chairs out, which is meaningful in the sense that it is done for God’s glory, but with usually no prospect of moving people on from that).

This will not change unless pastors and church leaders begin to see the battered, bruised, dishevelled, problematic people that come through our doors and start thinking, “How can I help prepare and equip this person to do what God has for them in my community?” rather than, the all-too-often (I fear), “Oh, who am I going to get to look after this person?”

Tough Questions

I want us as church leaders, if we’re already doing a mercy ministry or if we want to start one (and you should if contextually appropriate), to think about the purpose behind it. Go deeper than the usual, “We want to show God’s love to people.” I am not belittling that, but I am saying we need to have a broader vision than that.

I have been in churches with amazing mercy ministries and yet have not seen one “client” (their term not mine) in any of their services. I know churches that run separate services for the homeless and/or needy. My aim is not to judge, but to get us to question ourselves as believers. Is this really helping? If so, how? Who is being discipled and moved on? What is our plan when someone comes to faith? How will we begin to engage with them and offer them a pathway into our community but also into serving our community and, ultimately, being a sent one for the glory of God?