People often assume that feelings of love and concern must come before they act in a caring way.
“Our church has been growing quickly—maybe too quickly. We are reaching the community, seeing an increase in worshipers, and expanding our programs. But sometimes we don’t know what to do with people once they enter our building. How can we be a caring congregation?”
In the last few years, I have often heard such comments. In North America and overseas there are churches where the pastor is an effective preacher, the congregation has a successful evangelistic outreach, and the ministry appears to be booming—but church members find it difficult to meet the personal needs of a large number of people who are lonely, confused, spiritually hungry, and personally hurting. These members are concerned about caring.
In the Great Commission, Jesus gave a succinct mandate involving two responsibilities for the church: evangelism and education. Traditionally, we have assumed that evangelism is to be followed by Christian teaching that must include Bible knowledge, biblical principles for Christian living, and biblically based doctrines about God, authority, salvation, prayer, and similar issues. Sometimes however, the church has forgotten that Jesus also taught about marriage, parent-child interactions, poverty, race relations, and freedom for both men and women. He also taught about personal issues such as sex, fear, loneliness, and doubt. If we are to teach all that Christ taught, therefore, we must give more than instruction in doctrine—crucial as this is. We must also show people how to get along better with God, with others, and with themselves. We must teach them how to be caring as Jesus was caring.
The Bible gives no indication that this work of caring should be left to overburdened pastors and a few especially dedicated lay people. Rather, the New Testament uses the Greek word translated “one another” 58 times, usually in the form of exhortations. We are instructed, for example, to love one another, be devoted to one another, accept one another, admonish one another, serve one another, bear one another’s burdens, encourage one another, and even care for one another. That every member in the church should have a caring concern for others is a clear teaching of Scripture.
What Is Caring?
To care involves showing a deep concern about another person. Caring involves loving someone as we love ourselves. It is more than liking, comforting, showing sympathy, or having an interest in what happens to another person. Caring involves a concern that spills over into loving, compassionate acts.
Caring is trying to understand another person. When we care we seek to know the other person’s needs, resources, and ability to cope. We try to see things from the other person’s perspective before we try to offer specific help.
Caring is showing respect for another person. It does not involve giving rigid advice, criticizing, or talking about someone in a manner that approaches gossip. Instead, caring involves willingness to bear burdens. It looks for ways to help the other person grow, even if such growth means that in time our help may no longer be needed.
Caring means that one is willing to take risks. It is not easy to care for another person. When we care for people we risk being misunderstood, rebuffed, criticized, and even harmed physically. For the Christian, however, failure to take these risks is to ignore Bible passages (especially in the Book of James) that emphasize that faith in Jesus Christ must lead to works of compassion.
Caring involves us in being willing to accept help. Jesus once said that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:25). I wonder if he would also agree that it is easier to give than to receive. In our culture we like to solve problems on our own and are reluctant to accept help. Caring, however, involves at least two persons: the one who needs and accepts care as well as the one who sees a need and gives the care. If we are serious about bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2) and about caring for one another, then we must be willing both to reach out and care, and to accept with gratitude the caring that other people bestow upon us.
What Characterizes Christian Carers?
While all Christians have a responsibility to care, research and our own reflection tell us that some people are more effective carers than others. As we search the Scriptures and contemporary psychological literature, we find some characteristics that we can develop and that we should include in any portrait of a caring person.
1. Love. Practical, compassionate, sensitive, patient, giving love is critical if effective caring is to occur. Such love, which originates with God the Father, should characterize every follower of Christ (1 John 4:7, 11).
Love is a rock-bottom requirement for any kind of effective caring. In its purest form, it comes to those who have committed themselves to Jesus Christ and are willing to let God’s Holy Spirit so control them that love becomes characteristic of their whole lives. Too often, it seems, people assume that loving feelings must come before they can act in a caring way. Frequently, however, the reverse is true: feelings of love and concern come only after we have begun to do loving deeds.
In no place should this love be more clearly expressed than in the church. The local body of believers should be a community where spirit-filled Christians are encouraged to love one another in acts of kindness without condemning or criticizing.
2. Patience. This implies sticking with a person or situation even when no change seems to be taking place. Like love, patience comes from God. It is listed as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22); it does not come quickly, and often it develops in the midst of difficulties (James 1:2–5).
The patient, caring person stays with the one in need, giving him or her time to grow and the opportunity to think without feeling pressured to act or to make decisions quickly. The caring person does not look for fast change in the life of another but patiently meets needs and expects healing to come in due time. If we are to be caring church leaders we must learn to be patient with ourselves and with each other.
