"This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:27)

Carolina Christian News

[The following article was written for the 'Carolina Christian News' newspaper]

Reconnecting local churches and mercy ministries

By Ed Rosella

The early Christians cared for orphans, widows and the poor through local churches. Today in western countries, much of charity is done through parachurch organizations and the government. Some people in our culture no longer consider the local church as relevant for society's needs. They see it as only a place of prayer, worship, Bible study and reflection - a place to prepare one for the next life. But Jesus taught that our Christianity also affects this life and especially the least among us.

Our advanced western culture has professionalized, institutionalized and secularized care for the needy. Foster (orphan) children, once called "children of the church," are now called "children of the state." The elderly, mentally ill and disabled are hidden in nursing homes and group homes. We rarely see vulnerable and destitute people in our churches anymore and we accept this as normal church-life.

Western governments now provide important social services, but they can never provide a message of hope, forgiveness and salvation - these are the messages of the church. Parachurch organizations have done tremendous works of charity, but they are generally limited in resources and personnel. The local church, however, is perfectly positioned within the community with resources, personnel and a family environment that is important for people's healing and acceptance.

Jesus taught us how church-life should be. He said, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous" (Luke 14:12-14). Jesus sought out the weak of society and welcomed them into His church family; they followed Him, worshipped Him, and listened to His teachings.

The Apostles carried Jesus' message across the Mediterranean world. When they sent Paul out to establish new churches, they asked just one thing. Paul recounts, "They only asked us to remember the poor - the very thing I also was eager to do" (Galatians 2:10). Those early churches cared for orphans, widows, slaves and wanderers.

A second century, Greek philosopher named Celsus, an enemy of Christianity, commented about the church. He said, "Let us hear what sort of people these Christians invite. Anyone who is a sinner, they say, or foolish or simple-minded, any unfortunate will be accepted by the kingdom of God. By 'sinner' is meant an unjust person, a thief, a burglar, a poisoner, a sacrilegious man, or a robber of corpses. Why, if you wanted an assembly of robbers, these are just the sorts of people you would summon!" Celsus inadvertently complimented the Christians; their acceptance of the lowly shined as a ray of hope across the Roman Empire.

In recent times, I have seen a church influence a nation as well. During Romania's Communist years, all charity was government-run. After their revolution, the world discovered the horrific ways orphans, mental patients, and the elderly were treated. A church in Transylvania responded by using their new freedoms to preach the gospel to the poor. They took orphans into their homes, fed and taught thousands of Gypsy children, and cared for the elderly.

The Romanian government now seeks this church's assistance to care for people in need. A few years ago, when a three-year-old Gypsy girl was found abandoned in the town center, social workers immediately asked this church for help. The church didn't ask her age, skin color, or if she had problems; they simply said, "We'll be right there!" This precious girl has been living in the church's children's home ever since. She is learning how valuable she is to God and others.

Western churches have great potential to become relevant once again for the vulnerable and destitute people in our communities; there are many works of charity just waiting to be created. As we reconnect local churches and mercy ministries we will again fulfill Jesus' words, "The poor have the gospel preached to them" (Matthew 11:5).

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