Letters on Mercy Ministry and Evangelism
I want to thank you for your support of my ministry in Philly and all the work God is doing in the homeless community there. I also would like to take a moment to clarify some of our ministry in response to your recent message. In it, you said something to the effect of, “Serving the meal is great, but what kind of evangelism are you doing while your guests are there?” Your question assumes a stark difference between evangelism and mercy ministry, one which we at Emmanuel do not share. In his book, Ministries of Mercy, Tim Keller said, “The proper model is not (1) to see mercy as the means to evangelism, or (2) to see mercy and evangelism as independent ends, but (3) to see both word and deed, evangelism and mercy, as means to the single end of the spread of the kingdom of God” (112). The ministry of mercy is able to stand on its own as an important expression of Christ’s love to a hurting world. It is not merely a tool to gather unbelievers in so that the real ministry of evangelism begins, but is itself a necessary expression of the Gospel.
Tim Keller also says, “Real love is expressed in deed as well as in word” (39). Here, Keller draws on the words of St. James: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17 NIV). This leads Keller to conclude “that the work of mercy is fundamental to being a Christian” (39).
For me, personally, many times in my life after coming to grips with the importance and necessity of mercy ministries, my thoughts have been, “But isn’t this too much work? Isn’t this beyond what I can accomplish?” If you have these same thoughts, I again find Keller’s words helpful. “To receive the mercy of God, we must all come first to the place where we despair of our own moral efforts” (37). Mercy ministry is not something that you and I can accomplish ourselves. In mercy ministry, we are dealing with the way sin has harmed us socially and physically. It is not a problem we can solve, but can only be remedied in the death and resurrection of Jesus. While the scope of mercy ministry can seem overwhelming, it is not up to us to solve all the problems which exist, even in our own communities. Our calling is to show the same mercy Christ showed us to the tangible needs he brings into our lives and entrust the results to the Holy Spirit.
Each week at Emmanuel, I encounter a variety of people with numerous needs. Some of them come with addictions, enslaved to substances they have handed control over their lives to and can no longer be free. Others suffer from mental disabilities and psychological disorders. Many are the victims of other people’s sin. A vast weight of sin in so many forms walks into our church building every Saturday, not all of which is directly caused by the persons carrying those burdens. Those of us who lead Emmanuel do not have the skill set to deal with addiction or psychological disorders. What we can do is tell them Jesus loves them, hand them a meal as an expression of our love for them, connect them to others who are better equipped to work them through homelessness and addiction, and be a friend to them. Such tangible acts of love have led to people finding housing, being freed of addiction, and yes, even coming to faith in Christ and joining the church.
Scott Carr, Jr.
I want to thank you for all the work you do at Emmanuel. Without your help, I’m not sure we would be able to prepare a meal every Saturday. As we talk about ways of improving Emmanuel, I think that alongside the meal, it is important to also evangelize the community each Saturday. While I agree with you that it is essential to show the love of Christ by our deeds, how many of our guests will know we are expressing the love of Christ if we do not tell them with our words?
Our actions serve to address the way sin has alienated us socially and physically (Keller 47), but it also alienates us psychologically and from God (Keller 47). Our actions each Saturday do not address these deeper needs, which are what lie at the root of the social and physical needs we address. All of these layers are healed by the work of Christ, as Tim Keller says in Ministries of Mercy: “The kingdom of God is the means for the renewal of the entire world and all the dimensions of life. From the throne of Jesus Christ flows new life and power such that no disease, decay, poverty, blemish, or pain can stand before it” (52). While our ministries of mercy do express the kingdom of God just as our words do (112), our words reach the root of the matter in a way our deeds do not (115).
I will concede that much of evangelism in the history of the modern church has been off-putting. By no means am I suggesting we turn to a model of evangelism which involves passing out tracts and speaking a canned presentation of the Gospel which fails to make sense of the person sitting across from us as a human being with real needs, hopes, and experiences. Our emphasis on mercy ministry has allowed us to develop relationships with these people in ways many evangelism teams have not. It is because of these relationships, built over a communal meal, I believe we can speak the truth of the mercy found in Jesus Christ to them. “Our concrete deeds of love for one another are an apologetic for the validity of the Christian faith” (107). This is not to say our acts of love are merely a means to the end of evangelism. Rather, the natural next step in expressing our love for these people is to share with them the good news of Christ which meets every layer of their need, beginning with their need for reconciliation to God and moving all the way to their physical needs. While our deeds are important, one meal a week is not enough to bring real change into the lives of people who have experienced immense pain, loneliness, addiction, and disability. Only the good news of Jesus can address all of those components. Our acts of love and our words of love sit side by side to introduce these men, women, and children to the beautiful Kingdom of God where all is made new.
Scott Carr, Jr.