This is the last in a series of articles about the transformative power of compassion for congregations. As many local churches struggle with aging membership and declining resources, there is a plethora of strategies and programs that are offered to “turn things around.” I have been involved in many conversations, both formal and informal, concerning this matter. Somewhere along the way, it became clear to me that any faithful congregational revitalization/transformation effort needed to be rooted in compassion.
I define compassion as the capacity to identify with the needs of others and then to work toward the meeting of those needs. I proposed that compassion has three aspects. There is sympathy which involves the ministry of presence and is a key element in the building of community. Sympathy is at the heart of the mutually supportive care we are called to provide to one another in the body of Christ. There is also charity which involves our response to the immediate needs of people who, for whatever reason, are not able to meet those needs on their own. The third sphere of compassion is justice. This is the sphere in which our work is to try and ensure that all people have equal access to the bounty of God’s creation. Justice is the work that is rooted in our belief that all people are created in the divine image and are of equal worth. Justice is that aspect of compassion which calls us to work toward the world that so many of us pray for each week, where the ways of God are known upon earth as they are in heaven.
The pursuit of justice calls for the followers of Christ to be engaged in such matters as fair housing, health care, the epidemic of violence that has taken place in our culture, issues surrounding immigration and refugees, treatment of prisoners, education for our children, etc. Justice is that which calls us to be involved in the struggle for human worth and dignity. This is the area of compassion that some folks want to avoid, because it has political implications. Of course, not being engaged in matters of justice has political implications too. I don’t believe that the gospel calls us to be anything less than involved when it comes to the matter of human rights. That struggle affirms the oldest of the truths we claim, that all people are made in God’s image and are worthy of the respect that is due to someone of such divine heritage.
Many years ago, Jerry Falwell said that “Preachers are called not to be politicians, but soul winners.” That came at the end of an interview in which he said the Supreme Court erred in its 1954 decision to desegregate public schools (Brown v. Board of Education). He said the facilities should be separate and that “where God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross it” (“The Nation,” May 2007). History could not have proven him to be more wrong. The struggle for civil rights was the very kind of struggle the church should have been engaged in. Thanks be, that a portion of the church understood that. Wherever and whenever there is an instance concerning human dignity and worth the body of Christ has an appropriate place and should have a clear voice. Not every congregation is called to battle in every arena of justice. I don’t think any church could have that much energy. But I feel certain every congregation can have a certain voice about human value and worth and a specific place where it can give the energy and talent it does have.
Finally, though I believe compassion as defined the last three weeks – sympathy, charity and justice – is at the heart of any faithful effort at church transformation. It is, for me, not ultimately a strategy for transformation. It is the path of faithfulness to Christ. The ministry of our Lord Jesus was rooted firmly in compassion. The incarnation expresses God’s sympathetic and caring presence with us. God didn’t just create us and leave us be, God in Jesus came and walked among us sharing in all that is human – our life and our death. Jesus’ compassion was expressed in many acts of charity, providing healing and restoration for those whose situation in life pushed them to the edges and reduced them to begging. And Jesus stood firmly in the role of a Hebrew prophet questioning the “powers that be” and “the rules that were” which continued to divide people into the have and have not’s, the included and the excluded. This is why compassion is at the heart of transformation/revitalization, because it’s about following Jesus. And a congregation that is faithful to its Lord is a vital church no matter how many people are in the pews.