What happens when someone approaches you on the street and asks for money? When you see a man holding a cardboard sign that says, “Will work for food”? Or when a woman comes to your church and pleads for help with an overdue bill?
Are you inclined to look the other way, walk past, drive on, or awkwardly respond, “Sorry, we can’t help you?” Do you wonder, “Should I do something?” while feeling uncertain about what that “something” should be? Or does the word “mercy” come to mind?
The problem of poverty is perpetual, without national, ethnic, gender, or age barriers. It’s a dilemma as old as history.
Responses to poverty seem as numerous as its forms. It divides people politically and ideologically — even spiritually. It provokes anger, angst, and apathy even within evangelical congregations and among individual Christians. Some read Jesus’ statement, “The poor you will always have with you,” as if He had shrugged His shoulders in resignation. They fail to note the remainder of His statement, “and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7).
There are those who contend the church’s primary role is to address the poverty of the soul — “the poor in spirit,” as described in Matthew 5:3. Men, women, and children — such thinking goes — need to understand and respond to their spiritual bankruptcy. But even a cursory scan of the Scriptures shows this does not exempt God’s people from a responsibility to address material needs as well.
One passage seems particularly convicting: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49, NAS).
Firsthand Knowledge of Poverty
More than most, Randy Nabors, Mission to North America’s (MNA) Urban & Mercy Ministries coordinator, is intimately acquainted with poverty. He grew up in a single-parent home in the projects of Newark, New Jersey, along with several sisters. He endured the embarrassment and desperation of living in such an environment.
In God’s providence, he, his mother, and family became recipients of biblical mercy. First, an inner-city church reached out, demonstrating for them the love of Christ in many ways. And then, through a Christian businessman’s generosity, he attended college and went on to seminary.
These experiences sparked Nabors’ vision for planting a church in the inner city, one aimed at communicating the love, grace, and mercy of Jesus Christ, not only spiritually but also in tangible ways — not handouts, but practical help for people in need.
Decades since its founding, New City Fellowship has grown into a beacon of hope, an example of how the church of Jesus Christ lives out the principle, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will reward him for what he has done” (Proverbs 19:17).
When we talk about biblical mercy, we typically think about “not receiving what we justly deserve,” namely God’s wrath. While that perspective is accurate, Nabors focuses on the physical dimension of mercy offered in the name of Christ. As he defines it, “Mercy is compassion toward those who are in need resulting in action to alleviate that need, through acts of charity leading toward self-sustainment.”
In Nabors’ view, mercy isn’t limited to annual clothing drives, volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or collecting funds and gifts for needy families at Christmas, although he applauds such efforts. For churches stirred by Jesus’ words, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40), Nabors espouses a comprehensive, intentional, prayerful strategy.
Too much charity for too long makes people dependent and cripples them, while too little charity — when really needed and given too late — leaves people desperate and causes them to suffer.
A Two-Pronged Approach
Mercy, he explains, is two-pronged: Charity, “the response of love to immediate human needs,” and development, “mercy extended to the poor in ways that empower them to help themselves, not only so they can become independent, but also to be merciful to others.”
Effective mercy ministry incorporates both dimensions on a need-by-need basis, according to Nabors. “It’s important to keep both in mind, as one can become the enemy of the other if they are not kept in the proper balance.”
Nabors’ assertion that the local church can be the most effective means for helping the disenfranchised distinguishes his approach from government-aid programs, as well as initiatives sponsored by well-meaning nonprofits.
“Too much charity for too long makes people dependent and cripples them, while too little charity — when really needed and given too late — leaves people desperate and causes them to suffer. Charity and development given without the Gospel or an articulation of Christ’s love is not a holistic mercy, but simply a materialistic one.”
He recalls a time he watched his mother, overwhelmed with despair and unable to provide a meal for her children. “Right at that moment,” he says, “there was a knock. We opened the door to find people standing there, bags of groceries clutched in their arms. They were deacons from the church we had begun to attend. From that time I’ve always thought of deacons as heroes, people who show up in the nick of time, who rescue you when you don’t know what to do.”
That loving inner-city church in Newark did far more than provide food for Nabors’ dysfunctional family. It paid utility bills and even assisted his mother through a pregnancy. Growing up in a fatherless home, Nabors observed men living out their faith with enthusiasm and joy. He saw how godly husbands treated their wives. He watched them teach and model a strong work ethic. He discovered how to begin growing spiritually.
