Randy Nabors grew up in the inner-city (housing projects) of Newark in a church that had a strong commitment to the city and its people. During his freshman year in college Randy was involved in urban ministry in the Watts community of Los Angeles, CA. Randy has served as the lead pastor at New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tennessee since 1976. He also serves as a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain. Randy is a graduate of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis (M.Div). He has also done graduate work in urban sociology and urban ministry at the College of Urban Life, Georgia State University and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Randy has taught and trained extensively in the areas of mercy and diaconal ministry.
He opened by explaining that the Lord had a specific calling in his life for urban ministry. His began serving in the church during his college years. That same church called him as a pastor after he finished seminary. In the turbulent 1960s, Nabors was involved in street ministry and was often surrounded by Black Panthers. A book that has strongly influenced Nabors and his wife is by Black and Free by Tom Skinner. Nabors regards Skinner as an excellent preacher.
The church started with Nabor and several others renting an apartment in Chattanooga, TN to reach children. And that’s how New City Fellowship got started. Now there are over a thousand people that gather every Sunday. It is a very diverse church with regard to race and socioeconomic status. Nabors has served there for over thirty years. The New Songs churches that have sprung up here and there are daughter churches of New City Fellowship.
He explained that because they were in the heart of the city, they had to be concerned with mercy ministry. Mercy ministry is personal to Nabors, whose mother was a single mom with two children out of wedlock. She was converted through a special evangelistic meeting by a man named Ken Smart. This man visited Nabors and his mother after the evangelistic meeting and challenged them to put their faith in Christ. Both did. Deacons would later bless the Nabor home with food and other material goods.
Note: This session is introductory in nature. Mr. Nabors will be following it subsequent sessions with a lengthy multi-part series going into mercy ministry in more detail.
WHAT IS MERCY?
The Greek term for mercy refers to “bowels of compassion.” Nabors defined mercy:
“Mercy is compassion toward those who are in need, resulting in action to alleviate that need through acts of charity leading toward self sustainment.”
We need to learn how to define need. Nabors notes that often we care — we feel bad — but we don’t do anything about it, because we are not sure what the right course of action is. And we don’t want to get burned. The reality is: working with the poor, we are going to get burned. There are a lot of con-artists. There are many dysfunctional people. They are going to make the same mistakes over and over again. So there are plenty of reasons NOT to take action. But mercy is not mercy until it ACTS.
Charity and development are different. We’ll get into that. The wealthiest person in the world may need charity. They may have a traffic accident. At that moment, you may be the resource. But they can pay you later. Others cannot.
Leading toward sustainment……we want to help people so that they can help themselves. Nabors’ family was often on welfare growing up. He notes that welfare kept them from starving, but generally maintained them in a cycle of poverty, and that was not right. It is not just the outside leverage that needs to change, it is the internal character of those in poverty that needs to change. And that is where the power of the gospel comes in.
People are in a progression toward self-sustainment. There are some who may never get all the way there. But we should still be moving people in that direction.
SALT & LIGHT
Nabors laments that so many churches are irrelevant because their people don’t love others and make little impact on society. We have done the kingdom of God much damage with the materialistic captivity of the American church. We excuse it time and time again. It has got to change.
Nabors took us to Matthew 5:13-16:
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Many churches have lost their salt. Nabors is not talking today about individual acts of mercy; rather, this is about making mercy the DNA of a church.
Nabors mentioned the book The Church of Irresistible Influence: Bridge-Building Stories to Help Reach Your Community. He likes the title. That’s what he wants for his church. Many mega-churches, Nabor notes, are “full service churches.” They take care of their people very well, but they don’t influence those lost around them. It is very hard to take people and convince them to give their life away. We ought to be trained so that we can give our life away. What are our people doing? A lot of knowledge flowing in, and very little flowing out. They need to be making an impact in the world. We need to be careful: Even family can be a very indulgent thing.
The gospel informs us not just about ourselves, but toward a world in need. We often spiritualize Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,..” as if it referred to the spiritually poor. Yes, we should be poor in spirit, but the original context in Isaiah is about the poor, the oppressed.
Those of liberal persuasion often do not understand folks like me, said Nabors. We are ahead of them in racial justice and the poor. We are bringing about transformation in the poor. We want to see the pimps and the drug addicts of today become the next generation of PCA elders and pastors. Those of conservative persuasion like us because we preach the gospel, but they often wish that we only preached the gospel.
MOBILIZING YOUR CHURCH INTO EFFECTIVE MERCY MINISTRIES
You need to weave this into the DNA of the church from Day 1. Your people need to understand that they are in the kingdom of God by sheer mercy. As a church, you are going to have to deal with unplanned pregnancies and many other messy things. You are going to need to train deacons and to encourage them to use that gift. So how do we MOBILIZE our churches into EFFECTIVE mercy ministries?
It requires a lot of wisdom. Beg, borrow and steal ideas from wherever you can. Wisdom in mercy requires the development of principles, methods and skills.
Nabors asked attendees to name Scriptures that illustrated God’s perspective on compassion/mercy. Session attendees mentioned passages such as Micah 6:8, the passage in Deuteronomy when we are commanded to be open-handed, Christ’s teaching about the separation between the sheep and the goats. So do we help the poor only in the church or also those outside the church? Sometimes that question drags us down and we don’t help either. There are passages which teach a priority: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Gal. 6:10)
It is a tragedy that we don’t train pastors in seminary about how to develop deacons. How to train them? How to teach them? What about limits in helping people?
“If a man shall not work, neither shall he eat.” How do we reconcile that with Jesus saying, “If someone asks you for something, give it to them.” There is a time when mercy becomes enabling. So then mercy requires that we withhold goods.
A biblical principle teaches us not to be naive about poverty and injustice. There is a myth that if anyone works hard, they can make it. The reality is that there is injustice in the world. So there are some poor folk that are in poverty not because of laziness but because of injustice which they’ve experienced.
Here, you should beg, borrow and steal from others who have had success. There is cultural wisdom to be learned. Not every method will work in every context.
Many white folk don’t grasp culture, so they don’t have cross-cultural skills. They think different is bad. The sharpest and most painful cultural divide we have in this country is between white and black. And we need to communicate across that barrier.
Poor people are God’s gift to us. We cannot give them away to the salvation army. Many churches say, “We don’t have the poor in our church.” Why not evangelize the poor and then you will have the poor in your church?
Nabors seems to disagree with those who teach “homogeneous church planting” — you are depriving your church of having to love people that are different from them.