Should we support church planters or mercy ministries?
In his book “Reaching and Teaching” David Sills cites a stat that in the last decade mercy ministries (non-profit organizations aiming at supplying some physical need) rose 75% while church planting rose only 13%. This, he said, was an alarming statistic. Not because we shouldn’t do good works but that it indicates that less resources are going into churches being planted. The churches that support us, for their part, have continued to focus on church planting.
So what part, then, should churches have in doing good works to the community? Feeding the hungry? Providing relief for the persecuted brothers in prison? Rescuing orphans? Comforting widows in their affliction? Counseling and aiding single women in a crisis pregnancy? Dressing the naked with clothes and coats in the winter? Should we stop doing this and focus only on church planting?
The above question is flawed, I think, biblically. Here are some principles to understand the issue:
Principle #1- The work of the Great Commission is evangelism is disciple making is church planting. Each one of these activities is found clearly in Matthew 28:19-20. This is the primary work of the missionary and should be the primary activity supported by missions giving in churches.Principle #2- The result of church planting is good works that glorify our Father in heaven. Paul wrote that we were created in Christ Jesus unto good works (Eph. 2:10). This means that new believers have flowing from them a desire to do good to others. This is the natural result of the gospel and the natural result of church planting.Principle #3- God has equipped certain members of every church with gifts that are not teaching and preaching gifts. These include compassion, giving, organization, and service. These gifts are meant by God’s Holy Spirit to be used to show Christ’s love to those inside and outside the church. As local believers gather and form a church, these people with these gifts will be more and more active in serving social needs to the glory of God.
Good works in the church of the New Testament include the healing of the lame man (Acts 4), service to widows by the deacons (Acts 7), the ministry of clothes making by Dorcas (Acts 9), the giving of the churches of Macedonia to physical needs in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 9), and more. An overflow of good works has long been the result of church planting and the proof of the gospel to the world. We aren’t to just tell people, “Be warmed and filled”, James said. We are to actually give them bread (James 2:16).
Rodney Stark in his book “The Rise of Christianity” points to the compassion of Christians as one of the main contributing factors to the the massive growth of the Jesus movement in the Roman Empire. During the plague that wiped out 1/3rd of the empire the pagans fled and abandoned any homes touched by this sickness. The Christians, however, rushed in. They acted as nurses and often died as a result. They often, however, lived and helped the affected to survive the fever caused by the plague. The pagans saw them as super human or angels. In a way they were right! An untold number came to Christ during these times because the church was doing what the church does: good works.
So the question in the title is a false dichotomy. Church planting gives birth to compassionate and merciful social ministries of all types to the poor and hurting. The problem lies in seeking mercy ministries as a priority in a region. While serving the poor and needy is necessary it needs to be preceded by preaching the Gospel. We should seek healthy church planting and then come along side these brothers to help them live out all that God has called them to do: the good works of preaching and loving the poor, orphaned, widowed, etc.
Paul and Peter did not go into a place launching mercy ministries. They launched churches and the local believers did the kind of good works that non-profit organizations do today. They preached the gospel and a tangible love for others sprang from the trees that grew from that seed. Non-profit organizations ought to give us an opportunity to join with local believers in showing the gospel that they are already preaching. Good works are not in competition with the gospel ministry, they are the results of gospel ministry.
We should help churches we have planted in other cultures to do the same types of ministries of love our churches are doing at home mingled with local and international resources. Our church in Middletown, OH feeds the hungry, provides after school mentoring, gives away gifts to underprivileged children at Christmas, participated in our local crisis pregnancy center in giving options for girls considering abortions, and more. One wonderful church I know of in our same town started a ministry called “Hands and Feet”. They restore a home of a needy family, typically a single mother, once per year. They put to use the skills of a lot of people in their churches for the glory of Christ and the joy of everyone.
We can support these same works by coming alongside our new brothers and sisters in cultures that hate Christianity to help them see how to love the lost. We can support them by sending the deacons and others in our churches who are gifted in this area. We can support them by helping with our gifts. We can support them with encouragement and stories of how God has used good works to bring people to Christ in the West. In short: we can support them.