Sunday, December 19, 2010

Effective Compassion and Cross-Cultural Ministry

The Acton Power blog recently posted an article on a well-intentioned ministry endeavor gone wrong.  Sometime in the past, a group of Christians decided to minister to the poorest families somewhere in Appalachia.  This group sought out who they believed to be the poorest families in the area and brought them Christmas gifts and food such as turkeys.  Apparently this was done in a pubic way so that the community knew who received these gifts.  One man testified that his father was so humiliated that his life was destroyed.  It shamed him that his family was identified as the poorest in the community and believed that his ability to provide for his own family was denigrated.

The first lesson from this story concerns effective compassion.  Effective compassion? Is there such a thing as ineffective compassion?  Yes there is.  The provision of needs without an incentive to change character habits that perpetuate poverty enslaves those who are seeking help.  Forty-six years of the war on poverty and the failure of the welfare state should make this evident to all.  Private Christian endeavors that fail to teach good character traits replicate the same failures.  For nearly three years I participated in a monthly food give away at my home church.  While recepients were asked if they wanted someone to pray for them, the ministry mainly consisted of people picking up a box of food.  I witnessed no spiritual results in those who received food.  To them, this ministry was nothing more than one more place to find needed food supplies.  There was no other Christian involvement in these peoples lives. One of the meanings for the biblical word "charity" is "to suffer along side of."  Before government took over the role of caregiving from the Church, American Christians involved themselves in the lives of those they ministered to.  They made their charity a vehicle not only for meeting basic needs, but also the teaching of good character habits that lifted families out of the cycle of poverty that had enslaved their families for generations.  Their success is chronicled in Marvin Olasky's "The Tragedy of American Compassion." The dropping off of food and leaving cannot be labeled as effective compassion despite the motivation for the act or how well it made those who performed this act feel good afterward.  One person wrote in the comment section that charity is ineffective unless it necessitates those who want it to actively seek it.  Charity should not be forced on those who do not want it.  The person is correct here, yet he also states that charity should be impersonal. Another person replied that charity should have a human face attached.  This would be in line with charity as suffering along side of someone else.  When in seminary at Jackson, Ms., I heard of a ministry that fed thousands every year and after so many years produced only one person who gave their life to Jesus.  A ministry that sought to forge character as well as meet needs may not result in many souls being saved, but this would have a greater impact as those who would be saved would be multiplied as those saved souls witnessed for Christ.

If one immerses oneself in modern missions literature, one will come across the term "cross-cultural ministry."  Cross-cultural ministry reflects the recognition that when taking the Gospel to a different culture, one must do so in a manner that is culturally relevant for those Christians mean to reach.  Christians in cross-cultural ministries must learn to present the Gospel in such a way that does not offend the sensibilities of individuals being witnessed to.  For instance, western mass evangelistic methods have proven to be ineffective in spreading the Gospel in many third world nations.  These nations can only be reached by Christians actually living among those they seek to reach.

This principle is no less relevant for communities in the United States as it is overseas.  Had the Christians in this story made an effort to understand the Appalachians they sought to minister to, they might have been more sensible to the feelings of men such as the father whose life was destroyed.  One person wrote in the comment section (in addition to some very extreme statements) that :  "There is no shame in offering or accepting heart-felt charity from well-intentioned souls...He should have either refused the charity or just admitted they WERE the poorest in the community and be THANKFUL for such generosity.  Truth is truth.  No need to live in lies, please!" It is just such insensitivity that prevents the spread of the Gospel, here, or overseas. If such "honesty" exhibited by the Church of one culture translates into another culture as something that brings public shame in his or her community, then the Church, in the interest of spreading the Gospel in that culture, must seek to operate in an alternative mindset to reach those they are targeting.  Otherwise, good intentions could result in destructive results for those whose eternal souls are at stake.  

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