One of my jobs is to train churches in how to show mercy, or maybe we should say "how to do" mercy. There is often a lot of confusion about this and it seems that some very basic things just need to be taught. Many Christians sincerely want to be merciful people, and they yearn for their churches to be known for their mercy, and most of us would like for the mercy that we show to be done in the best possible way.
We have some wise and experienced Christian leaders and writers putting out books that teach us about something called "Development." You may have heard phrases such as "Economic Development" or "Community Economic Development." The Chalmers Center at Covenant College specializes in what is called "Micro-enterprise Development." All of these are wonderful phrases about important strategies that are needed in areas of our country and world where people are poor and marginalized.
Most American churches haven't gotten to the place to begin to practice such strategies. Some churches will decide they don't even want to go there. I don't think there is an excuse for a Christian, or a congregation to say they just won't show mercy. I don't think you can really be a Christian and think that, but of course we have many congregations that for all intents and purposes do say that by neglect. In this short piece I want to just lay out a few ideas to help individuals, families, and churches if and when they feel convicted that this is what God wants them to do.
How does a church get its people to be merciful, what kind of ministries or programs do they initiate, and what do they want to accomplish? It seems to me that some churches have opted to do mercy so it ministers to the "merciful" but doesn't really do much for the needy. I see churches doing what I call "mercy drive-bys" or "mercy tourism." We send out our members on mercy excursions to do a little bit of mercy for a widow, family, neighborhood, but it is essentially just a project, often just a few hours in one place. We climb back in our bus or vans and go home, hopefully feeling good about what we have done. Let me not despise any good work, and I hope whatever you have done really changed someones day, maybe even their life.
However, a better way of looking at mercy is to remember it primarily consists of two things: charity and development. Charity is that immediate mercy in a time of need, freely given, to someone who needs help. Anyone might need help in an emergency, and when we are in trouble we are grateful for anyone God might send to help us in that moment. Development is that process whereby individuals or communities are empowered to help themselves so that their situation might be improved. Sometimes we give too much charity so that it hinders development. Sometimes we are so focused on development that we fail to show charity to meet emergencies.
Many of us begin with mercy tourism as it is the first time some of us come into contact with those who are suffering. It can be a good thing if it starts something, but can be a very paternalistic and patronizing thing if it is just a moment. It can actually do more harm than good as it can create cynicism in those who are its victims by making "charity victims" into users of people with misguided intentions. If it is an introduction to mercy involvement then it would be a good thing, and if it is a step toward eventual mercy effectiveness that would be an even better thing.
I am not opposed to mission trips, mass mobilizations of small groups, Sunday School projects, etc. That kind of manpower can be very helpful by putting troops on the ground to meet a real need. However to rise toward mercy effectiveness framing the goal to actually bring people into the church, into the Body of Christ, is essential. Too many churches have looked on the poor as objects of pity, clients as it were of our welfare, but not as potential church members, not as future Pastors, Elders, Deacons, Missionaries, and other kinds of church leaders. If the poor your church ministers to are too far away, too culturally distant from your church, then plant a church in their midst. I believe the single best thing we can do for the poor is to plant the right kind of church in their midst.
"The right kind of church" is essential because we have too many irrelevant churches as it is, but the landscape is very barren of the right kind of church. Churches that love Jesus, His Word, worshipping Him, that loves all different kinds of folks and is sensitive to their culture and history, that loves the poor and empowers them and includes them, these are what we need. I think we have to have mixed congregations in the socio/economic sense. Missionary urban Christians, essentially professionals at doing work among the poor are and always will be needed, but by themselves they are too few and too vulnerable to making the lasting difference we need. We need a radicalization of middle class saints to share their lives with poor people in the same congregation.
A church that wants to do effective mercy cannot just ask its middle class members to live in poor communities and "love their neighbor." Most of the hardcore poverty areas in our country have people in them whose lives are dysfunctional over generations. Their value system is messed up, and the complexity of their lives is more than "just being a neighbor" can handle. That is a good way to burn people out. Boundaries are needed, leadership is needed, structure of how to do mercy is needed that will eventually lead to development strategies. Churches need to learn how to train Deacons to develop good mercy policies and guidelines, instead of meeting every request for need with panic, guilt, confusion, and misappropriation of time and money. Not every emergency of a poor person is really an emergency, some things are, but guidelines can help a church tell folks where and where they can get help, and what kind of needs might be might and what kind of help will and will not be given.
People who have live in cyclical poverty are going to need long term discipleship, and part of that discipleship must include financial literacy skills, a change in values, and mentoring in how to live by faith. Some think the poor already have faith, and that's all they have. Some poor folks do have great faith, but a lot of them have a great deal of panic and that is where they often spend their time. If a church is serious about loving the poor they need to build effective ministries of mercy, and as the poor become part of their church then, with the input and participation of the people they are loving, build together those development ministries which make sense in their particular context.