The one word that will help you focus your mercy ministries
It’s an issue that has been much discussed among Reformed churches: what is the place of welfare ministries in the life of our churches? Some churches probably wouldn’t encourage their members to get involved in social initiatives at all, in case they’ll be distracted from evangelism—even if they aren’t actually doing much of either. Other churches approve of these ministries for individuals but not for churches. Still others would encourage their members to get involved in social-welfare ministry of every kind and, whether or not there is any gospel conversation, call it mission. But we’d do well to remember these words from John Piper:
“In all the attempts to alleviate suffering, we must not forget to alleviate eternal suffering by the proclamation of Christ.”
This rightly prioritizes evangelism. But does that mean that church members shouldn’t get involved in social justice at all? How can churches maintain Jesus’ priority of Word ministry, while obeying Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbor?
I’ve been wrestling with these questions in the two decades since we set up the Co-Mission church planting initiative in London. I’ve noticed that, while each church plant has been focused upon evangelistic outreach, as they’ve grown, they’ve attracted new church members with the skills to be active in a range of social ministries, such as our crisis pregnancy ministry, prison visiting, debt counseling, and outreach to the homeless.
Social justice and evangelism are both ways of loving our neighbors. The first has great but temporary benefits for this world, while the second has glorious benefits both now and in the world to come. So, in understanding how they relate, we’ve found three enormously helpful principles that are illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. The key for focusing our priorities lies in this one word: “Especially.”
1. Especially the needy (Luke 10:30)
Jesus pictures a man being mugged on the notoriously dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. We might have said, “They bashed him over the head with a baseball bat, stabbed him in the back with a beer bottle and kicked him to the ground, took his phone, wallet and sneakers, and left him unconscious in a pool of blood.”
Jesus describes something that could happen to any of us. We could be mugged by thieves or by redundancy, by a cancerous lump or the death of a child, by a creeping addiction to gambling or pornography. Many of us already have been. We could self-righteously enquire what this man was doing traveling alone. But Jesus doesn’t bother with blame. We all make bad decisions and do stupid things. It’s ugly when the well and wealthy criticize the poor and sick because of contributory foolishness; and it’s particularly ugly in Christians, for Christ saved us despite the stupidity of our own sin. Jesus is plainly telling us to be concerned for those in need. We need to gradually reach all the communities of our cities, and not just attempt to reach the elites in the name of strategically accessing leadership potential.
2. Especially our neighbours (Luke 10:31–32)
God commands us to love our neighbors as generously as we love ourselves. Jesus was not limiting those we help to those who are closest to us; rather, Jesus was expanding our definition of neighbours to include anyone we come across in need, whatever their race, religion, class or kind of problem! But Jesus wasn’t suggesting that the priest and Levite who passed by should have abandon their ministries to search the roads of Palestine for battered travelers (and the Samaritan went on with his life after caring for the injured man). And Jesus wasn’t telling us to help everyone, for we all feel bewildered by the scale of need even in our own neighborhood, let alone the world. He’s telling us to help the one person we can all help—the needy person we come across in daily life.
Jesus doesn’t for a minute suggest anyone should abandon gospel work for social justice. But none of us are doing gospel work all the time. Jesus wasn’t telling churches to divert resources from gospel preaching into poverty relief. He was telling individual disciples to put ourselves out for someone in need. We can each help one elderly lady in our block of flats, one distressed colleague at work, or one migrant family in our area trying to find work. For we were all lying in the spiritual gutter when Jesus found us.
3. Especially with the gospel (Luke 10:33-35)
Rather than abandon the man as soon as possible, or just call an ambulance, the Samaritan drove him to the hospital and covered the costs. This was practical love—involving costly self-denial. Samaritans were generally hated by the Jews. But this Samaritan didn’t allow his own experience of prejudice to become an excuse to neglect a foreigner in need. He didn’t offer help in order to earn favor with God, nor in the hope that the wounded man would be grateful and join his church! He just did it for the man’s sake, out of compassion; he “took pity on him”.
When we get involved in compassionate care, we shouldn’t do so just to gain evangelistic opportunities. This can easily become manipulative subterfuge. We should offer our works of compassion as simply the justice and righteousness in which God delights. But opportunities often do arise when people wonder why we help them, and the gospel is the most precious gift we can offer—for evangelism is compassionate care to relieve eternal suffering.
But let’s also welcome opportunities to help a needy neighbor—because Jesus says bluntly in verse 37, “Go and do likewise”! In all of life, we are to live compassionately like the good Samaritan… especially towards the needy, especially towards our neighbors, and especially with the gospel… pointing people to the Greatest Samaritan of all, who came to us in our desperate spiritual need and rescued us from dying in the gutter of sin—to Jesus.
This article is adapted from Richard Coekin's new book, Gospel DNA: 21 Ministry Values for Growing Churches, which is available to pre-order now.