A church that demonstrates faith in the Lord by actively reaching out to others all the time, is a growing church. And that is the topic of the concluding message in our series – Mercy Ministry and Church Growth.
I. The Relationship Between Mercy Ministry and Church Growth
There is a distinct relationship between mercy ministry and church growth. This relationship can be traced in the development of the New Testament church from the time of its birth. When the New Testament church began in the 1st century AD, it grew at an incredible rate and made a tremendous impact on the world at that time. A pastor, Rev Tow, wrote a very useful commentary on the book of Acts entitled, ‘A Pattern for Church Growth and Missions’. He shows how the Holy Spirit built the early church into a mighty thriving movement, winning souls to Christ, and how this becomes a useful pattern that all churches today would do well to follow for church growth, instead of resorting to all kinds of fancy gimicks that some churches use today, like popular entertainment and magic shows!
A. The Gospel is to be Preached and Practiced.
The book of Acts reveals that what made the church grow so well was the faithful commitment of its members to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. That fact is quite obvious in the whole book. In Acts 2, just after the Holy Spirit was poured out on the apostles at Pentecost, Peter declared the Word of God with great boldness, and the result was that three thousand souls were instantly added to the church. And just two chapters later, another five thousand souls were added when the apostle Peter preached the Word of God at the Temple in Jerusalem. What tremendous displays all these were, of the power of God’s Word to save souls!
But what some may fail to notice in all this, is that the proclamation of the Word of God was also accompanied by the living out of the same Word, in the form of tender loving care and the rendering of practical help to the needy, because the Gospel is meant to be preached as well as practiced.
The early Christians were not only zealous to preach the Gospel of Christ, but they were also zealous to minister to the material needs of one another and also of others. This was evident right from the time that the church was born. In Acts 2:45 we are told that the members of the infant church ‘sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.’ In the next chapter, the two apostles, Peter and John, went to the Temple to pray when a lame beggar asked alms from them. Peter looked on him with compassion and said, ‘Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.’ And after that the lame man was walking and leaping and praising God!
B. A Giving Church Is a Growing Church.
It is evident that the early church was a giving church, constantly giving out not only the life-giving Word of God, but also the love of God in practical ways. Look at Acts 4:34,35 now and you will see something very interesting about this church. They carried out their ministry of mercy so thoroughly that no one in the church was needy after that! These verses tell us: ‘Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.’
There were, of course, some who gave for the wrong reasons. Like Ananias and his wife Sapphira in chapter 5 who lied about their gift to the church. What they really wanted was the the recognition, honour and praises of men for doing good. But the Lord purified the church of such an abuse of giving, by making a quick example of this couple. He struck both of them dead! After this sobering event, the church still continued to be a giving movement. And because it was a giving movement, it was also a growing movement. In fact, it sometimes seemed that it was growing too fast, because a logistic problem soon emerged in chapter 6, which is our scripture text. The Greek-speaking Jews in the church complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
The problem here was not that there wasn’t enough supply of food to go around. The supply of food from generous givers within the early church was actually more than sufficient to meet all the needs within the church. The problem was that there were not enough hands to manage the distribution of the supply!
The apostles were already so heavily laden with all their essential spiritual responsibilities, that they did not have much time left to cater to all the physical needs of the members. And so, seven men were appointed by the whole church to take care of this work. Such service makes them the first deacons to be elected in the New Testament Church. This was needed because of the increase in numbers in the church. In fact just after the appointment of the seven deacons, there was another spurt of growth in the church. V.7 tells us ‘And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.’
What was the cause for this increase? Apparently the appointment of the new deacons had something to do with it. According to v.3 these seven men who were appointed were ‘men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.’ Out of the seven of them whose names are given in v.5, we know that at least two of them became effective preachers of the Word of God – Stephen (Acts 7) and Philp (Acts 8). And so, although the new deacons were primarily responsible for managing the mercy ministry of the church, their ministry was also accompanied with the ministry of the Word of God. These two ministries should therefore go hand in hand. When we show practical care and love for the needy, we should not only care for the body, but for the soul as well. This combination of preaching and practicing the Word of God will greatly enhance the witness of the Church for Christ, and draw more sinners to Him.
