Tim Keller’s, Ministries of Mercy, was first published in 1989. I turned 8 years old in 1989. My grandfather, the Rev. James Perry, recently passed on a copy of Mercy to me – tucked in a box with some old books. I love it when my grandfather gives me old books; not only do I get the treasure of the book itself, but I get to see the personal notes of a man seasoned by a lifetime of trusting God.
Usually the books he gives me are worn through use and older than I am, so when I saw Mercy, I was immediately interested in how it ended up in the box. Within a few chapters I began to herald it as one of the most influential books I have ever read.
Partly, this is because I long so deeply to see my own Christian congregation grow in the mercy of caring for the orphan.
Can you relate? Do you see the need and feel helpless to effect any change? Do you ever feel like you should “jump ship” and team up with a church that “gets it?”
I encourage you not to “jump ship.” Perhaps God has raised you up for such a time as this – to pour yourself out in helping your local church … pour themselves out.
Keller offers this counsel from Chapter 9 of Mercy:
“If you are a Christian convinced of the importance of mercy ministry, you may be quite unhappy with your own congregation! Very few evangelical churches do much in the way of deed ministry outside of the annual donation of food at Christmas or Thanksgiving. But there is no ‘quick fix’ for this situation. Many conscientious Christians, whether laypersons or pastors, have tried to rush their local churches in beginning programs for the needy. The result is usually failure, frustration, and anger. Why?
“Let’s think of the church as a garden . . . . How do we get tomatoes from the garden? By rushing out on the first day of spring and throwing seeds out onto the ground? No, we must prepare the garden carefully for the seeds. We may fertilize the soil. We have to break up the ground and prepare the earth for the seeds. In the same way, ministries of mercy will only spring up if the church is prepared for them. We cannot emphasize this too much. Fertilize and “dig up” until the congregation is ready!”
A common objection to stretching forward in orphan care is that it is too costly. Meaning that the budget is already too strained from caring for the people “inside” the church. “We’re struggling to find the resources to minister to people within our own church. We need to focus our resources here before going outside the walls of the church,” someone might argue.
This is true, and I agree that we need to show special, fervent love first to the family of God. Keller explains that “[w]e should bring greater resources and energy to bear on the needs of Christians, fellow members of the covenant community.”
But, truly visiting orphans in their affliction doesn’t have to cost one cent from the church budget.
The fundamental affliction of the orphan is their separation from their heavenly father. The church can minister to this fundamental affliction the way they do with every person who comes into the family of God – through facilitating life-on-life discipleship relationships. The primary means of establishing these “great commission” relationships with orphans is through adoption, foster care, Christian orphanages, and community mentoring programs. The first two of these relationships, adoption and foster care, don’t take one penny from the church budget.
Visiting the orphan in their more temporal afflictions (food, clothing, shelter, affection) is also a necessity, but these objectives (in my opinion) should be subservient to the goals of alleviating their eternal affliction. The “cup of cold water” will come – and it may come first.
Keller explains that:
“[t]he real key to mercy ministry is motivated lay volunteers. . . . Mercy is a command of God, yet it cannot simply be a response to a demand. It must arise out of hearts made generous and gracious by an understanding and experience of God’s mercy. It is the hearts of the congregation that must be melted until they ask, ‘Where is my neighbor?’”
How do we do that? How do we help our fellow pew-warmer “get it?” I am convinced that when someone has Holy Spirit living in them, and they are shown the Biblical principles of orphan-care, then shown the great need . . . I am convinced that they will move forward in application. This application may be giving money to facilitate someone else’s adoption, or a short term trip to an orphanage in Mississippi, or starting a foster care class. Holy Spirit gets to decide the application. Jesus is the head of his Church.
Keller explains that the major way to “stir one another up to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24) “is by exposing the people to what the Word of God says about the ministry of mercy.” The primary way to do this is from the pulpit. However, Keller lays out five practical ways for the lay person to “prepare the church.”
1. Ask to occasionally give a brief address on where your church is in its pursuit of ministry.
2. Host study groups to explore the Scriptures on the topic of mercy.
3. Arrange a field trip to observe a congregation that is excelling in mercy.
4. Lead by example through the attractiveness of your own life.
5. Identify and develop “friends of mercy” who will champion the cause.
Undergirding all these efforts is the fundamental objective that Jesus gave us in Matthew 28:18-20:
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
The emersion of the orphan into the teaching of Christ has to be the fundamental goal of orphan care. The cosmic war between the Kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of Christ cannot be ignored. Only through the power of the message about Jesus can the orphan be truly alleviated of their eternal affliction.
This focus makes Christian orphan care unique. And, the good news to the budget conscience church leaders, it doesn’t have to take a big program to see growth. Just teach, and see what grows.
Thanks for the book, Grandpa! It was just lacking one thing: your personal wear and tear.