April 11, 2014

Three models for mercy ministry

by Jesse Johnson

Yesterday  I argued that mercy ministry that is done through the local church is not only biblical, but it is more effective than other alternatives.

For starters, every biblical instance of mercy ministry from the ascension forward is in the context of the local church. In the case of famine, food is collected by the church, for the “saints in Jerusalem” (Rom 15:25-31).  In the case of widows, support is collected by the elders, managed by the deacons, given to only those who are devoted to prayer and serving in their church (Acts 4:37, 6:1; 1 Tim 5:5-10).  

Believers are called to meet the needs of poor believers around the world. If there are any Christians in physical need, it is every Christian’s obligation to meet those needs (Matt 25:40, Mark 9:41, 1 John 3:17, James 2:15).  And it is obvious that the group best equipped to know the needs of other believers in the world is the local church.

This is true not only because it is biblical, but also because it is practical. If the goal is to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the poor in the global church, then the means has to be the global church. Churches have (or at least they should have) elders and accountable leadership. They have discernment. And most importantly, they have the gospel. They know what the real needs are better than a multinational aid organization, and they come hard-wired by God for the pastoral tasks of evangelism, follow-up, discipleship, and fulfilling the Great Commission.

If there is a physical need in a part of the world, the first step is always: find a trust-worthy church that is there, strategically positioned to meet that need. If there is no church, then before step-1, you need to plant a church. If the church there has no leadership, then before step-1, you need to raise leadership up. This is not a flash-in-the-pan clothes drop, or a one time food truck we are talking about here. This is long term, difficult, Great Commission kind of work (this is also exactly why it is so frustrating to hear organizations that are ostensibly on the front-lines of mercy ministry pooh-pooh the importance of theology).

So how should this look in the practical lives of Christians in wealthier cultures?

  1. Your church should have identified some strategic global partners that work with local churches for the purpose of mercy ministry. In some cases one church might have a relationship with a few particular churches in another country. In times of need, they use their resources to directly help their sister churches, and this builds a life-time relationship of trust and cooperation, and there are no middle-men. It is direct; churches helping churches. But in other cases, your church might partner with a para-church organization or a denomination that identifies particular congregations in an area that have needs, and that organization in turn meets those needs. This approach maybe indirect, but it is still directly helping churches.
  2. If your church does not have those kind of relationships, find a trusted organization that does. Direct your giving to groups that work with planting and training local churches in impoverished nations, and then groups that follow on by meeting the physical and spiritual needs in those areas.

If you don’t know where to begin, here are a few suggestions:

Africa New Life: The church I pastor has had a decade-long partnership with Africa New Life, in Rwanda. After the 1994 genocide that killed nearly 1 million Rwandans, there was an orphan epidemic perhaps unmatched in world history. New Life Bible Church was pastored by a Rwandan who had previously worked for Compassion International. He saw the importance of doing mercy ministry through the local church, and started his own ministry.

Pastor Charles began ministering to children in areas of Rwanda hardest hit by the genocide. In each of their target locations, he would plant a church and either open or take over management of a school. Over the years, Africa New Life enabled nearly  6,000 students to attend school, and their schools have become highly regarded throughout Rwanda.  In one recent standardized test, for example, eight of the top ten students in the country were all from Africa New Life schools.  They now have a Bible College, a seminary, and a growing network of locally pastored churches.

Africa New Life Ministries - Sponsorship

An Africa New Life school–when you sponsor a child through ANL, they receive food, clothes, and an education that is both biblical and practical.

The advantage of this kind of ministry is that it has the spiritual and doctrinal development that can only come through a local church, while at the same time meeting the physical needs of some of the world’s most desperate people.

The result has been successful long-term mercy ministry that is more effective at meeting physical and spiritual needs. The pastors at my church often preach in their churches, and they in ours. If you are interested in partnering with them, go to their website. One of the needs they have is an ongoing child sponsorship—similar to Compassion and World Vision.

