Mercenary Mercy Ministries

Churches which provide meals or other services for the poor and homeless are open to the criticism of being mercenary.  To be mercenary has the idea of doing something merely for gain, for self-interest. Imagine mercenary churches which make poor people listen to a message before they eat.  The underlying motive might be that the church hopes to gain converts from making people sit through preaching. By providing food you may be buying a hearing for the gospel. I have heard this objection to mercy ministries raised although I'm not sure the critics have ever served at a homeless outreach. Does that applies to youth groups who have a pizza event and make suburban teens listen to a message before eating? However one may feel about churches feeding or clothing the needy the charge of mercenary is outrageous.


Let's say you live in a community with an epidemic of homeless people and impoverished families. Now some pundits may know why people are in these predicaments (lazy, undisciplined, addictions, self-afflicted, etc.). I wasn't exactly born with a silver spoon in my mouth but I don't recall many hungry days growing up in a family with eight kids. So I don't pretend to understand why people are poor although I have opinions. Whatever the reasons, I know there are also children who through no fault of their own are stuck in the cycle of poverty. I do wonder if those who question motives for feeding the poor have ever known a hungry day.


I can't examine the motives of others for why they feed the poor. Jesus told us to do good "expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35). Of course I don’t know how you can read the Bible and ignore poverty when you are in a position to help in some way, both as individuals and churches. We’re not called to eradicate poverty but we can feed the hungry. Jesus reminds us that you will “always have the poor with you, and “whenever you want, you can do good for them” (Mark 14:7). Does “whenever you want” mean never? Why anyone would object to a church having a soup kitchen is beyond me. I suspect that this issue might mostly be raised by people in communities where the poor and homeless are scarce or unwelcome in churches. In my experience, churches which engage in this kind of ministry have little to gain in the way of new members and financial benefit. It costs money to feed the poor. The gain is the blessing of serving others and sharing the life-transforming gospel.


When we have a homeless outreach we do have a short service before the food is served, a few songs and a short gospel message. Here's a video with a recent outreach. Maybe we’re mercenaries. Most of those who come want to sing and hear the Word. For sure there are those who come after the service part is over just for the meal and others who endure the service for the meal. That's okay. We don't turn them away. In the end it's enough for us that they come because they know someone cares for them in the name of Jesus. And just because other believers or unbelievers may do it for other reasons doesn't mean we shouldn't do it at all. Call us mercenary. Guilty as charged. I'll call it Mercy.

p.s. Last Sunday night we had the joy of baptizing this man on the left in the picture below. We met him at a homeless outreach several months ago. He is now off the streets and working. Now he serves the homeless with us. Oh the joy of mercenary ministry.

2 Responses to “Mercenary Mercy Ministries”

  1. Steve,
    Thanks for writing on this. I won't presume that you were bored enough to have heard my comments on this though your verbiage sound familiar.
    If I may offer a quick response.
    First, yes whatever concern I have applies equally to youth group pizza parties/game nights as anything else, which is mainly, let's be upfront about what we are doing. If you are having pizza and a Bible study, then call it that, and make people are invited to pizza and a Bible study. Don't bait and switch.
    Second, I think I used the word "foundational" with respect to the image of God in man. I don't have a problem with these types of things necessarily. My concern is that the offense of the gospel might be attempted to be mitigated by "We're really nice people because we feed you," or whatever. Whether we ever get the chance ot present the gospel, we should care for the image of God in man and have mercy on them as we are able. I don't (and I imagine you don't) want to use mercy ministries only as a gateway to the gospel presentation. As we are able, we should help people, and as we have opportunity we should boldly proclaim the gospel. But we should be careful about tying them together too closely, IMO.
    Third, we need to be cautious that it doesn't lead to a substitution for the gospel, either for those receiving or those giving. IMO, we must not allow people to think they are doing "gospel" ministry solely because they have shown material mercy. "Gospel ministry" requires that the gospel be proclaimed.
    Fourth, we need to be cautious that we do not elicit false professions because people think they should get saved because we gave them food, or help or whatever.This is common in some cultures and among some people. Some people will tell you whatever they think you want to hear in order to get what they want.
    So my concerns are just that … concerns and cautions, not prohibitions.
    Thanks again.

  2. Larry: 

    Thanks for your comments. I didn’t listen to all the sessions but did listen to much of the panel. I thought it was the least boring part of the conference :-). No, seriously I thought much of it was helpful and the panel lent some other voices to the issues at hand. I’ve been working on these themes for a while but did and will incorporate some of the things I heard from the conference in my blog.

    Whether mercy ministries lead to gospel witness or vice-versa doesn’t matter to me. However we are intentional in proclamation since we see the interdependence (to borrow Keller’s language) of word and deed. And proclamation is what distinguishes these actions from those who do it out of a humanitarian motive. We are doing the same thing but not really the same thing. Mercy ministries recognize the image of God in others. But perhaps we do it more or as much because of the image of God in us, renewed in Christ. These ministries are a point of contact with others. We don’t know where they will lead, if anywhere in seeing them converted. Our ministry center is in a "transitional" area with great needs. We keep stuff on hand to help out with immediate needs, food and clothes.  Most of them we never see again. Yet they will leave knowing someone cared for them in Jesus' name, asked to pray for them, or gave them a tract or New Testament.


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