This article originally appeared in By Faith Magazine, Issue Number 27, April 2010.
On a frigid winter night in 1982, a homeless man sought shelter on the stairs of a downtown building. A group of young professionals—bundled up and headed for warm homes—was horrified to discover the sleeping man huddled under snow-caked blankets. But these weren’t workers emerging from a late night at the office, offended by the reality of urban poverty defiling their space. The group that discovered this homeless man was a gathering of Christians leaving a Bible study at Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA) in urban Philadelphia. They didn’t react like the rich man who turned an oblivious cheek to the needy Lazarus camped at his gate (Luke 16:19-31). Instead, the Holy Spirit sparked compassion for a neighbor in need.
What began as a spark spread slowly from this small group until the fire of God’s mercy for the poor and oppressed burned across an entire congregation. Today, Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia is a model of urban engagement, with an enviable list of mercy ministries.
Mercy ministry more naturally thrives at inner-city churches like Tenth Presbyterian, where the homeless are in plain view, where the poor find shelter on the steps of the building. The thornier question perhaps, is this: What about the many evangelical churches across America located in the suburbs? In many of these affluent communities, Christians drive from gated housing communities to well-appointed church facilities without ever encountering suffering or oppression or poverty.
As Tim Keller writes in his book Ministries of Mercy, “This comparative comfort can isolate us in a fictitious world where suffering is difficult to find. But this isolation is fragile, for suffering surrounds us—even in the suburbs.” Keller challenges suburban Christians to re-examine the radical nature of the teaching of the parable of the Good Samaritan. “We need an accurate view of the world in which we live,” he writes. “Perhaps we need to see that, instead of living on islands of ease, we are all living on the Jericho Road.”
As suburban Christians juggle demanding jobs, kids’ schooling and sports, household duties, church responsibilities, and social activities, how can we add mercy ministry to the balls in the air? Does “doing mercy” mean abandoning our lifestyle and moving to the inner city? Perhaps for some, but for most, it’s a matter of opening our eyes, writes Keller. “Do you see neighbors struggling with grief, loss, sickness, divorce, age, disability? The personal problems that are more obvious in urban areas remain hidden in the suburbs. There are the alcoholics or drug addicts, unwed mothers, abused children, juvenile delinquents, and ex-convicts trying to reenter society. The number of needs near us, in our own personal ‘circles of concern,’ is actually quite numerous, if we but open our eyes to see them.”
Two churches composed primarily of white, upper-middle-class professionals—Perimeter Church in Atlanta and Second Presbyterian in Memphis—illustrate what can happen when affluent Christians outside of the urban core stop, look, and listen to the groans of hurting travelers on Jericho Roads that run right through our own communities.
Cultivating Organic Outreach
“It’s not that people didn’t want to serve. They just didn’t know about the needs in our community.” explains Debra Potter, director of community outreach at Perimeter Church, reflecting on early efforts to engage the congregation in ministry throughout the far northeastern suburbs of Atlanta. As church leadership communicated the goal of loving people and engaging them, “where you live, work, and play,” members of Perimeter discovered avenues of influence the Lord had already given them, says Potter. These days, Perimeter’s community outreach office can’t provide enough opportunities to accommodate all the interest in serving. “People are just out there doing it—it’s become truly organic, part of our DNA,” Potter reports.
“This experience changed their life as a family,” says Potter. “They worked together as a team and began to think about something outside of themselves.”
Potter points to one example of how community service has infiltrated the culture of Perimeter – the emergence of a number of “missional families.” She borrows the term from Bo Prosser at Baylor University, who defines a missional family system as one who “looks for ways to participate in the reign of God.” Prosser writes, “Jesus calls us to a life of self-sacrifice, giving ourselves away for the good of others. This call to servanthood is a call away from consumerism and selfishness, a call away from our individual ‘kingdoms’ in order to serve God’s kingdom with integrity.”
This transformation began in one Perimeter family when parents simply volunteered to drive a bunch of teenagers. Their daughter was participating in a student outreach sponsored by Perimeter at a nearby apartment complex, and driving the van seemed like an easy enough task. Little did they know that their hearts would be captured by the immigrant kids who swarmed the van full of visitors. What started with face painting and balloon animals evolved into weekly visits the entire family looked forward to. Years later, the family is tutoring and mentoring these same kids, helping them navigate life.
Keller writes that as we keep our eyes open, we will discover needs on the roads we travel, as did the Good Samaritan. “The family needs to look ‘in close’ before it ‘looks afar.’ You must be sure that there is no bleeding man right under your nose, in your family, church, or neighborhood … . A family’s mercy ministry should develop naturally, not according to a formal program. It should be comprised of the needs God has led you to.”