Hence, we have seen that there is a close relationship between the preaching of the Word, the ministry of Mercy, and the Growth of the church. Having seen this relationship, the next thing we need to know is how the Mercy Ministry is to be implemented and maintained. And for this, let us look again at Acts 6:1 tells us ‘And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.’ Two important facts are mentioned here – the growth of the number of disciples, and the oversight that caused the Grecian widows to be left out of the daily ministry. We can draw two important principles from this:
C. The Church Should Have An Ongoing Mercy Ministry.
This has to begin by identifying the needs that the church should meet. In our church we need to help those who are sick and on beds of affliction. There are some who are in need of jobs, and those who are affected by the economic recession.
Beyond the four walls of our church there is a need to reach out to children and youth before their lives are taken over and destroyed by drugs, gangs, pornography, and the adverse influences of the media. And there are also needy people in our mission fields whose lives are plagued by poverty and ill health. These are some of the areas of mercy ministry we can identify.
The early Christians identified widows as their area for mercy ministry. In days when the man was the sole breadwinner of the home, the plight of widows was obviously great. Widows had to fend for themselves and look after their young children. Hence, the church took care of the needs of these widows by giving daily provisions to them. This ministry was commonly found in every church at that time.
We can see this in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy – In chapter 5, he provides guidelines for determining which widows are worthy to receive regular support from the church, namely the older ones, and especially those who have no relatives who can take care of them. James wrote in his epistle that, ‘Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.’ (James 1:27)
From these verses we can see that the Mercy Ministry formed an integral part of the early church’s ministry. And if we are to follow the pattern, it should be an integral part of our ministry. The strong Bible-centred and evangelistic thrust of our church should not be devoid of practical and personal care for the needy.
Now that we have seen the necessity for an ongoing mercy ministry, we go on to the other important principle that is highlighted in Acts 6:1 is that:
D. Mercy Ministry Must Grow With Church Growth.
As the number of members in a church increase, so must its capacity to minister to the needs of all its members. Acts chapter 6 shows that the early church did not neglect its widows, but took care of their needs through a daily distribution of provisions. Its mercy ministry was adequate at first. But by God’s grace, the number of disciples increased and the existing mercy ministry then needed to be upgraded. More people had to be inducted into it, in order to bring the mercy ministry up to an adequate level again. What this means for us, is that we cannot merely say that as long as we already have an ongoing mercy ministry in our church, we can be satisfied that we have fulfilled the biblical pattern.
To fulfill the biblical pattern, our mercy ministry must not only be growing, but it has to grow in proportion to the growth of our church. We thank God that our Church is a growing church, with an annual growth rate in our membership of about 6%. And besides that the number of people visiting our church has also increased. This means that we have to assess our mercy ministry from time to time, to see if it is growing at the same rate.
And if we find that it is not growing, then something must be done about it. We need to increase our capacity to meet the needs of people. This will involve having more members to serve in the various areas, members who will not just remain as spectators in the church, but who are willing to help and to serve with whatever gifts and talents God has bestowed upon them.
This brings us now to ask the question: What about ourselves? Are you ready to serve in the areas that need mercy ministry in our church? Ultimately, the mercy ministry of our church depends on our members. Unless each of us is willing to look beyond himself, move out of their comfort zone and reach out of others, the mercy ministry of our church will never become what it should be. And this is the last part of this message we must focus on:
II. Your Responsibility for Mercy Ministry and Church Growth
For this, let us turn our Bibles to the Book of Acts again and see once again the pattern that the early Christians have set for us. This time we look at Acts 11:27-30. This time the pattern comes from Christians at Antioch. This is one of the best examples of Christian giving that can be found in the whole New Testament. Let us turn our Bibles once again to our text in Acts 11:27.
V.27 reads, ‘And in those days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.’ Jerusalem and Antioch were about 640 km apart and they were the two most important places in the early history of the church. It was at Jerusalem that the church first began after the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost. The city of Antioch, on the other hand, did not have any Christians until persecution brought some Greek-speaking Jews over from Jerusalem, and they began to share the gospel with the Gentiles in Antioch. By God’s grace, many Gentiles there were converted, and soon a thriving church was formed there.
