Last week at the Oasis retreat a pastor reported that a 71 year-old man and his wife prayed to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior the previous Sunday. Interestingly, the couple had been serving at the church’s monthly feeding ministry for years, but did not attend church worship services. Then, surprisingly, they came to church that Sunday, professing Christ and requesting baptism. I say “surprisingly,” but the Spirit’s work in the hearts of that couple reflects a familiar story in the long history of the Church. When God’s people show mercy to the hungry and hurting, and do so in Jesus’ name as a testimony to the power of the gospel, hearts and minds open to Jesus in new ways.
When I was beginning my pastoral ministry, someone told me that if I will look for hurting people, broken people, and love them and show mercy toward them, that I will never lack for a ministry. I don’t remember who said that, but they were correct. In my last pastorate we began a ministry in which we sent a team to anyone in our community who suffered some type of tragedy – fire, accident, crime, etc. Our teams were trained to pray for them, then identify and meet their needs. It was interesting to me that some of the people we reached through this ministry were not those we served, but others who were taken by our “ministry of mercy” to the hurting and wanted to be a part of it.
Rodney Stark, author of 30 books on the history and sociology of religion, says that mercy was regarded as a character defect in the pagan world because mercy involves providing unearned help and is therefore contrary to justice. Thus, the Early Church’s provision of mercy not only set her apart from the world, mercy also made life better for the faithful in the “here and now.” As Stark says, Christianity is not merely “pie in the sky” as some unbelievers like to claim. Christianity actually puts the pie on the table by extending mercy toward people in times of grief and distress and disease.
Perhaps the greatest example of mercy in the Early Church occurred during the two great plagues that struck the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries. During the 15-year epidemic beginning in A.D 165, in which a quarter to a third of the people in the Empire died, Christians survived at far better rates, as did their pagan friends, because they did not abandon the sick, but showed mercy toward them and cared for them. Stark says that it not only effected higher conversion rates, but the percentage of Christians in the population increased because fewer Christians died. He reports that studies of ancient cemeteries reveal that, on average, Christians lived longer. Stark says mercy was one of the keys to the growth of the Early Church (see The Rise of Christianity or The Triumph of Christianity).
I believe that mercy is key to helping people discover Jesus in 21st Century America as well. A church that becomes “famous” in the community for love and mercy, and combines it with a clear gospel ministry, will reach people for Christ. A church planter I know started his church with the clear purpose of blessing the impoverished community in which God sent him to minister. When he asked the elementary school principle how his new congregation could help the school, the principle said that she didn’t have much time and that he needed to tell her what he wanted. After another attempt to speak to her was rebuffed he said, “We have $10,000 we want to invest in the school and I don’t know what you need. How do you want us to spend the money in a way that will best help you?” Now he had her attention! That was four years ago. Not only is the principle now a member of the church, but others in the community have learned that this is a church that cares for the community, and demonstrates love and mercy toward people, and the church is making a tremendous impact with many coming to faith in Jesus Christ.
Is your church famous in your town for deeds of compassion and mercy? What can you do, or your small group do, to help one person, one family, one neighborhood? If you are willing to help a broken person, you’ll have a ministry, and your gospel witness will be empowered. Mercy is key to helping others discover Jesus. This is as it should be, and has always been.