Since the first congregational meeting was called in first century Jerusalem to elect seven spiritually qualified men to serve as deacons and focus on deeds of mercy and kindness, the church has been committed to meeting the needs of those inside and outside the church. From church history we learn that the expressions of love and service have been stronger at some times than at others. This is one of the moments, especially in the Presbyterian Church in America, when the pendulum is swinging to the stronger side.
In September 1999 Christian Education and Publications, through its Women In the Church ministry, held a mercy ministry conference in Atlanta for four thousand women. In March 2001, CE&P and Mission to North America jointly sponsored “The Call of the Gospel: Sharing Christ, Showing Mercy” conference for six hundred men and women. (Ninety-five deacons attended.) The CE&P / MNA partnership was a natural because CE&P is the training arm of the church and is also responsible for women’s ministry at the denominational level, and MNA coordinates mercy ministries.
The PCA, seeking to obey the Spirit and the Word, and to understand and apply the whole counsel of God, believes that it must demonstrate a heart of mercy towards those in need. The CE&P and MNA staffs are convinced that without a strong Christian presence demonstrating ministries of mercy and justice that the church will not be effective in meeting people’s legitimate needs. Nor will we have a positive witness to the postmodern world of young people who are looking for authentic and genuine evidence of the Christian faith in people’s lives.
In the opening remarks at the conference I quoted the late Francis Schaeffer who wrote in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, that unless young people see the church demonstrating community, compassion, love, and mercy, they will not listen to our message-nor should they! Those words were written thirty years ago. How true they are today when at least two generations of young people (around 130 million) are looking for that kind of reality.
Mercy ministry is vital in applying our biblical faith, especially while the organized church struggles to maintain its identity and to be intentional in its mission. We must determine to present the truth of God, centered in the Gospel in a way that touches people’s lives at the deepest level. There was a period in the twentieth century when the church was hesitant to involve itself in areas commonly called “social needs,” because of the liberal extremes of those proclaiming a social gospel. However, men like John R Stott and Francis Schaeffer, movements such as the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization, and organizations like Prison Fellowship Ministries, called for Christians to see the challenge to minister the people’s physical and spiritual needs. Of course, that has been God’s heart all along: in the Old Testament when the priest represented a concern for peoples’ needs, in the New Testament when the office of deacon was officially established, and periodically demonstrated throughout church history.
While we must not overly boast, because we are only scratching the surface, it was clear to those at the conference that a host of mercy ministries are going on the PCA. Some are being done quietly without fanfare, others are more organized and visible, and still others genuinely want to learn how to move in this direction. It is encouraging to see the growing interest in this vital expression of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a hurting and needy world. Several churches presented their ministries through seminars and displays. Dan Faber presented the model used by Chapelgate PCA in Marriottsville, Maryland. The lead article in this issue is a summary of that presentation and gives an example of what one PCA church is doing to sensitize, mobilize, and equip its people for mercy ministry.
The Changeless Truths article, by Richard Aeschliman, discusses the office of deacon and its importance in the life of the church. Deacons should not focus their attention merely on the physical church plant, but particularly on the lives and needs of the people in the church and community. The Book of Church Order reflects our biblical understanding of diaconal ministry, sometimes referred to as mercy ministry. While it is the work of the whole church, deacons are the focal point of that ministry. The BOCO states that local church sessions should appoint godly men and women to work together and assist the deacons in the ministry of mercy.
CE&P’s emphasis has been to help local churches better coordinate their diaconal ministries with gifted men and women working together just as the BOCO, reflecting Scripture, suggests. We hope to have more conferences to raise the level of awareness, provide training, and help network mercy ministries within the PCA. The CE&P office has resources that can be used in this task. We hope soon to develop a communication network among deacons in local churches as well as more cooperation and partnership with the Women In the Church.
Elsie Anne McKee in her book Diakonia in the Classical Reformed Tradition and Today, wrote, “Christian concern for the suffering of the world is not a new development, but the church’s role of providing service to the afflicted has sometimes been neglected. Christians have frequently stood out as shining examples of self-forgetful compassion and many more have labored quietly in their daily tasks to relieve the poor, sick, and oppressed. These individuals have frequently felt that the church has given them very little support, guidance, and even recognition.” May that not be true in the PCA!
While the church ministry is multifaceted (home missions, world missions, education, training, etc.), we firmly believe that the church must be the church before the watching world or we will never claim its attention, as Schaeffer so eloquently stated. Through our training resources, publications, such as Equip for Ministry, the Bulletin Supplement, the WIC Resource Letter, and CE&P Website (www.pcanet.org/cep), we hope to continue to challenge, share ideas, and network resources to make the PCA even more effective in Sharing Christ and Showing Mercy.