Yet, the hidden nature of suffering in the suburbs complicates the picture, as does our own fear. David Apple, director of mercy ministry at Tenth Presbyterian, says experience has shown him how God overcomes both obstacles. “In every community, you will find poverty of spirit and oppression, brokenness, and broken-heartedness. This is the darkness into which we are all called to be salt and light,” he says.
Stepping into the darkness around us often begins simply: welcoming a new neighbor, lending a tool, offering a ride, giving a gift. “Your job is to initiate contact. You must turn strangers into contacts, contacts into acquaintances, and acquaintances into friends,” writes Keller. “Christian ministers of mercy are unique in that they intentionally and systematically seek to build bridges with all the people around them at home, at work, and at church. They do this to discover needs and to create a climate in which others can share their weakness.”
In well-to-do suburbs, sharing weakness doesn’t come naturally. Potter recently learned that 18 homes in her subdivision were in foreclosure; yet despite her extensive involvement in the community, she had no idea of her neighbors’ financial turmoil. “In this economic climate, it is our own neighbors and friends and family who are in need,” she says. “This showed me how important it is to build relationships that are safe enough that people will share their needs with you.”
Generating Smoke and Fire
Despite the ideal of developing mercy ministry naturally, certain pockets of great need just won’t be addressed that way. Harvey Anderson, a member of Perimeter Church with a lifetime of experience in mercy ministry, advises: “In my opinion, we need to be about organized mercy ministry until it is happening naturally in every believer's life—just as in evangelism. We teach evangelism techniques; we teach principles of helping needy people.”
Anderson orchestrates home repairs for widows, foster families, single moms, and disabled and elderly individuals across the northern suburbs of Atlanta. Home Repairs Ministries cultivates teams within participating churches to respond to urgent community needs. Anderson recalls coming alongside a Palestinian woman from Jerusalem whose husband had died, leaving her with two sons to raise on her paltry earnings from a daycare center. When a tornado ripped her home and life apart in 2008, Anderson’s team restored a house devastated by eight fallen trees and brutal winds.
But the team restored more than a physical structure—it restored hope to a hurting family. This is the beautiful connection of word and deed ministry, explains Anderson. “Hurting people are inviting us to their homes! They are looking at us, saying, ‘Why would you do this?’ It is uncommon that someone would help to the degree that we did. That is the perfect lead-in for us to explain that we are not here to curry the favor of God. We are here to say thank you to God for sending His Son to die for us.” Keller writes that word and deed must be intertwined in the life of the church: “Mercy and evangelism are like smoke and fire—where one is, the other must be near.”
Melting Hearts with Mercy
Illustrating with a different metaphor, Keller writes, “Mercy ministry goes hand in hand with the ministry of the word in spreading the kingdom of Jesus Christ … . Mercy has impact. It melts hearts. It removes objections. It forces respect out of even those hostile to the gospel.”
Second Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Memphis, Tenn., discovered the power of mercy to melt hearts when it began to meet the urgent needs of a community that seemed a world away, though it is located just minutes from the church.
Situated 12 miles from downtown and on the cusp of eastward suburbs, Second Presbyterian draws largely a white, upper-middle-class, professional constituency. Nearly all of the church’s children attend private school due to the dismal state of the Memphis City School System. With a graduation rate of only 65 percent, and with 71 percent of students eligible for free lunch, the city schools’ needs are only overshadowed by their dire lack of resources: even basic supplies like pencils and paper are scarce.
Eddie Foster, director of Mission USA at Second Presbyterian, says, “You can’t live in Memphis without being concerned about the city schools.” In 2005, desiring to live out its pastor’s call to be responsible lights in a dark world, Second Presbyterian “adopted” a local elementary school. Berclair Elementary’s principal, a deacon at Second Presbyterian, welcomed the church’s assistance in serving his 400 students, 90 percent of whom lived in families with income below the poverty line.
Beginning with a humble “Urban Plunge” clean-up day, the church cultivated its project of melting hearts in the community. Involvement in the school grew into years of committed service through such activities as supplying books and supplies, tutoring students for standardized tests, adopting classrooms, planning parties, serving as proctors, giving food baskets at Christmas, and even distributing hats and gloves in cold weather. “Our initial steps at the school gave us identity and credibility in the community,” reports Foster.
