How do I start a Mercy Ministry?

By Ryan West

In the last blog post, I discussed the rationale for starting a mercy ministry in your local church. Mercy ministry is not a program but rather good conscious effort to be in relationship with hurting people, seeking to alleviate their suffering while leading them into holistic discipleship. It is an approach to ministry that is very organic, as your members live life among hurting people. Yet, we need to consider how to begin and guide this organic process, to pursue efforts actively rather than wait passively for our members to do ministry. I think there are three ways to cultivate a culture of mercy ministry in your congregation. We need to start small, succeed and—as a good Baptist, I had to use a third “S” in the title above—celebrate.

 Mercy ministry is not a program but rather good conscious effort to be in relationship with hurting people

How to start small and why?

Let me answer the ‘why’ question before listing how you lead your people into mercy ministry. As they begin to realize existing needs around them and their biblical responsibility to address those needs, churches tend to make the big mistake of taking on too much too soon. It is not wise to put your members in a position of stepping into a ministry for which they are ill equipped. For example, it may not be wise to ask a family that is unengaged in ministry to house a homeless man for a several months to a year or two while he rebuilds his life. Rather than expecting your members to be highly qualified ministers from the beginning, give your people opportunities to develop over time. Second, we need to help our church members taste success in ministry. Nothing will kill ministry potential faster than initial failures. Like many other areas of life, success breeds confidence. Not all ministry will work out the way we envision, but failure should not be the product of unrealistic expectations.  

Not all ministry will work out the way we envision, but failure should not be the product of unrealistic expectations.

Activism and undermining large social issues such as addressing global poverty is a noble pursuit, but are these causes the best place to start with someone new to the work of gospel ministry? I wonder if we call upon our people to shut down every strip club in the city, will we see that cause through to the end? Creating a positive and sustainable ministry culture often comes through progressively deeper ministry endeavors as believers “get their feet wet” in smaller efforts, eventually taking on larger concerns. Start small and succeed. Finally, we need to celebrate with our members as they respond faithfully and see the Lord use them to spread the gospel. Celebrating the Lord’s work by telling stories of how God used your members creates an atmosphere of excitement and builds the face of those who may not respond positively to a call to engagement initially.

How Do We Start a Mercy Ministry?

I discuss the following steps, including how to mobilize your people realistically according to a healthy pace, in Chapter 4 of the love loud e-book accompanying these blog posts. At this point, I want to note the six basic steps of how to mobilize your members to engage in mercy ministry: 1. Teach your congregation Biblical perspectives on mercy ministry, but have a strong bias toward action. It is quite easy to explore various issues associated with mercy ministry such as the root causes of poverty or the biblical undercurrents leading to divorce, without doing much to minister to people facing these issues. May we teach the local truth while encouraging our congregations to do something about these issues. Even if we make mistakes and have to reassess our incorrect perspectives that surface during our ministry efforts, action is better than creating Bible study after Bible study and never taking steps into the community. 2. Define your geographical parameters for ministry. I encourage churches to define a diameter around the church and not pursue ministry opportunities outside of that range. Rather, establishing a relationship between an unmet need or hurting person and a sister congregation closer to that person or need. This principle is based on the fact that effective mercy ministry will occur through ongoing relationships. You cannot disciple someone holistically if you cannot have regular contact with that person. 3. The next step is to survey your community. As you get to know your community, you will begin to see the people that God has brought to you—the harvest that is white as snow. Taking an inventory of ministry opportunities as well as existing services and ministries in your community will help you determine gaps in services offered to address human suffering and determine the most valuable place to invest your time and energies. 4. Contacting your community leaders naturally follows this survey. Rather than thinking that you were the first one to observe identified problems in your neighborhood, seek out those who are already engaged in addressing those issues in various ways. Seek to tap into the wisdom of men and women who have lived in your community for years and are engaged in addressing human needs. In this way, you will find mutually beneficial partnership opportunities. 5. At this point, you should organize your congregation’s leadership. Be prepared to address significant human needs as the Lord makes you aware of them. Have a certain amount of your churches budget set aside to provide financial relief when people are in emergency situations. But don’t simply throw money at a situation. Rather, prepare your small group structure to walk with broken people for long periods of time. 6. Pick a need and start something to address it. Once you have identified particular issues in your community and determined the ones that no one else is addressing, your church has a golden opportunity to bring the peace of Christ into chaos created by lives that are not gospel-informed. These steps will guide your church to start an effective mercy ministry. Starting something small and something that your people can handle realistically is a point of wisdom. Meeting them where they are, giving them an opportunity to taste success in ministry and celebrating the work that God does through that effort are the ways to cultivate a positive ministry experience for your people and avoid unnecessary burnout.

Published April 7, 2015

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Ryan West

J. Ryan West is the Team Leader of Mercy Ministry and Community Development at the North American Mission Board. He helps churches throughout the United States and Canada establish and conduct gospel-centered mercy and compassion ministries. He and his wife, Danielle, have three children and live in midtown Atlanta, GA.