Over the last few years, at least in my denomination (PCA), there has been a lot of talk regarding the importance of making sure that our ministries are “Christ-centered” or “Gospel-centered” in their main thrust. After all, we don’t want ministries that are just about moralism or doing good works; we want ministries that are about grace and the cross.
This “Christ-centered” focus is particularly evident when it comes to how we preach. We don’t want our preaching to turn into just the standard “do” sermons that invite a moralism that undermines the truths of the gospel. The center of our preaching must always be the redemptive work of Christ.
But, here is where a key question arises. If our ministries are to have a Christ-centered focus, then have we applied this focus equally to all our ministries?
This seems like a particular good question to ask when we consider mercy ministry. During the last generation, there has been an ever-increasing focus on helping those in need—assisting the poor, feeding the hungry, etc. These good works, we are told, are critical if we are to show the world that our faith is real.
But, if there is any ministry that we want to make sure is really-Christ centered, then surely it is this one. Why? Because the ministry itself is about doing good works, and thus is particularly vulnerable to morphing into a moralistic crusade void of the gospel.
In a recent article, Peter Jones gives a poignant example of how easily this can happen, even to mercy ministries that start out as evangelical:
In January 2013 World Vision (WV) sent an Easter funding appeal to those sponsoring needy children. WV began as an evangelistic ministry of Bob Pierce, a powerful preacher whom I heard preach when I was just a lad in my hometown in Liverpool in an evangelistic crusade. Since then, I have noticed many changes. The cross featured on all WV literature morphed into a twinkling star. I began to wonder. At the WV booth at a recent pastors’ conference, we were asked to fill packages with good things to be sent abroad. When I asked why there were no Bibles in the packages, I was told that they couldn’t know which language to include! My concern increased.
This Easter appeal included a card to be sent to deprived children in faraway places, with the WV tagline “Building a better world for children.” There was no good news of resurrection, rather pictures of animals teaching moralistic lessons to “bless children.” Children, like sheep, should “stay close to the family and friends you know…” but no mention of staying close to Jesus the Good shepherd. Children are like deer: “The deer is sure-footed…be confident in your abilities, like the deer.” No mention of the soul, like a thirsty deer, panting after God. The card only lacked the Easter Bunny! This is not an absence of Gospel. This is an anti-gospel-learning morality from nature and being successful from within ourselves, without depending on the Creator and Redeemer of nature.
In light of the rapidly increasing focus on mercy-ministries in the modern evangelical church, we need to be willing to ask the tough questions: How Christ-centered (really) is our mercy ministry? Are we any different than the United Way?
If we are going to maintain Christ-centered mercy ministries that do not morph into social-gospel ministries, then two things will need to be in place.
First, we need a Christ-centered motivation. When we call people to do mercy ministry, we must call them to do it for biblical reasons, and not for worldly ones. Certainly, Christians should not do mercy ministry to earn favor with God; our favor with God is secured by the finished work of Christ. We should not do mercy ministry just because it’s hip or trendy, or because it gives us “street cred” in the eyes of the world. We should do it for the glory of Christ and out of keen sense of the mercy that has so lavishly been poured onto us.
So, to those who are champions of mercy ministry, I ask this question. Are you busy reminding those in your ministries of solid, biblical, Christ-centered motivations for their actions?
Second, we need a Christ-centered message. The Christian does (or ought to do) mercy ministry with a very different mindset than the world. We do mercy ministry with the knowledge that food and clothing are not the primary needs of those we serve. This does not mean that material needs are irrelevant—we should care about temporal suffering. But, the ultimate need of those we serve is Christ. What they ultimately need is a repaired relationship with their Creator.
So, to those who are champions of mercy ministry, I ask this question. Are you seeking to bring Christ to those you are helping? Are you bringing the gospel to those you are serving?
This does not mean, of course, that every single act of mercy must be accompanied by a sermon or gospel tract, lest it be invalidated. No, it’s not that simplistic. What it does mean, however, is that the central thrust of our good works is always that the gospel message might go forth.
Put simply, mercy ministry should be driven by the gospel message, and should drive people to the gospel message.
Either way, the gospel message is primary. That is the only way our mercy ministry, or any ministry, can be a Christian one.
Couldn’t agree more. My daughters’ school gave all of us parents a copy of The Hole In Our Gospel a few years ago (written by WV’s president). The thesis of the book is that without doing these good deeds our gospel is lacking. The irony is, of course, that if the focus is solely on the deeds and we neglect the gospel than we haven’t given them any good news, and the real hole in the gospel is the absence of Christ and the message of salvation.
“…The real hole in the gospel is the absence of Christ and the message of salvation.” — That nailed it, right there!
Dr. Kruger, I thoroughly appreciated this piece. Only a couple of years ago I read the sad history of the Salvation Army and the nearby Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), and am bothered to see the same traits in World Vision–what potential!
I do want, however, to stand in the middle and say to the previous comments, that yes, you are right. There is much about Stearns’ book that bothered me. My only exhortation to you (as I was exhorted as I read it) is to be sure that you learn from it. Does the book fail in some significant ways? Yes. Would we all be fools to not learn from it what we can? I think yes.
My favorite thing about the Reformed is they (we) usually hold onto concerns about matters of first importance. My least favorite thing about us is that we’re often unwilling to learn from others (broad evangelicals, and even, gasp, full-on, brazen liberals) once we detect failure on their part.
Stearns’ book changed my life for the better, but I did read it critically, and I cannot hand it to people without sharing my reservations. But I do still occasionally recommend it to folks who I know will be able to discern the helpful from the not-so-helpful.
Be certain that I have not assumed that you have refused to learn, I have only assumed it is a possibility.