Phil Edwards was 10 when his father was gunned down outside an Atlanta nightclub. The murderer was a bookmaker who held a grudge against Phil’s dad, an alcoholic who got drunk on weekends but managed to stay sober on work days. The bookie was a popular man who got off with a light sentence.

Young Phil was heartbroken. He knew his father’s weaknesses but loved him anyway. The murderer had killed Phil’s hope and taught him the twisted lessons that often form the foundations for urban survival: no one can be trusted, we’re on our own, life stinks.

He got into some mischief—petty theft, mostly—and had a .22 in his pocket with the intent to avenge his father’s murder when he heard the killer was out of prison and back in business. Phil might have used it too, but God saved him from the familiar tragedy of grudge begetting grudge, and led him instead to a group of godly men and a ministry that provided inner-city teens with summer employment.

The men became his mentors, teaching him not only Christian principles for life but skills for making a living. He learned to trust Jesus, and he learned to use his hands – for carpentry. Now a young man, Phil could do roofing, renovations, and was handy with a hammer, a saw, and other construction tools. As his faith grew along with his abilities, he learned that he could help others master the life skills and attitudes he’d learned from the men God placed in his path.

Phil was traveling on a new road. Instead of becoming an urban statistic, he had received mercy and was passing it along to others. He was experiencing the multiplication effect of mercy ministry.

Mercy Means Development

Thirty years have passed since Phil Edwards lost his dad. In that time he’s become a husband and father, a homeowner and a minister. He serves New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tenn., as assistant pastor for community outreach. He’s close to earning a degree at nearby Covenant College where he’s pursuing a business major to complement his practical experience. Along with a radically changed heart, his education and skills are helping him build the kind of mercy ministry that’s based on development.

Development. That’s the term Edwards and other mercy ministry experts use to describe a concept more effective than simple charity, which is sometimes described as the enemy of personal growth. Development is what makes mercy ministry exciting, says Edwards.

“Writing a check is convenient and provides relief in a crisis situation, but development builds interdependence,” he explains. “The fun begins when you come alongside people who need help, and you teach them how to do it for themselves. Now you start seeing change. What happens in that process is you build trust with them, and they experience hope. They learn useful skills and unlearn bad coping mechanisms, replacing them with responsible living. Now you’ve got a person who is strong, capable, and able to take care of himself and contribute to society. You’ve got someone who can be on the giving end of mercy ministry. That’s development.”

Mercy Demands Accountability

Randy Nabors adds accountability to development as necessary for successful, effective mercy ministry.

As senior pastor of New City Fellowship, he heads a church model for mercy ministry that’s fast becoming a study in how to do it right. Nabors, along with Edwards and 18 others on staff, including laypeople, provide training in self-sufficiency with built-in goals for which they hold people accountable.

Here’s how it works. Maybe an indigent person stops by the church wanting food or money for living expenses. Sure, New City Fellowship has a pantry and can offer a can of beef stew. Or a staff member can offer the person a ride to a shelter. Sometimes—especially if the needy person is a church member going through financial hardship—the appropriate response is to provide money for rent or other needs. But here’s what comes with the help: accountability. New City staffers interview the people and ask them to submit to counseling in essential life skills such as budgeting.

A ministry built on accountability means a lot of saying no, even when it seems easier to say yes. People who are needy can be bold in asking for money, says Nabors. That’s particularly true if their circumstances result from their own poor choices, such as drug use. He tells stories of offering rides to shelters, then finding himself with an angry person in the front seat of his car, demanding to be put up in a hotel room—the church footing the bill, of course.

Plus, saying no or requiring accountability often blows the image of Christians as a soft touch for cash, the view of too many people with destructive lifestyles who have learned how to manipulate the system, including showing up on a church doorstep with a sob story.

“I’ve had guys say ‘I need money to eat.’ Then I hear a ring-tone coming from their pocket, and they say ‘Oops, I’ve got a call,’” says Nabors. “So they whip out a cell phone and take their call. Then they have the audacity to put that caller on hold to take another call. After that they snap the phone shut and resume their conversation with you asking for a hand-out. It’s ridiculous.”

And New City doesn’t put up with it.

Instead, the church provides one-on-one help with seasoned staff who are trained in the art of confronting people—compassionately—and offering help that will lead to getting people back on their feet. It takes work, follow-up, and a sort of toughness of spirit that Nabors says is merciful to the people needing help but doesn’t sustain them in their poverty. It also helps to prevent burn-out, a common problem for churches with an active mercy ministry.

“We’re committed to helping people who truly need it. We also try to be an advocate for Christians who want to develop a mercy ministry by helping them learn how to be as effective as possible,” he adds.

Mercy Must be Contexualized

Experts add another concept to the strategy of effective mercy ministry: contextualization. This means understanding where a needy person is coming from to serve that person in the most effective way possible and with the goal of helping him or her become self-sufficient. It combines empathy with appropriate response based on personal circumstances.

Author Amy L. Sherman provides consulting to congregations starting or enhancing their community ministries. She encourages them to become personally engaged by meeting people in their areas of greatest need, without judgment. This helps churches contextualize their services according to need and long-term impact. “Congregations become humble servants to the community and collaborate with other entities of good will to seek a just society, to eliminate poverty and racism, and to provide opportunities for everyone.”

She is passionate about helping churches “grasp the full ramifications of the gospel—understanding how big is our God and how much we can accomplish through Him. This means looking at issues as complex as immigration or as foundational as education and realizing Christians can make a difference.”

Sherman describes a congregation in Huntsville, Ala., doing effective mercy ministry on a church-wide level. Southwood Presbyterian provides learning tools for an elementary school where 94 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for the government’s free lunch program. A tour through Lincoln Elementary includes stops at a giant science lab, complete with salt-water aquarium and terrarium; a refurbished library with a state-of-the-art computer lab and scores of new books; and a greenhouse where students study horticulture.

Southwood has gone beyond supplying funds to build such facilities. They offer people to tutor and mentor the students. Some relationships have become so close-knit and effective that church families include the Lincoln school kids on family vacations. About half of Southwood’s 1,100 members participate directly in the school ministry.

By “adopting” this financially-strapped school and its families, Southwood is changing lives at an age when the impact will be greatest. Says Sherman, “Studies show that students who can’t read by fourth grade are more likely to drop out, not develop into effective workers, and become a drain on society by turning to crime.”

Using contextualization, Southwood members are doing missionary work without ever leaving their zip code.

Randy Nabors is a living, breathing example of contextualization. The Chattanooga pastor began life in the housing projects of Newark, N.J. His mom was a single parent on welfare. It was a racially mixed area with a high crime rate. Yet Randy—and his mother – knew Jesus. Through the supernatural process of being called by God as one of His people to serve Him in ministry, he experienced a softening of heart that opened him to possibilities most people in his circumstances could not imagine.

Perhaps his ultimate contextualization came when he met Joan at the age of 15. As the teen-aged Randy saw her come around a corner, he instantly recognized her as the one God intended for him to marry. Four years later they wed.

But this was a different love-at-first-sight story, especially in the late 1960s. Randy is white, Joan is black, and interracial marriage was rare. As a mixed-race couple they had no role models, and they knew acceptance would prove difficult. But each had enough maturity in their relationship with God to know what was right for them and to seek Him for help.

The Nabors now share a rich, enduring marriage, several college degrees between them, four kids, and financial stability. (He pumps the air as he explains that he and Joan have finally become middle class. “We recently paid off our mortgage. We’re homeowners.”) Nabors now sees their background as preparation for the contextualized ministry of New City Fellowship. He understands his racially mixed congregation. He has a heart for their perspective. He sees a community of desperate people, and in his gut he knows how they feel. And he believes that the Bible commands us to run toward people in need.

He’s adamant, though, that mercy must be administered with biblical wisdom, citing 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” Nabors describes times when a “no” response is the right answer to some who seek help at New City. “We’ve given a bag of groceries only to find the recipient around the corner five minutes later selling the food to pay for his drug habit. Being incarnational means being wise.”

A Transformed Heart Sees the Need

Effective mercy ministry requires a transformed heart more than specialized training. Phil Beauford, a volunteer in the ministry efforts of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, wants laypeople to remember that “Jesus used ordinary people—simple and unlearned. They used their God-given skills for great change.”

A retired salesman, Beauford describes himself as a people-person gifted with listening skills and discretion, which is useful at a ministry where he’s active, a home for boys temporarily institutionalized by court order. “I tell them I don’t care why they’re there, that’s none of my business. And then we proceed to talk about how the Lord can change their future.”

Beauford’s pastor, noted author and theologian Philip G. Ryken, says, “Our thinking about mercy always begins with the character of God and understanding the mercy He has shown us in Christ. Our own experience of mercy given in our brokenness provides the personal background for our calling to provide mercy to others.”

Is the mercy the Bible requires based on the circumstances of the recipient? According to Ryken, “Brokenness can be caused by our own sinfulness or by another’s sinful behavior toward us. Both call for compassion by the people of God. Mercy begins with the full recognition of need, no matter what the cause.”

The call to mercy must be worked out in every Christian’s heart and life, adds Ryken, including the component of evangelism. “Merciful people of God should be noticing needs in their local community. Have immigrants moved in who need services and a relationship with Christ? Do people live nearby who have a destructive lifestyle? God’s people need to be welcoming and open to opportunities to share the gospel.”

Carolyn Curtis is an author, editor, and speaker living near Atlanta, Ga.

Walking in His Shoes

The goal of mercy ministry is to be incarnational – to show the face of Christ to those who need to know Him. According to Diane Langberg, Ph.D., well-meaning churches can miss this by not walking in the shoes of the sufferer.

She gives an example: “A woman who’d been battered by her husband was invited to the church’s session meeting to tell her story. The session intended to help but they hurt her in the long run, because they denied her request to bring along a supportive woman friend. What they didn’t understand was that she was terrified of men. And guess who sits on the session—men! Her fear was the result of the sin of battering, and her fear—to some degree—protected her, because it made her vigilant.

“So to be incarnational, we must understand each person’s circumstance. We must educate ourselves on the effects of sin, and we must get into the skin of the other person before we can adequately minister.”

Langberg’s Pennsylvania-based psychology practice and broad experience in counseling provide her with insight about incarnational ministry. She’s learned to embrace the recipient lovingly, as Christ would, with the truth of the gospel.

She mentions homosexuals as potential recipients of mercy with evangelism, both in the corporate context of welcoming congregations and by individual Christians reaching out to gay and lesbian friends or family. “The reason someone is in the homosexual lifestyle depends on the individual, because every person is unique. As Christians, our response is to get on our knees and to invite others to pray with us. We are to stay there until we understand … some sense of what God is calling us to do.

“With homosexuals—as with others needing ministry—our first responsibility is to love them. Too often our tendency is to give answers to questions that aren’t being asked. But unless this person is at a point of struggle in his or her life, giving information will simply splat against them and fall to the floor. The info won’t be absorbed, because there’s no questioning going on.

“If you study the gospel, looking at Jesus’ relationships to others, you see that people approach Him, saying ‘I need help, I have this problem,’ not the other way around. So, for the most part, we can’t give answers unless we start getting questions.

“But one of the things we can do in loving homosexuals is what Oswald Chambers says, ‘we can make them homesick for what we have.’ So our first response is one of prolonged intercession. And our second response is to love them in a way that creates hunger for God. Then a dialogue will come out of those two things. It may take six weeks, it may take six years. But it will be a dialogue that has a receptive heart on the other side.”