A few months ago, the elders of my church read this book. They almost immediately decided to appoint deacons to facilitate mercy ministries (social justice; taking care of orphans and widows and the poor) in our church. According to Acts 6, the church chooses from amongst themselves, so our elders asked us to nominate people that we thought were already actively ministering mercy to others.
In my mind, I was a little dismissive of the process. I thought to myself (and said aloud to a few friends), We all already know who the church is gonna nominate. Why don’t they just choose?
Imagine my surprise when the church chose me.
Me? Merciful? I just didn’t see it. I could see all of the other nominees as merciful people, and most of them were already involved in showing mercy to people in need in some way, but I was certain that my nomination was a mistake; people must just be throwing out whatever names they knew. Plus, I hadn’t given much mercy out to others; in fact, I’d received much more mercy than I’d given in the last year.
Our elders gathered the eleven nominees for a meeting, to share their vision for this ministry. I figured that I ought to at least attend before declining. I arrived at the meeting, confident that they would tell me how many meetings were required and how much work this ministry would be, and that I could then give them an emphatic “no.”
But, to my surprise, they shared that they had no idea what it would look like, and that they were asking us to be the guinea pigs for this ministry. They shared that they just wanted to bring the church more in line with the biblical model for mercy ministries, and for the church to know who they could talk to if they knew of someone in need.
I left the meeting deflated; I was no longer certain that I wanted to decline this opportunity. On the one hand, I was pretty busy with work and trying to stay afloat financially in my own life. On the other hand, I do love being a guinea pig for ministry, and I agreed with the elders’ vision for the ministry.
In this state of confusion, I headed home and read my assignment for a class I had later that evening. My assignment was to read the first four chapters of Generous Justice, but because I never read directions thoroughly, I ended up finishing the whole book in one shot.
It was one shot, but there was a lot of putting down the book and thinking and praying in between chapters. Some of what I read was almost too heavy for me to bear. Some of what I read filled my heart with such joy and agreement that I wanted to jump up and down, shouting, “Yes! That’s exactly what we should be!!”
In the book, Keller examines what the Bible has to say about social justice and how the church should go about pursuing it. He reminds us that the God of the Bible is a God of mercy; Israel was commanded to show kindness and mercy to the poor, to orphans and widows, and to aliens and strangers. He looks at what Jesus had to say about showing mercy to those in need. He talks about why Christians ought to pursue justice, and how they should go about it.
It’s his look at Acts 6 that changed the way my church’s elders think about mercy ministries. In that chapter, there are complaints by some of the widows that they’re being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. The apostles realize that they can’t neglect the ministry of preaching and evangelism in order to tend to this issue, even though it’s of utmost importance. And that’s when they tell the church to choose people from among them that they trust to do this work of distributing the church’s resources to those in need.
In the past, our church had seen deacons as those who took care of the administrative needs of the church. In some churches, they’re seen as the janitors; those who serve behind the scenes and basically clean up after everybody else’s mess. I can’t believe that it took reading this book for me to see what it really is: it’s for seeing to it that the church’s resources for ministering to the needy are fairly and wisely distributed.
This book was a game-changer for me. I went from looking for excuses not to serve in this way to being eager to be a part of this biblical ministry. I also began to see how my financial struggles could help me to understand what its like for those who are reluctant to receive help from the church, and how I could serve people in need with a simple listening ear.
The following Sunday, I agreed to serve as a deaconess of Cornerstone Bible Church. In fact, all eleven nominees agreed to serve in this way. I just hope that God will guide us and help us to give some form to this nebulous ministry so that we can get to work in meeting the physical needs of the people in our church, in our community, and in the world.