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New Horizons

A Vision for the Ministry of Mercy

Stephen Igo

What if federal, state, and local social programs were to shut down? How well would Presbyterian and evangelical churches be able to handle such a crisis? It would not be a pretty picture! Sadly, I might thank the Lord for the existence of liberal churches and parachurch organizations if such a scenario unfolded. The sad fact is that Orthodox Presbyterian churches are poorly positioned to identify social trends, blueprint a comprehensive plan for a ministry of mercy, and implement such service as commanded by our Lord.

My People Are Lost without a Vision

What do you do with an affluent, suburban church whose social and economic discernment is sheltered by relative prosperity and stability? No one is doing crack cocaine at the corner. No one is spray painting the church walls. Guns are not sounding in the middle of the night. The divine blessing of localized peace and prosperity is quite tranquilizing and soothing. Before you know it, the church is asleep!

Oh, on occasion there is a knock at the door by a vagrant, or the Joneses are having financial problems again (I sure wish they would learn how to budget!), or widow Johnson needs her car's fan belt replaced. And before you know it, the year has gone by, the deacon's report is due, the congregation sees that they have an active diaconal ministry which soothes the conscience for one more year, and so the deacons tacitly adopt a reactive ministry plan once again.

An OP congregation is typically well attuned to assisting the needs of those within the household of faith. The warm, covenantal family atmosphere of the church fuels this diaconal concern for her members. But perhaps most OP churches are doing just enough in the vital area of serving their families to be lulled into a sleepy, reactive ministry plan. Yet holiness and godliness demand action, struggle, wrestling, training, and watching. Without the Word of God as our guide and the resulting vision from its application, God's people will fail.

As has been typical of my own experience as a deacon, one deacon I interviewed recently said this about his ministry: "There is no vision statement written down, but there might be one. I have not seen or heard of one.... One thing that we try is to get to know people in the congregation—have good personal relationships with the people so that when needs do arise it is not a cold thing. That is one of our goals, I think."

Why do many of our churches not have a mercy ministry plan? Sometimes it is just plain hard to find needs to be met. This sounds odd, doesn't it, in our world where the newspaper and the evening news drown us with the national and global social crises of the day. For some reason, we rarely meet these problems in the drive to work, at the office, in the neighborhood, or at home.

It just pounds us on TV! Maybe there isn't such a big problem, after all. Look, I am doing just fine. If these TV people can't get on well enough, then it's their own fault! That is just one way that a deacon can cruise through life, slap together the same annual deacon's budget (adjusted for inflation, of course), and execute the same old deacons' plan.

Deacons do well enough responding to family needs in the church (our wives would kill us if we let that slip!), but there is little pep in their vision for extending the mercy of Christ, little bounce in their diaconal walk, little sense that the gospel must go forth in deeds of kindness or the church will collapse, the community will topple, and the judgment of God will rain down from heaven.

In effect, we have too often believed the lie that there is no crisis. There can't be. We have looked and looked, we have brainstormed for hours, and we can't find anything worthwhile to do. Sadly, we are saying "Peace and safety" when destruction is coming. The climactic zenith of our social and moral decay is drawing near—God's judgment! This is Paul's theme in his first letter to the Thessalonians. Paul reminds believers, "So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled" (1 Thess. 5:6).

Do Justly and Love Mercy

What do you do with the affluent church that is cash rich, but time impoverished? Simply put, middle-class professionals with families are squeezed for time. It is a marvel that those who are deacons can even set aside three hours a month to decide how to spend their tiny budget and paltry time. Given this scenario, I can guarantee you one thing. No mercy plan means no mercy ministry! The unknown poet put it best: "Some men die in battle; some men die in flames; but most men perish inch by inch playing little games." A concrete mercy vision and plan are essential for a vital ministry in a time-squeezed church. If you do not have one, you are surrendering the gospel to the demon of the status quo!

Have you ever wondered why your diaconal budgets are so low? Well, what would the deacons do with more money if they had it? Probably save it as a nest egg or spend it on stuff. Stuff! Not on a pressing vision shared by the entire congregation. Not on a fledgling new ministry bathed in expectant, corporate prayer for months. Not on a sorely needed project to prevent the community from toppling. Just plain old stuff.

I am sorry to say that for my money, I would take my chances with the local Pregnancy Crisis Center or other community ministry. Why? Is it because I am ignorant of the biblical basis for the diaconate? Is it because I have a low view of the church? I pray not. But these people make my pulse race when they tell me their story. They know how much money they need and when they need it for a vital kingdom ministry to be carried out. They have a vision! They have a plan! Not just for this year, but for the long term, until by God's grace this need is fully met. Have you ever felt this way at your congregational meeting? At a deacons' meeting?

Before we chide the liberal church and parachurch organizations, let us clean up our own house. Every diaconate in the OPC needs to develop a vision of, and a plan for, its ministry.

As we have said, this may not be easy to do if you are comfortably nestled in suburbia. In Ministries of Mercy, pastor and author Tim Keller recognizes this and offers an excellent stimulus for deacons wrestling with both the theology and the practice of mercy ministries. But don't let reading more books hinder your ministry plan. Don't throw a book at a problem and hope it goes away. Instead, go about the work of developing a biblical, exciting mercy plan for your church and community. And dream big dreams. If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.

Work, For the Night Is Coming

Orthodox Presbyterian deacons are hard workers! I haven't met a lazy one yet. In fact, our entire church is characterized by suffering and laboring for the whole counsel of God. As a relative youngster, I am reluctant to spend a lot of time telling tenured deacons how to work harder. My generation has lots to learn about hard work and an honest day's wage. If I could say one thing, though, I would say, "Don't work harder—work smarter." If my dad wanted to send my sisters to piano lessons, he got a second job to pay for it. To send them to ballet lessons, he dug ditches. Needless to say, my dad is now a very tired grandfather.

Some of the challenges I have issued sound like lots of work, don't they? All this brainstorming, planning, scheduling, implementing, and reviewing sounds like a lot of work without much to show for it. This is not a challenge to work harder! It is a challenge to identify some pressing, meaningful social and community needs, to make plans to address them in the name of Christ, and to monitor your success while sharing that vision with a roused congregation.

A clearly articulated vision and a sensible ministry plan will stir the heart and imagination of God's people. You will find more fervent prayers, additional giving, more volunteers, a heightened sense of the gospel's power, and growth within the church of Christ. Under these circumstances, work becomes a delight, an opportunity to rejoice in bringing in the sheaves. Furthermore, the number of shoulders to share this kingdom work will grow in numbers and in energy!

In Acts 6, the church was having a big dispute. Certain widows were apparently being discriminated against in the distribution of food. With Christian friends like these, who needs enemies? But the church was pumped up by the vision and plan of the first seven deacons, who tackled the problem head on. And do you know what happened? "So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7). These deacons had a goal and a plan. My, how the church rejoiced over their success!

Mr. Igo is a licentiate of the Presbytery of Ohio and a former deacon at Grace OPC in Columbus, Ohio. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 1998.

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