In his book, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road, Tim Keller gives three ways in which mercy (deed) ministry supports the evangelistic work of the church. He says it serves as (1) a plausibility structure for the lost, it (2) builds a bridge to the lost, and (3) functions as a communication medium to the lost.
Regarding the first point, it has often been said that people don’t care about how much you know until you show them how much you care. In other words, by your actions, you make your words more plausible. The third point is similar in that in that the incarnational approach to evangelizing the lost means that we should do more than be drive-by Christians. Our loving commitment to the lost is communicated meaningfully when it is demonstrated in sacrificial living and in the humble service of others.
But I want to point out the second point for the sake of this post to draw out the distinctions that Keller argues (actually from Frank Tillapaugh) regarding the lost. He says there are basically four types of lost people:
1. “Churchy” unbelievers – unbelievers who think they are Christians or have some form of religious commitment
2. “Webbed” unbelievers – unbelievers who exist in a network of relationships with other Christians (family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, etc.)
3. “Distant” unbelievers – unbelievers who live in other countries or around the world
4. “Unwebbed” unbelievers – the majority of non-Christians in the community who have no contact with the church or meaningful connection with other Christians
The question is then asked, “How do we typically reach each of these groups of unbelievers?” The “churchy” unbelievers are generally reached through an attractional model of ministry, including advertising and a high-impact Sunday morning service. The “webbed” unbelievers are typically reached through friendship evangelism or other forms of gospel networking. The “distant” unbelievers are reached through missions and church planting.
And that leaves us with the “unwebbed” non-Christians. These are people disconnected from the Christian community and nowhere within the scope of an attractional emphasis of local church ministry. They can often be people who are vastly different from the typical church member, including their race, socio-economic status, location in the city, etc. The way in which to reach these people is through building a bridge to them through a healthy and robust deed ministry.
So the implication is this: the majority of those lost in your city cannot and will not be reached by a slick marketing campaign or exclusive word ministry, as healthy and strong as it may be. There is a growing chasm between the post-modern/post-Christian world in which we live and the counter-cultural community under the reign of King Jesus. So if we want to give the lost people greater access to the gospel, then we need to build bridges to them through go where they are, living where they live, and serving our community on mission. Through demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ, you will have opportunity to give wider exposure of the gospel they have perhaps never heard (or at least never cared about).
If Keller is right about the “unwebbed” non-Christians being the majority of lost people in your city, then what does the missional landscape of your city look like? Are the churches a bunch of disconnected islands in a sea of unbelievers? Are there any visible evidence of bridges being built to people who have little to no access to a genuine, authentic encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ?