This is a popular question when I speak in churches or with those who have an interest in mercy ministries or social justice issues.
Here’s my own personal response to this:
1. Are you saved? In other words have they believed and understood the saving gospel of Jesus Christ and are now producing fruit in keeping with genuine repentance? We have had more than one person apply to us who have thought they were saved and, in fact, it turned out that they weren’t. That’s a big one. I don’t see a problem challenging a person in line with 2 Corinthians 5:13: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?”
2. Why do you want to engage in this kind of ministry? What is their primary motivation? We get many applications to 20schemes (a church planting ministry in Scotland) from people who feel that they are particularly suited because they were sexually abused in the past or because they feel a great burden for the poor. Don’t get me wrong, these things don’t preclude a person from our kind of ministry (and they can sometimes be a help). But I want to check that the primary motive is God-centred, and not man-centred, and certainly not me-centred. Working in this area is very difficult physically, emotionally and spiritually. People let you down. We let ourselves down. The only person who empowers us, guides us, leads us and helps us to persevere is God by his Spirit. If our ultimate motivation is to honour and please him, then we are far more likely to succeed in the face of difficulties and disappointments.
3. Do you know what it means to be made in the image of God? Do you understand your total depravity? In other words, do they understand that all people are made in the image of God and therefore are intrinsically valuable and loved by him. On the other hand, do they understand that they are also sinful, wilful rebels against our Holy God? These are often called the ‘two Christian guard rails’ as we think about work in this areas. One guards against heard heartedness and the other against over romanticism. The doctrine of man is so important in our ministry.
4. Do you understand how to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ? I have already tried to establish their own faith and so the question remains that after having understood the gospel personally, having checked their heart motivation and having understood something of the nature of the human race, they would then be able to apply this to others meaningfully. We would think this would be so obvious that it wouldn’t need saying. But, sadly, it does. Again and again. True born again Christians think that what the poor need is love, love, love and nothing else. Let’s love them into the Kingdom. Largely, because nobody bothered to work through steps 1-3 with them in any detail. These are good, decent, well meaning people but what the poor need is the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. They need to understand their plight before a Holy God. They need to understand their worth to him. They need to understand their sin condition. They need to understand the result of that condition both in this earth and for eternity. They need to be presented with the good news of Jesus, à la 1 Corinthians 15:1-5. We then must pray earnestly for their salvation.
5. Are you an active member of your local church? Again, we get so many ‘fly-by-nights’ approaching us in ministry. They’ve decided on a whim that they want to help the poor or they are fed up of their own church and its (perceived) indifference to social justice issues. They’ve heard about us and so they want to pitch in. We want to check any and all references before we allow anybody to enter this kind (any kind) of ministry. So many people fall through the cracks in this area. The schemes and poor areas are full of ‘workers’ of all stripes with no real church affiliation. In fact, many of them don’t like the church. They barely have an understanding of the gospel and they have no accountability to a church leadership at all. Even if people are saved, they then run into discipleship issues as they have nowhere to take them to worship and new converts end up with distorted views of the Bible, God and the church. It becomes a mess. If people can’t submit to biblical authority then they can’t be expected to wield the same in the lives of those they seek to evangelise and disciple.
6. What ways are you currently engaged in ministry to the poor? I think it is not only necessary but also God honouring for Christians to be involved in ministry to the poor and the oppressed across every spectrum of society, not just the local church.
Finally, what about those who work in these areas that are not specifically Christian like social workers or special interest pressure groups etc? Again, I would say those principles still apply even if we are not as active in engaging people spiritually as we are in a church endeavour. Number three is of particular help for those engaged in jobs that deal with the horror and mess of life on the ground. For the social worker, it may not answer the question of how a dad can sexually abuse his young children, but it offers us a worldview through which we can more biblically examine and understand depravity. It also allows us, in our disgust, to hold out hope that even such a wretched person is made in God’s image and is spiritually redeemable.