The first thing I do when I visit a church is look through the bulletin for any community service outreaches. In 99% of the Reformed churches I visit there are none. There may be service to the community (Bible studies, picnics, sports fellowships), but that community is limited to the church and usually excludes the poor and hurting.
Consequently I have often wondered if there is anything about Reformed theology itself that uniquely hinders Christians from showing compassion. Of course there are exceptions. Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with over 20 established outreach ministries comes to mind. Moreover there are plenty of liberal churches disengaged from mercy ministries.
But still, why do most Reformed churches have only the mind of Christ but not His heart? Why are you more likely to find a liberal believer than a Reformed one involved in a homeless shelter, convalescent home, or AIDS hospice? Why are Reformed believers the most likely to know the story of the Good Samaritan but the least likely among Christians to be like the Good Samaritan?
In response to these questions, Dr. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) and a former professor of Westminster Theological Seminary, offers deep insight and much needed remedies for evangelical churches held captive by a homogeneous middle-class club mentality. If there is one book that needs to be read by members of Reformed churches at this time, it is Keller’s Ministries of Mercy.
In our cynical postmodern age, Keller repeatedly emphasizes, compassion is the most credible apologetic. People may bicker over philosophies and worldviews, but it is those changing the diapers of the elderly in convalescent homes, those feeding starving orphans in northeast China, and those teaching Cambodian immigrants how to read English who present the most compelling argument for the truth of the gospel. Compassion is the one argument today that cannot be dismissed. (see e.g., recent NY Times op-ed).
Why then Reformed believers remain entrenched in word battles and do not take up the one weapon that is sure to cut through stony hearts and disarm accusations of hypocrisy may seem bewildering especially considering their alleged concern for the salvation of souls. But on second thought, this preoccupation with loving God with the mind, devoid of the heart, can, in my opinion, be explained in large part with this basic premise.
Nobody knows to become humble. People study to gain power (‘knowledge is power’). And many people study Reformed theology to gain great power. In this light it is no wonder why very few Reformed believers show compassion to the suffering and oppressed.
For by definition, compassion requires identification with the weak. And that goes directly against the Reformed believer’s desire to become powerful. It is no coincidence that most adherents to Reformed theology are in the middle-class. The motivation that drives the middle-class to move away from the struggles of the impoverished is the same one that draws them closer to Reformed theology.
Keller offers his own views on why evangelicals are not engaged in showing compassion, among them, a fear of failure (the problems are too big to even try grappling with) as well as self-serving pride (God helps those who help themselves).
But going beyond diagnosis, Keller’s book is immensely practical on how to actually overcome a church’s allergy to mercy. For example, he points out that starting churchwide projects like donating materials for baby showers to crisis pregnancy centers or setting up tutoring/ESL assistance for recent immigrants or leading Bible studies in prisons or regularly keeping the elderly company in convalescent homes or hosting holiday outreach banquets for lonely international students are largely laypeople led. Though tragically one’s pastor may not see compassion ministries as being as important as Bible studies and prayer meetings, that is not a valid excuse for a regular member not to be involved in at least one outreach ministry in an ingrown church.
It is at this point that the extreme usefulness of the book becomes readily apparent. After giving a Biblical defense for compassion, Keller then details exactly how lay people with a burden to be like the Good Samaritan can motivate, mobilize, and manage others in the church to meet the needs of those that suffer from physical, social, spiritual, and financial deprivations – and all without relying, initially, on the church’s budget. He persuasively explains through Scripture not only how every believer is a minister of mercy, but also how one can go about convincing others of that vital truth.
The book includes, inter alia, detailed surveys that a church can use to know just what are the needs of the community; practical strategies in overcoming obstacles and objections to church involvement in compassion; organizational advice to avoid mercy fatigue; and real life examples of what other churches are doing.
In short, Keller’s Ministries of Mercy is a step-by-step plan on how any church can be like his model church (www.redeemer.com). Further, unlike Willow Creek, Saddleback, and other churches considered models in our time, Redeemer Presbyterian is distinctly Reformed in doctrine, community service in orientation, and ethnically and economically diverse in membership.
To read Ministries of Mercy is to know an ingenious spiritual battle plan for the church in our time. In order to make Christ known let alone know Christ intimately oneself, compassion, as this book conclusively shows, is prerequisite. Further we must not feign consternation over the fact that churches lack ethnic and economic diversity, especially since these same churches fail to meet the felt needs of their secular community. For creating diversity, as Keller powerfully explains, cannot be done apart from engaging in mercy ministries whose purpose is to reach those outside one’s own cultural bubble. It was no less true in Jesus’ time among the homogeneous Pharisees than it is in ours.