Basics of Mercy Ministry

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What is mercy ministry? For my purposes in this post it is primarily meeting someone’s physical needs whether those needs are immediate and temporary or more long term. This list is not comprehensive.

1. There can be no mercy ministry without understanding the mercy Christ has shown to us in His death. Martin Luther’s last recorded words were, “We are all beggars, this is true.” We must understand this if we are to do mercy ministry well. None of us deserve the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, much less the salvation freely given  to us by our Savior. Without this foundation our mercy ministry will be a sham. It will driven by guilt, pride, or our weak attempt to manipulate others. But when we understand Christ’s mercy shown to us beggars then we give freely, generously, and graciously.

2. Mercy ministry is not the job of the deacons. It is the job of the church.  Deacons are facilitators and they take care of more dramatic needs as well as needs that stretch out over time. But mercy ministry is for the whole church. If a church ordains deacons so they might do mercy ministry while the congregation watches that is a guarantee that mercy ministry will not happen.

3. Physical needs matter. Whether or not someone has food or clothing matters. If someone cannot make a house payment that should concern us. There are hundreds of verses in the OT talking about the poor, needy, weak, widows, and orphans. We tend to view physical needs in a different category from spiritual needs. But God loves our bodies. One day he will resurrect the bodies of believers to glory. His Son took on a body. Helping the poor is not preaching the gospel. But it is a consequence of preaching the gospel and those who claim to believe the gospel and don’t help those in need are lying (I John 3:16-18). 

4. Legitimate physical needs will always exist. The assumption in the OT and the NT is not that one day there will be no poor. The assumption is that the poor will always be with us, as Jesus says. There will always be those around us who are needy. Don’t just think food or money or the most poor among us, though obviously that can be part of it. What about an older woman who cannot mow her grass? Or parents who want to pull their kids out of public school and homeschool, but have been living on two incomes for years? How can we help them transition? What about a military family whose dad is gone for weeks at a time? How can we provide for the family? On and on it goes. There are needs around you.

5. Work hard so you might give generously and freely to others. Don’t work hard to hoard money. Don’t work hard to buy other people. Don’t work hard to got more toys or money or to become self-fulfilled. Work hard to give generously. Mercy ministry is impossible without stuff. Ephesians 4:28 makes it clear that one of the primary reasons we labor is so we might give.

6.  Our churches need to be places where the needy are welcome. Honestly, we don’t like the needy.  Do we want to work with elderly who are slow and weak? Are we patient enough to do that? Do we want to care for the sexually abused 25 year old who has had two abortions? The former meth addict? The guy who has lost his marriage due to gambling? The couple that smells bad because their clothes are so dirty? The neighborhood kid whose parents come home at 7 pm and are gone at 6:30 am?  Do we want them around? Do we want folks who don’t dress like us? Who don’t talk like us? Who come from homes that are messes? I fear that most of us don’t.

7. Learn to show mercy in your daily living. You cannot save the world but you can show mercy to your neighbor. We are such a fearful people, always worried about the bad things that will happen if we show mercy to those around us. We will never show true mercy if we live in fear of what other people will do with that mercy. How can you show mercy day by day? All of us are tight financially. We are all busy. We are all paying bills. Mercy is never easy. It is always a sacrifice. But if you ask, “Can I afford it” then you have already lost the battle. Mercy is not about can you afford it, but do they need it and can you provide it.  Buy that homeless guy a meal. Take an afternoon and help the elderly lady trim her trees, mow her grass, etc. Tuck anonymous gift cards in the doors of friends in need.

8. Mercy ministry begins with those in our churches, but it cannot end there. Too many Christians use Galatians 6:10 as an excuse not to show mercy to those in their community. Mercy begins by loving other Christians (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32), but it cannot end there.

9. Mercy ministry should not put us in a position of superiority to those we show mercy to nor should it strip them of dignity. This is one of the hardest things to do. Too often our mercy becomes a “I am your savior here to rescue you, you poor fool.” A good example of this being done well is in the movie McFarland, USA. A white football coach moves to a Hispanic town filled with migrant workers. What you see in that movie is that he respects the kids and their families and they learn to respect them. He is not there to save them. He is there to serve them and be served by them. That is the goal of true mercy ministry. When Helping Hurts hammers home this idea over and over.

10. Move from unconditional mercy to conditional mercy. Obviously part of this is dictated by context and situation, but generally one time help with no conditions attached is fine. But if the need continues you may need to attach more conditions. Tim Keller suggests this in his book Ministries of Mercy.  He also notes that when you start attaching conditions most people stop coming for help. They remove themselves. Are conditions for help Biblical? Yes. I Timothy 5:3-16 attach numerous conditions to helping widows.

11.Again from Tim Keller. When do you stop showing mercy, when it is no longer merciful. When you are doing harm to the person by enabling sinful lifestyles and habits you stop showing mercy.