The Children’s Hunger Fund: This is an organization that I have had a long-time partnership with. They have a global network of churches with leaders who have gone through CHF training. This training is both theological and practical, and the result is a network of churches that are trained in distributing food and supplies to  those in need.

The advantage to a partnership with CHF is it allows churches to respond to unpredictable natural disasters with confidence that resources are going to be used based on the wisdom of local church leaders. After the flooding in the Philippines, or the earth quake in Haiti, churches could give to CHF knowing that they already had a network of churches trained and ready to receive and distribute aid. They work on an economy of  scale that is beyond what any once congregation could possibly do. They  receive massive amounts of donations from huge corporations, pair them with donations from individuals and churches, and distribute them through their national networks.

CHF also does food pak programs to help with poverty in the US. Click on the picture above for more information about that.

If you are interested in partnering with them, especially after a disaster, check their website. If they have resources in the area and the ability to distribute them through their network, their website will say that. They of course are also always in need of financial donations to help meet long-term needs in truly impoverished areas of the world.

Missionaries: This is perhaps the most basic of all the approaches to mercy ministry. Churches should be sending out missionaries to unreached, unchurched, and difficult parts of the globe. As they are doing their work, they can identify areas of need for your church to meet. Recently the church I pastor heard from one of our missionaries in Africa that a local congregation had their church burned down by Muslim terrorists. We were able to partner with that church in the rebuilding process by working through our missionary there. In another nation, a national church planting organization that we work with alerted us to a particular need for a church building. We were able to financially meet that need, with confidence because missionaries from our church, working with local churches, had identified a particular and tangible need.

Mercy ministry quickly becomes complicated when it is stripped of its theology. But when churches focus on doing what God has called us to do, then the needs of the poor will be met, and the gospel will go forward to the planet’s most desperate people.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Great post! I’m extremely thankful for the work that CHF does in supporting the local church!

  • Barbara

    Thank you, a well spelled out practical post on Mercy Ministry. Again showing theology matters :0) best, Barbara

  • Louise

    As a sponsor of a World Vision child who my husband and I
    will continue to sponsor until she ages out of the program, I just want to send
    folks who read this blog to a page on the WV site under the title of “our faith
    in action.” Pastor Johnson you imply that WV does not operate a mercy ministry
    that partners with local churches and
    that is false.

    http://www.worldvision.org/our-impact/our-faith-in-action
    From that page.

    “We partner with local churches, helping to strengthen local leadership and
    equipping them with resources and training to carry out our shared mission
    among the poor and oppressed. Our commitment is that when World Vision leaves
    communities, there will be thriving, engaged churches for sustained spiritual
    and physical transformation.”

    World Vision is an expression of the Church on special assignment to care
    for those who are poor and oppressed. Churches are our indispensable partners
    in God’s mission. We support, but are not a substitute for, the local church.”

    They do not exclusively work with churches. They go into areas in which
    there are no Christian churches or barely a presence at all giving aid to all
    the women and children who need it. Does that invalidate them in your eyes? I
    see that as being a good neighbor.

    “We are privileged to be welcomed into many communities where Christianity
    is a minority faith — or barely present at all. This gives us great
    opportunities to serve in the name of Christ where He is not known, and to
    bring credibility to the gospel where it is disregarded or disrespected.”

    I do not work for WV but feel you have misrepresented their model of mercy
    ministry.

    • Thanks for putting that here. I drew what I said from their lawsuit in 2006, which I blogged about here: http://thecripplegate.com/world-vision-and-religious-freedom-2/
      Also, from Stearns repeated assertions that he does not view WV as “theological.”
      But I also want to reiterate that I am not suggesting people drop support from WV. This post is meant to target people who are thinking through “what is the best way for me to engage in mercy ministry, particularly in light of the SSM/WV dynamic.”
      Thanks for your comment and that link.

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