All pastors and church leaders worth their salt say they care about disadvantaged and disenfranchised people. In many cases, however, their actual ministry strategy is designed primarily to increase the number of people attending weekend services. The result is that many of us invest relatively little time and few resources to touch the lives of “the least of these”—the very ones who flocked to Jesus.
One thing scares me: someday soon we’re all going to stand before Jesus and give account for how we served or ignored the outsiders in our community. If that doesn’t motivate you as a Christian, it should motivate you as a Christian leader who will be held accountable for how you lead God’s people.
Some church leaders are afraid that becoming a compassion driven church may make them vulnerable to the criticism they’ve become “liberal” and they’ve “ignored the gospel.” That’s misplaced fear. Effectively meeting the needs of people in the community opens many new doors to tell people about the redeeming love of Christ. But caring for people isn’t just a means to the end of evangelism; it has inherent value of its own. Jesus loved, fed, healed, and restored people whether they trusted in Him or not. That’s the measure of His grace, and it’s one of the marks of a transformed church.
Imagine people driving by your church and saying, “Yeah, that church is incredible. It’s making a huge difference in people’s lives in our community!” I used to think people said that about our church . . . until I started listening to them.
After a staff meeting four years ago, our team had lunch at a restaurant down the road from our church. The mayor of our city was sitting near us. After we finished eating and got ready to leave, the mayor came over and said, “Pastor, I wonder if I could talk to you for a few minutes.” I sat down with him at his table, and he said solemnly, “Pastor Scott, there’s a problem . . . a big problem.”
I responded immediately, “What do you mean? Tell me what it is.”
Without hesitating, he said, “You and your church have a bad reputation in our community.”
I was stunned and asked him to explain what he meant: “Mr. Mayor, I don’t understand. Please tell me what you’re talking about.”
He explained, “You’re the biggest church, and in fact, the biggest organization in our community, but you have the reputation for doing your own thing. You’re not really part of our community at all.”
I tried not to be defensive as I explained, “Everything we do is designed to help this community. I wake up every morning thinking and praying about how we can make a difference in the lives of people.” To be sure he heard me, I repeated myself: “I’m serious Mr. Mayor. It really bothers me that you would say such a thing because everything I do is for this city.”
He smiled knowingly, “That’s the problem, Pastor Scott. You’re always doing things for us, but you don’t do much with us. There’s a difference . . . a big difference.” As I walked out of the restaurant, I knew this wasn’t a complaint I could easily dismiss. The mayor had pointed out a profound misunderstanding in the way we were trying to live out our mission. In passage after passage in the gospels, Jesus spent time with outcasts of every type: despised prostitutes, hated tax collectors, the blind, the lame, and convicted criminals. Jesus didn’t see them as projects to be fixed, but as people to be loved. There’s a monumental difference between creating services to help people and becoming one of them.
That afternoon God also reminded me of the passage that’s been the foundation for our church. When Jesus began His ministry and gave His first message, He read from the prophet Isaiah. As Jesus stood in the synagogue, He quoted:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19)
He doesn’t divide the world into dualistic spheres of sacred and secular. He cares for people where they are and uses us to meet their needs. We never fail to communicate the wonderful gospel message of transforming grace, but this message is received most readily if we also fulfill His mission of caring for “the least of these.” In fact, in Isaiah’s prophecy, the people who are recipients of God’s grace become His partners. The prophet says, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:3). That’s why we call our church The Oaks Fellowship.
God used the mayor’s words to challenge me, inspire me, and redirect the efforts of our church. Our leaders prayed and planned, and within a week God led us to rethink everything about our church: our identity, our calling, and our strategy. Before my meeting with the mayor, if anyone had asked if we had a compassionate church, I’d have pointed to our support groups for addicts and hurting people, our food pantry, benevolence ministries, our assistance for struggling churches in other countries, and on and on. But suddenly we realized all of these were for, not with. We held a hand out to these people, but we didn’t embrace them—we didn’t identify with them and become one of them. Now, we’ve become committed to make compassion who we are, not just part of what we do. Caring for people is no longer a department of our church; it’s become the soul of our church. True compassion couldn’t remain a niche; it had to become the new norm.
We Redefined Success
For years our church defined success by the strength of our programs and the increase in our numbers. After my meeting with the mayor, we began to think differently. We redefined success as helping any of the gatekeepers— organizations already working to meet the needs in the community— accomplish their goals, whether we got any notice or not. We gradually shifted our vision from the success of our church to the crying needs of people around us. If we can help feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, mentor kids, give blood, and dozens of other worthwhile functions, we realized we were fulfilling God’s calling in Isaiah 61 and Luke 4. We wanted to be like Jesus and serve with no strings attached.
We Provided Resources for Our Community Gatekeepers
As we thought about our community, we realized there are five types of organizations that serve as gatekeepers to serve people: schools, churches, government, nonprofit organizations, and the Chamber of Commerce. We asked a gifted and compassionate person in our church to take initiative with each of these gatekeepers. We asked her to be our ambassador and liaison to each organization. She began attending meetings of these gatekeepers, introducing herself and offering the church’s help. She gave her contact information to school principals, teachers, elected officials, business leaders, pastors, and the heads of the local nonprofit organizations. At first, they weren’t sure The Oaks wanted to support their efforts with no strings attached. We had to prove ourselves.
Whatever the need, we tried to provide the resources to meet it. After a while, they realized our church is a trustworthy partner, willing to serve gladly and tirelessly, and our reputation began to change. Of course, our church couldn’t provide everything the gatekeepers needed for every event. When we stopped competing, we realized we could earn their trust, become genuine partners, and really make a difference.
We Decided to Make a Difference
If we want to make a difference, we must get out of our church buildings and be with the hurting, the lost, the poor, the proud, the up-and-comers, and the down-and-outers—just like Jesus did. For this to happen, pastors must model it. We need to carve out time to coach a Little League team, mentor a student, or play on a community flag football team. Telling stories about the wonderful things that happened ten or twenty years ago won’t cut it. Our stories of touching people need to be fresh. It starts with the leader being committed to being with people instead of doing things for them.
Caring for hurting people always comes at a cost. It’s far easier to sit in our offices and give directions than to give our time, our energy, and our hearts to people who may not care or may demand far more than we can give. With God’s help, we can become known as people who love not only in word but in deed. For that to happen, compassion can’t just be a department in the church; it must be the very essence of what the church is about.
Written by Scott Wilson
Adapted from CityServe: Your Guide to Church-Based Compassion. Copyright © 2019 by Dave Donaldson. Published by Salubris Resources, Springfield, Missouri.