Providing Points of Engagement
Supplying the needs of a radically under-resourced elementary school demanded a level of personal involvement without precedent at Second Presbyterian. What enabled this affluent church to rally more than 450 volunteers from a congregation filled with young families and professionals whose iPhones buzz with endless activity? Foster says the combination of continual challenge from the pulpit and a relatively non-threatening, user-friendly ministry setting motivated the congregation in a new way. Kim Blankenship, director of volunteer ministries for the church, says that service has become a way of life at Second Presbyterian. “Our pastor, Sandy Willson, often refers to the needs of the Memphis education system from the pulpit. Berclair is almost considered a sister,” she says. “People saw how their efforts contributed to helping the entire education system of our community, which is in great need and disrepair.”
In response, members wanted to do more than just write a check as they might have in the past. “People recognized the needs and wanted to be directly and personally involved,” says Foster. Blankenship says they have tried to make ministry accessible and flexible, enabling the involvement of many men, even though ministry necessarily takes place during school hours. She explains, “Because each congregational community (Sunday school class) adopted an individual classroom, men could just drop by and read to students after an early morning Bible study or during their lunch hour—and those male role models are so crucial!”
Some may have questioned how adopting an elementary school, where evangelism is not permitted, could lead to an advance of the kingdom of God. Yet, the influence of the church, and of Christ, continues to expand. The regional superintendent for Memphis City Schools has commissioned Second Presbyterian as its “model adopter” and asked the church to help recruit other churches to adopt each of the 18 schools in the region. As Keller writes, “To spread the kingdom is more than simply winning people to Christ. It is also working for the healing of persons, families, relationships, and nations; it is doing deeds of mercy and seeking justice. It is ordering lives and relationships and institutions and communities according to God’s authority to bring in the blessedness of the kingdom.”
Members of both Perimeter and Second Presbyterian continue to step out of their “islands of ease,” opening their eyes to see the Jericho Roads that run through their communities. As they care for the wounded travelers in their midst, they show mercy in the radical way Jesus requires in His teaching of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Beyond that, they have expressed their gratitude for the mercy Jesus has shown. According to Keller, “Anyone who has seen himself as the man lying in the road, as spiritually poor, will then live a life of generosity toward the outcast and the needy.”
Learning from an Urban Laboratory
Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia embarked on a mission of meeting the physical needs of its urban neighbors in 1982. Today, the church is a model for holistic ministry to the poor and homeless. Its Community Dinner Ministry alone draws 120 homeless guests each month for a banquet and gospel presentation. Even without Tenth’s proximity to the urban core, suburban churches can learn from its journey toward a more vibrant external focus on mercy.
Lesson One: Listen
The willingness of Tenth’s leadership to listen to its members’ desires to reach out to their homeless neighbors was essential in the evolution of its mercy ministry. Director of mercy ministry David Apple attributes much of the success of all ministries at Tenth to the listening and decision-making skills of the elders. “Every month leaders listen to ministry area plans and ideas,” explains Apple. “Decisions are not made lightly and our leaders ensure that everyone is heard.”
Lesson Two: Mobilize Members and Offer Hospitality
“The whole idea is to show the congregation how to serve. We try to make it user-friendly,” explains Apple. “Everything we do involves hospitality. What could be more simple? Sit. Eat. Talk.” As he mobilizes members and outside volunteers, Apple focuses on a simple three-step process: 1) Become involved 2) Establish relationships 3) Offer hope. “It’s all relational,” he says. “It’s a matter of being obedient to God and being available. And then allowing God to have control of the results.”
Lesson Three: Train People to Serve Smart
“Setting safe boundaries is a priority for those of us who work with at-risk people,” says Apple. “Otherwise we will burn out. We must learn how to fulfill our needs on a daily basis through a healthy balance of giving to others while also receiving affirmation and support from others and from God.” Apple spends much of his time conducting training workshops entitled: “Compassion Fatigue,” “How to Deal with Con-Artists,” “Active Listening,” “Teen Challenge,” and “Who is My Neighbor?”
Lesson Four: Multiply
Tenth is committed to multiplying ministries of mercy by empowering other churches, especially church plants, to develop ministries of their own. Apple says many suburban churches initially bring members into the city to serve alongside Tenth. “We offer a credible ministry that provides access and freedom to serve,” he says. “As they become less fearful, they develop the capability to go back and minister in their own communities.”
Every laboratory has its failed experiments. But over time, God has transformed Tenth into a church that models hospitality and compassion in its urban environment. “God has been doing the work by changing hearts and raising up leaders,” says Apple. “Mercy ministry is now a part of who we are. Serving is actually a part of our worshiping God.” As members of Tenth serve, they grow as well, says one volunteer. “The ministry has made me realize that we need the poor and needy just as much as they need us. It gives me a much better realization of what God has given us … . It helps me lead a more Christ-like life.”
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