What we see in v.27 therefore, are these two churches: one Jewish and one Gentile%rC culturally and physically distant from each other, and yet closely bound together spiritually by sharing the same Lord and Saviour. Please remember that.
The rest of the verses goes on to describe a wonderful act of Christian love by one church for the other. ‘And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples (at Antioch), every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea.’ If we look at 4hese verses carefully, we can find some useful lessons to learn about giving from these Antiochan brethren.
A. Identify Yourself Closely With Those Who Need Help
The first lesson comes from the reason why the church at Antioch gave: A clue to this is found in v.29 where you will notice that there are two terms used to describe people who believe in Christ: ‘the disciples’ and ‘the brethren’. Now the writer could have easily used the term ‘the disciples’ twice, so that the verse would read, ‘Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the disciples which dwelt in Judaea.’ This would be more consistent. But there is a purpose for his change to the term ‘the brethren’. This term means ‘brothers’, and it conveys the idea of family relationship. The point being emphasized is that the disciples at Antioch were so willing to give, because they regarded the disciples at Jerusalem as their own brothers, and as belonging to the same family.
Even though the disciples at Antioch were 640 km away from the disciples at Jerusalem, and so different from them culturally, and even perhaps hardly knowing them personally, these barriers could not prevent them from identifying closely with each other. Sometimes, when we give to missions in some part of the world, we give most willingly despite the fact that we hardly know the ones who will benefit from our giving, except for the fact that they are Christians like ourselves. And though they may be very distant from us in terms of location, in culture, in language, and in status, they are very close to us in spirit, and they are our brothers, inseparably bound to us through the blood of Jesus Christ.
When they are in need we can’t help but feel distressed until that need is met. Their welfare becomes our concern, their deliverance becomes our relief; and then giving to them becomes our privilege.
Let us look at v. 28. The reason for the concern of the Anthiochan Christians, was that they heard the news that a great dearth was about to come. A time of severe famine and lack of provisions, and a time of agonizing suffering and anxiety was going to befall the church at Jerusalem. And the Antiochan Christians could not bear to see their own beloved brethren in Jerusalem going through that. They felt their need. Their hearts went out to them in sympathy for their plight, and in this way they were motivated to give to them what they could. That was why they gave so willingly. Now let us move on to the second lesson we can learn from the Christians at Antioch.
B. Give What You Are Able To Give
This lesson comes from the manner in which they gave. In v.29 we see that ‘every man according to his ability determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:’ Let us look carefully at each phrase in this verse.
The words ‘every man’ tell us that no one at Antioch was indifferent to the need. Everyone, no matter what his status may have been, seemed to have been involved in it. The words ‘according to his ability’ tell us that each person gave as much as he was able to give. Some who were better off were able to give more. Others, who were poor, still give a little bit, out of their concern. But other than that, the difference in amounts given, each was just as sacrificial as everyone else. And there seemed to be no one who yielded to the temptation of using his adverse circumstances as an excuse for not giving.
C. Be Serious In Meeting The Needs of Others
The words ‘determined to send relief’ tell us that each of them gave seriously. They seriously undertook the responsibility of meeting the need. Their giving was not just a token expression of help. Sometimes we give a little token help to someone to express our concern for his welfare. Now that isn’t wrong. There is a lot of good in that practice and there is a place for it. However, we should not let all our giving be token offerings. We should ask ourselves how serious we ought to be about meeting certain important needs.
These then are the three personal lessons each of us will meditate from this message on mercy ministry and the growth of our church. Let us identify ourselves closely with those who are in need. Let us give whatever we can to help them, and be serious in meeting their needs. We should always remember to do something good for Jesus everyday; wherever you go, and even out of the way.
If every one of us is willing to commit himself to this, I believe that we would see multiplied blessings in our church from the Lord. Who knows how many more souls will be brought to our Lord Jesus Christ, both here and abroad if we all work together in Ministries of mercy with this spirit of giving. May the Lord help us to be what He wants us to be.
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