3. Openness. Many adults deny or stifle their emotions, are unable to express feelings, and sometimes even conclude that to be spiritual is to be always smiling and “on top of the world.”
But real life is not like that. If people are to be helped they must be encouraged to recognize their feelings, even negative ones.
How can this be done? One way is for caring persons to demonstrate openness in their own words and behavior. Caring people should try to see their own strengths and weaknesses, seek to develop a genuine concern for others, and show a willingness to accept others regardless of their beliefs, behavior, words, or attitudes. True, honest, open, mutual burden bearing involves walking alongside one another, encouraging, supporting, correcting, teaching, and gently confronting one another. Such honest sharing is an important characteristic of healthy caring.
4. Hope. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to care for someone if you could not offer hope? Hope brings comfort and at least temporary relief from suffering. It mobilizes our energy and enables us to keep on going even in the midst of difficulties.
Christian hope does not encourage people to deny the reality of their situations, to slip into inactivity, or to engage in perpetual wishful thinking. Christian hope rejoices in God’s sovereign wisdom, accepts the fact that God’s timing and ways of doing things are perfect, seeks for God’s leading, learns to say, “Father, Thy will be done,” and accepts the fact that God’s ways are not always our own. We do not think like this easily, especially when we are under pressure. But true hope assumes that some future event or some person will ease our present problems, and caring people point others to God who is our true and certain hope.
5. Flexibility. We find it difficult if not impossible to care for people if we are rigid, unwilling to change, resistant to growth, or inclined to fit people into neat little categories. True caring involves acceptance of others, a desire for growth, flexibility, and a willingness both to change and to learn.
6. Humility. Nobody is helped by someone who is not really involved and who looks down on others from a “holier than thou” perspective. The person who cares is not pretentious, but sincerely humble, willing to learn, reluctant to impinge on the privacy of others, and in no way inclined to present a “look what I’m doing for you” attitude.
Caring is a growing experience. Few persons have all these traits in abundance, but this does not give us reason to wait for such traits to develop before we start caring. As we care, these traits develop, and as they develop we become more able to care. Christians must be encouraged to reach out to others in acts of compassion and concern, trusting God to help us develop the attributes that will in turn make us more caring and compassionate members of the body of Christ.
How Do Christians Grow?
Whom do you know who really cares? If you ponder this perhaps you will think of some effective professional helpers or the godly directors of large relief organizations. In addition, however, you may think of unsung heroes—sensitive people who quietly pray, encourage others, unselfishly give their time and money, and provide seemingly endless tangible, practical assistance when others are in need. Corrie ten Boom’s family provided such caring, without any dream that The Hiding Place would someday make them famous. Thousands of people are like the ten Booms—risking their security and experiencing inconvenience because Jesus told them to care.
Of course, Jesus himself clearly is the best model of a caring person. His personality, knowledge, and skills all enabled him to assist others effectively.
Unfortunately, when we attempt to analyze the caring Jesus showed, we unconsciously—or deliberately—view Christ’s ministry in a way that reinforces our personal views of how people should be helped. The directive, confrontational counselor, for example, recognizes that Jesus confronted people at times. The nondirective “client-centered” counselor is especially struck by the instances where Christ was not directive. And the noncounselor concludes that Jesus showed care by preaching and personal evangelism.
Surely it is more accurate to say that Jesus used a variety of caring techniques depending on the situation, the nature of the person he spoke with, and the specific problem. At times he listened to people carefully and without giving much outward direction. On other occasions he talked decisively. He encouraged and he supported. But he also confronted and challenged. He accepted people who were sinful and needy, but he also demanded repentance, obedience, and action.
Books on counseling list techniques for helping those in need. They state, for example, that the caring person should learn to listen attentively, attempt to understand the problem from the other person’s perspective, give encouragement, and gently confront the other person when there appears to be inconsistency or sin. At times we pray with one another or read Scripture passages together. Often a person needs practical assistance like money, food, housing, or help in finding a job.
In the last decade, an exciting development in the evangelical church has been the development of “peer counseling” programs. Working on the assumption that caring can be most effective when the carers have some skill in relating to needy people, a number of churches have developed classes and training seminars in people helping and lay counseling. A recent informal survey revealed that over 20 evangelically oriented training programs currently exist for use by church leaders who want to train members of the body of Christ in the practice of caring.
No church is likely to become a caring body, however, unless caring is modeled and encouraged by church leaders. The church is more than a building where people come to be entertained, to be stimulated intellectually, or to be soothed spiritually. The local body of Christ is to be a caring community where people observe others who care, are told about specific needs inside and outside the congregation, are given opportunity to participate, and are stimulated to show compassion and caring as they hear the Word of God preached.
