Ministries of Mercy (Book Review)

ministries-of-mercyTwo years ago a local minister and I began praying about how to bring the gospel and mercy ministry to our town and county.  We sensed a deep desire for churches to walk in unity and felt led by God to do something about it.  After more than 2 years or praying, meeting, planning, and working, our two congregations have built a joint framework for local churches to partner together for the gospel and mercy ministry.  We hope that where other Christians have gone before us to cultivate, sow, and water the seeds of Christian unity, this current effort of gospel partnership will bear much fruit.  (I will have more to say on the nature and work of this partnership in the future.)

Partnering with other local churches in evangelism is no small task.  It can be done through shared programs and events, and we’ve been blessed to have some experience in this department over the last year.  Three congregations have worked together to host joint a VBS program and a “Live Nativity” that our town permits during Christmas festivities.  But when it comes to mercy ministry, finding ways to get even one congregation to reach our neighbors with the gospel through felt needs mercy is a much larger undertaking.  Churches need a many things for mercy ministry that is gospel-driven to happen.  God must prepare a congregation to serve, and mercy ministry leaders—whether they be pastors, elders, deacons, or others—must do their part to move strategically from inaction to action.  This is where a book like Tim Keller’s, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road [hereafter MOM], can meet such a need.

Now in its third edition (this review is of the second ed.), MOM is a two-part study on the theological rationale (principles) and the how-to steps (practice) to build a vibrant mercy ministry in your church.  Even though the book is written with instructions for individual congregations to tackle this issue, it does give several ideas for multiple churches partnering together for the sake of unity, pooling resources, and meeting needs that may be too much for a single church.  The first part of MOM is an extended theological study on the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Keller devotes more than 100 pages to the meaning and implications of this famous story that Jesus told to answer the question: “Who is my neighbor?”  Each of these chapters, originally written almost 30 years ago, are still relevant and penetrating.  Well, every chapter except for the Introduction which attempts to extrapolate the pressing social problems of the late 1980s into the future.  For example, the AIDS crisis has not reached the level of epidemic health crisis once predicted.  But many of the other socio-economic trends have continued in the direction foreseen.  The white-collar cultural elites are just beginning to realize the extent of hardship in much of America.  MOM cites statistics on the rise of poverty, the growth of number of people considered homeless, the working poor and their children who are trapped in a grinding cycle of poverty, the problem of youthful poor, the new and changing ethnicities in our midst, the blue-collar poor (many of whom turned out in record droves to vote for change in 2016), the graying population, the problem of the sick and un(der)insured, and our swelling prison population.  While much has occurred in the last 30 years that was unforeseeable, Keller’s conclusions in the Introduction remain true:

  • We do indeed live on the Jericho Road
  • The church of Jesus Christ must squarely face its responsibility for the neighbors lying in the road.
  • Only the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ, and the millions of “mini-churches” (Christian homes) throughout the country can attack the roots of social problems.

Part 1 of MOM sets forth the case that Christians in general and the institutional church in particular owe a debt of mercy to our neighbor.  This is Keller’s assessment of the lesson Jesus taught the man who sought to justify himself and shirk his duty toward the needy.  This of course requires balance, the right motivation, and great wisdom on what assistance will look like in a given circumstance.  The chapter titles in this part illustrate the author has thought deeply about how to intelligently and graciously understand the principles of mercy that Jesus both taught and lived.

  1. The Call to Mercy
  2. The Character of Mercy
  3. The Motivation for Mercy
  4. Giving and Keeping: A Balanced Lifestyle
  5. Church and World: A Balanced Focus
  6. Conditional and Unconditional: A Balanced Judgment
  7. Word and Deed: A Balanced Testimony

In Part 2 of MOM, Keller begins to “get down to business” and share what he has learned as a pastor who mobilized two very different congregations (one small and rural; on large and metropolitan) for engaging in mercy ministry to its community.  These chapters are quite practical in scope, serving as a kind of mercy ministry plan and strategy for moving forward.  The chapter titles:

8. Getting Started
9. Preparing the Church
10. Mobilizing the Church
11. Expanding Your Vision
12. Managing Your Ministry
13. Mercy Ministry and Church Growth
14. Meeting Needs

The entire book is written and formatted to be useful.  It condenses the author’s dissertation research on diaconal ministry and couples it with advice honed in the trenches of real earthy ministry.  In this sense, Part 1 essentially answers the Why question while Part 2 gives the How answer.  There are many things I appreciated about MOM.  First, the way is it formatted for useful group study and discussion.  Every chapter starts with an Overview Statement that crystallizes the main idea.  The rest of the chapter proceeds to lay out the case for that statement.  At the end of each chapter there are a series of discussion questions meant to foster review (comprehension) and reflection (understanding).  Endnotes are placed at the end of each chapter to facilitate connection of the chapter’s thoughts to sources and the author’s comments.  These notes show the extend Keller has sought to engage other mercy ministry thinkers and practitioners, building on and refining their ideas.  Although not quite a handbook, Part 2 does function as an instruction manual for beginning to mobilize a church for mercy ministry.  Nothing is assumed except that a congregation loves God, has an evangelical faith, is teachable and respects the Bible as God’s word.  Keller argues that if a church has these, then they have all the ingredients for developing a heart and track record for engaging in mercy ministry.

Another thing commendable about MOM is its sensitivity to the charge that mercy ministry is just an evangelical-lite version of the old liberal social gospel.  Keller never grants the legitimacy of this premise, constantly illustrating from the Bible how evangelism and mercy ministry are two vital and necessary pillars of the kingdom of God.  Mercy ministry is not a means to personal evangelism.  Rather evangelism and mercy ministry go hand-in-hand as expressions of each other.  Accordingly, a Christian has not fully understood the implications of the gospel if he is against an active, purposeful mercy ministry to his community.  And vice versa, a Christian has not fully grasped the message of the gospel if he believes deeds trump words.  Both word and deed must be balanced and held together in the kingdom of God.

At the end of the book there is a list of suggested reading.  I wish this list of resources were updated with subsequent editions of MOM to include internet addresses and books such as When Helping Hurts.  Much has been published since MOM first appeared in 1989 that is helpful for understanding the purpose of mercy ministry, and useful for starting to actually do it.

One more thing.  As far as I can tell, MOM is Tim Keller’s first published book.  More than a decade passed before his best seller The Reason For God appeared and he began churning out book after book year after year.  Keller’s “mature voice” is faintly discernible in MOM, but this is obviously “early Keller”.  Readers familiar with his urbane and sophisticated writing style will find the seeds of these characteristics in MOM, but they haven’t fully bloomed yet.  Nevertheless, MOM is an important contribution to the growth literature on mercy ministry in the church.  I plan to use it and recommend it to our partnership churches.


A 6-part video conversation with Tim Keller, John Piper, and Don Carson regarding ministries of mercy (hosted by The Gospel Coalition): Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

How Do Word and Deed Ministry Fit Together For a Church? By Tim Keller

The Gospel and the Poor, by Tim Keller

Mercy Ministry in the Church: 9Marks Journal (Jul-Aug 2012)

Ministries of Mercy book summary

Ministries of Mercy Study Guide by Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, VA (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15)

A related book by Tim Keller: Generous Justice.  Reviewed by Dangitibill!



Because He Lives

Free Reformed Churches of North America


Grace and Knowledge

Rethink Mercy

Teleia Philia

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