“My new life in the church not only helped me learn how to work and earn money on my own but also showed me how to pray to God and ask for things to happen,” he says.
For this reason, Nabors peppers his conversation with words such as community, relationship, accountability, and discipleship. These are elements of mercy typically lacking in impersonal governmental or organizational poverty programs, but they fit naturally within the context of a local church-based mercy ministry.
He recognizes the complexities of poverty and its varied causes. The responses of government and aid agencies are important, he says, and should not be underestimated. However, Nabors contends that it’s only through a local body of caring believers that the transforming power of biblical mercy becomes realized.
“The church provides a grassroots, community-based institution that becomes an engine of all kinds of mercy: encouraging mercy from person to person, from church to individuals and families, and from church to neighborhood.” If planting the right kind of church in every needy community actually happened — if it became a movement — communities would change, cultures would change, and even nations would be transformed, Nabors says.
Nabors routinely speaks about mercy at churches, seminars, and conferences. A question people often ask is, “Which poor?” In other words, should members of a local congregation feel obligated to reach out to the needy throughout their community, across their city, or only those within their body?
As the church considers its commission under God, Nabors replies, the question answers itself. “When the church uses its resources to help the poor within its walls, especially if the congregation is evangelistic, it will affect the poor in the surrounding neighborhood. If one plants a church among the poor, and the poor in the area need work, who will provide it or refer them to it? Who trains the poor to do the work? This ministry might encompass the entire community — being a witness to the lost and lending credibility to our statements of love.”
Sometimes Nabors hears someone say, “We don’t have any poor people in our congregation (or neighborhood).” This does not exempt believers from ministering to those in need, he responds. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the poor. It doesn’t matter if you have never been around poor people. It doesn’t matter if this is your area of concern. If you are a Christian, your attitude toward the poor must be derived from your relationship with Jesus Christ.
“For those of us who are Christians, the poor — those who are in need and those who are in our path — are inescapably tied to our faith. As John Calvin wrote, ‘To keep up our exercise of brotherly love, God assures us that all men are our brethren because they are related to us by a common nature. Whenever I see a man I must, of necessity, behold myself as in a mirror: for he is ‘my bone and my flesh’” (Genesis 29:14).
Nabors understands that dealing with the poor can be frustrating: misspent money, ingratitude, incurable dysfunction. “But whatever experiences we have had,” he says, “we need to remind ourselves that we are all recipients of God’s mercy. So mercy ministry requires constant renewal. It also requires continuous gratitude for the mercy we’ve received.”
Five Steps for Effective Mercy
Over the years some have argued that an emphasis on material needs constitutes a “social gospel.” But Nabors responds, “The true Gospel has always had social implications and societal results. To not care about people as whole human beings is not the true Gospel either.
“We believe in a supernatural God who still works in the world, who still calls people to be spiritually saved, but who also calls them to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him, as He declares in Micah 6:8.”
Just as one city or one community is different from the next, Nabors does not advocate a one-size-fits-all approach to mercy ministry. However, he delineates five specific steps and strategies he has seen work effectively at New City and other congregations. These include:
1 Knowing and meeting the poor, making a determined effort to build spiritual and relational bridges to them.
2 Establishing a single point of contact for the poor. Since New City had people coming for help so often, the congregation hired a full-time deacon to screen them, evaluate the needs, and determine what type of help should be provided. Other deacons volunteer when needed, ensuring that the volume of requests never becomes overwhelming.
3 Developing the mentality that the church wants the poor to become part of the congregation — to attend, worship, and become members.
4 Developing strategies to move the poor from dependence to economic independence. Many poor are products of generational poverty. As a result they lack a meaningful work ethic; they don’t possess basic skills such as how to fill out a job application or dress for a job interview.
5 Close the circle of ministry by discipling the poor to become leaders so they can bless their own families and community, not simply escape the “ghetto.” One measure of New City’s success has been seeing recipients of mercy not only join the church but also grow into leadership roles, including serving as deacons.
In mercy ministry, Nabors notes, the overall goal is not to feed people for a day or a week, but to encourage, train, and disciple them so that one day they will be able to feed themselves and become equipped to minister to others.
The admonition of Ephesians 4:28 provides inspiration: “Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.”
Robert J. Tamasy is vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy Inc., an Atlanta-based ministry to business and professional leaders.
Randy Nabors is pastor emeritus of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Urban and Mercy Ministries coordinator for Mission to North America. He is also co-author of the just-released book “Merciful: The Opportunity and Challenge of Discipling the Poor Out of Poverty.