Consider, for example, one large church in Illinois. The pastor is a sensitive man of God who radiates compassion and frequently mentions caring in sermons. The church bulletin and pulpit announcements not only emphasize individual needs, but state how and where people can “sign up” to provide meals, transportation, and other practical assistance. When a few church members recently sponsored a family from Southeast Asia, the whole congregation was alerted to ways they could help—donations of clothing, money, instruction in English, baby-sitting, and transportation. During an annual blood drive members donated blood in the church on Sunday afternoon. The congregation has started a peer counseling program and a host of Bible study support groups that stimulate caring and spiritual growth. The church has an active “social concerns committee” and emphasizes giving to missions and world relief organizations. Perhaps hundreds of churches have similar programs that encourage caring by stressing compassion from the pulpit and involving individuals in acts of care and practical people helping.
What Is a Caring Church?
We are surrounded by needy people. Loneliness, emptiness, family breakdowns, poverty, prejudice, violence, and a host of other problems make life difficult for millions. The church has responded to these needs in a variety of ways. Sometimes it has become actively involved in social action almost to the exclusion of spiritual ministry to those in need. At other times it has virtually forgotten community needs on the assumption that preaching the gospel is the only responsibility we have toward needy people.
Jesus both preached the gospel and ministered in practical acts of compassion. Surely the church must do the same. We must present the Word of God and reach out to care. We must acknowledge that the gospel involves both words and an active involvement in the lives of needy people in our own neighborhoods and in the world beyond.
In a book on caring, Chester Custer once painted a picture of the caring church. The following portrait is adapted from Custer’s list:
1. The caring church consists of believers in Jesus Christ who submit to his lordship and seek to live and worship in accord with the biblical teaching. Caring church members are concerned about evangelizing, establishing disciples, and equipping believers so that they in turn can serve one another, present the gospel to others, and reach out in compassion to the community at home and abroad.
2. The leadership of a caring church, including the pastor, consists of people who are seeking to grow as men and women of God and who show genuine warmth and concern for others. Such interest in persons is expressed through listening, encouraging, supporting, and guiding—all of which take place in an atmosphere of understanding and empathy.
3. Worship services develop a climate that is both Christ centered and concerned with the needs of the worshipers. A real effort is made to make people sense that they are welcome and a part of the worshiping community. The truths of the Scripture and the real needs of people in the congregation are kept in mind when speakers prepare and deliver sermons or when they teach. Opportunities are provided to state prayer requests and to express personal needs and concerns.
4. A program exists that enables members of the body to bear one another’s burdens and minister to one another. It permits the pastor and lay Christians to engage in a cooperative, mutually supportive ministry. They reach out to those who have recently moved to the community, to those who are ill or in special distress, to those without families, to the lonely, to the home-bound, and to those in institutions. Individuals and groups in church attempt to discover and meet the needs of people in the congregation and community.
5. Groups meeting for prayer, Bible study, or action outreach provide opportunities to share personal problems and feelings in an atmosphere of acceptance and Christian love.
6. Sunday school teachers who know about Christian education are also trained in the principles of interpersonal relationships. They learn how the theological and experiential dimensions of faith go together and they are able to show students how Jesus Christ can meet one’s daily needs. They have personal concern for students and follow up absentees.
7. The church has a deep concern for Christian missions and a desire to bring the gospel to people in the local community and in other parts of the world. Members are concerned both for the saving (evangelistic) and for the social (compassionate) aspects of the gospel. They show a practical concern for the needs of mankind but also emphasize the loving message of salvation through faith in Christ.
8. The church provides opportunities for stewardship and service so people can express their Christian commitment in tangible ways.
9. The church attempts to fill leadership positions with people whose lives and words show that they are maturing disciples of Christ who also are concerned about caring.
In 1 Peter 2:5 the church is described as a building that consists of living stones and holy priests who offer up spiritual sacrifices to God. Of course, a brick by itself is pretty useless. It is of maximum value only when it is combined with other bricks to produce a building. Individual Christians are like that. We find our true place as Christians when we are in a body, integrated together with other believers to form a solid, spiritual house.
But we must remember that believers are also priests. A priest is someone who has access to God, who brings others to God, and who offers spiritual sacrifices. We Christians no longer offer sacrifices of animal blood. Instead, we are to offer our own bodies and selves as living and holy sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). It pleases God when we verbally “offer up a sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15). It also pleases him when we offer a sacrifice of doing good and sharing. With such sacrifices God is well pleased (Heb. 13:16). This is what he wants in his church—a body of believers who in word and action say, “We care.”
Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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