So Ministries of Mercy was first published in 1989. Maybe you can remember, shortly after, in the 1990’s, red ‘WWJD?’ armbands popped up all over the place. You just weren’t cool if you didn’t have one. ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ quickly became “a personal motto for adherents of Evangelical Christianity who used the phrase as a reminder of their belief in a moral imperative to act in a manner that would demonstrate the love of Jesus” (Wikipedia 2012a). Ministries of Mercy as a book was not causal in the social concern explosion of the 1990’s, but was rather a product of its time.
How might we summarise the content of Ministries of Mercy? “Who is our neighbour, and how should we relate to them?” asks Garibaldi McFlurry (2012), “That’s the question that drives this book.” Ministries of Mercy is divided into two parts, the first part, a running contextualized commentary on the parable of the Good Samaritan, is captured succinctly in this quote from the book, “The only true and enduring motivation for the ministry of mercy is an experience and a grasp of the grace of God in the gospel. If we know we are sinners saved by grace alone, we will be both open and generous to the outcasts and the unlovely” (Keller 1989:58). The second part is very practical, dealing with implementation ideas and issues.
In December 2009 Midrand Chapel set up two Bible Studies using Ministries of Mercy as a guide book (Penrith 2009). As elders we desired to initiate an evangelistic work into Olivenhoutsbosch, a neighbouring township, and felt there needed to be a deeper theology of social concern tied to the project. At the time there was also a perceived lack of social concern in our congregation and we wished to approach the issue in a measured way. Over the period of the study I evaluated the book and was involved in initiatives which flowed out of the study. Both my positive and negative observations are detailed in the evaluation section below.
It’s a parable not a fable
Ministries of Mercy is very well written. It is engaging. It is challenging. The use of a single passage of Scripture upon which several chapters are hung gives it a flow and makes it come across exegetically. Tim Keller is a great writer. However, I believe the book’s use of the parable of the Good Samaritan is flawed. Let me demonstrate:
||The Jericho Road
||The Call to Mercy
||The Character of Mercy
||The Motivation For Mercy
||Giving and Keeping: A Balanced Lifestyle
||Church and the World: A Balanced Focus
||Conditional and Unconditional: A Balanced Judgement
Keller sees a point of teaching or point of application under every stone and behind every bush in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Oh, he isn’t as allegorical as Origen (Lienhard 1996:138), but he breaks a fundamental rule in interpretation. Each of Jesus’ parables makes only one main point.
Keller will have his reader believe Luke 10:33, “And when he saw him, he took pity on him” underpins The Motivation For Mercy; and, from the same verse, “But a Samaritan…” makes a point about Church and the World: A Balanced Focus. No, that’s beyond Christ’s intent. The parable as a whole is Jesus’ single answer to the single question, “And who is my neighbor?” To go beyond that is to inject meaning into the text that was never intended. I believe that’s what Keller does; for noble reasons he embellishes the point of the text until the point becomes obfuscated and the intended meaning to the intended recipient is lost.
I’m a chapel not a mega-church
The second negative is hardly Keller’s fault, so I’ll not dwell on it too long. Much of the application seemed to be focused on a straw church of 1,000,000 volunteers and an unlimited budget (weighed in Dollars not in Rands). We had neither.
Also Keller’s use of surveys immediately smacked of church-growth which is anathema to the conservative church culture I come from.
It’s not the Gospel and social concern, it’s the Gospel and social concern
To me it seems amongst the Christian’s primary challenge is to maintain one’s focus upon the cross. That’s really not easy in this messed up world, but we make it harder when we start to allow even good things to impinge on that which should be singular.
Keller presents a model in which the Gospel and social concern go hand in glove.
The Gospel must be primary in the relationship, social concern may be necessary, but it remains of secondary import. I don’t believe Keller got that balance right. He implementation of Ministries of Mercy strategy feels like social concern leads, with the Gospel tagging along.
So what did I get out of it? A lot actually.
An increased awareness
Before reading Ministries of Mercy I lacked a heart for social concern. I hate myself for saying it, but, I knew I needed to do something, but didn’t see the urgency of what I needed to do. Whilst I may not agree with everything between the pages of Ministries of Mercy it certainly challenged me towards action.
Keller’s heart bleeds off the page and his zeal for the afflicted is contagious. I loved the desire to do something that the book instilled into me.
A stalled project
Very soon after completing the Ministries of Mercy Bible study our church began working in Olieven providing a number of services to the community including Saturday tutoring at the local high school. Whilst our church plant stalled the experience gained was incalculable.
A new gameplan
Ministries of Mercy gave me pause to think about the need for social concern, how it related to the Gospel, and how to drive the church towards a Christ glorifying end. I felt that Ministries of Mercy advocated a ‘Gospel plus social concern’ mechanism, but decided that for myself and my church we’d adopt a ‘Gospel followed by social concern’ mechanism. Oh, and our external projects were to be measured against verses like Galatians 6:10, “10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith.”
A new day
Crystal Park Baptist Church, the small congregation I now serve, has embarked on a number of internal and two sustainable external social concern initiatives. We approached the two schools in our suburb and offered to take their assembly devotionals. After a year of interacting with them we began to offer them social services. We go in and provide counselling to children in the high school once a week and provide drama, singing and dance classes to the primary school.
It is worth pointing out that we’ve recently begun to see fruit from these two evangelistic activities, only realised after the social work began.
Whilst Ministries of Mercy is an excellent read, and will certainly allow the thoughtful bookworm to ponder afresh the need and importance of social concern in the midst of the church they serve. That said I’d caution against running a Bible study following the material.