We have been thinking about ways to help those who are sick among us. In the previous article, we considered the advice of James the apostle to those whose infirmity kept them at home sick away from the church gathering. “Call lor the elders,” says James. “They will come to where you are and pray for you.” But what about those who have chronic conditions that don’t prevent them from assembling with the believers? Or what about those who are burdened with the care of loved ones? What can be done for them? This article will address the subject of how we can minister to the needs of those right in our fellowships.
Responsibility and Liberty
The assembly has a responsibility to care for the needs of its own people. The Lord Jesus began His work among “the lost sheep of the house or Israel”(Matt 15:24 KJV) both preaching and healing. He did not require a needy person to accept help for the soul before He would provide help for the body. And He often spoke out against the practices of the Pharisees that placed greater importance on tradition than on the needs of people. In one memorable passage, He blasted those who withheld resources from aging parents by saying these things were “devoted to God” (Mark 7:11). Passing into the book of Acts, it is immediately apparent that the early Christians followed Jesus’ example. Beginning at chapter 2, we read one incident after another in which the needs of people became the focal point of Christian love and concern. And that became an opening for the gospel rather than being viewed as an interruption of religious services. The early church took its responsibilities in these matters seriously, and they clearly had the liberty to do so.
The Key Word: Fellowship
The general New Testament word for ministry of believers to one another is ‘fellowship.’ It is one of the four things in which the early Christians continued steadfastly (Acts 2:42). Since many people have superficial or even erroneous ideas as to what fellowship is, churches must be tireless in educating young and old about the true nature of this great subject. Far from being limited to light conversation between meetings, fellowship must be both vertical (with God) and horizontal (among the saints). Nor is it just an activity for individuals outside of the meetings. It can also refer to a collective function, as in the sharing of communion which is another word for fellowship. One example of this corporate aspect is found in Acts 11:28-30. We read of a message from the Lord spoken by the prophet Agabas concerning an approaching famine. Clearly, Agabas spoke out during a meeting of the church. Immediately the disciples working together decided on a practical plan to provide help for the poor in Judea, and the funds collected were sent to those in church leadership for distribution.
This helps us understand that fellowship need not be limited to informal settings, but can take place within the regular meeting schedule of the church. Nothing in Scripture prevents the elders from devoting some portion of the weekly activities of the church to a mutual ministry of gift, burden bearing and practical help. In fact, many have found that fellowship blossoms in small group meetings held in homes. And here is an ideal setting for reaching out to those who are sick, or caring for sick loved ones. It is a sobering thought that in some churches it is possible for a person to “go to church” carrying a heavy burden of care, attend services, and return home carrying the same burden – alone! This should not happen.
How can a church incorporate prayer and practical help for the sick or burdened into its regularly scheduled activities? In the first place, those who lead can resolve that tradition must not relegate fellowship to a subordinate place in the life of the church. Learning to listen to people means providing an environment for them to share needs and burdens. Testimony times can be precious opportunities to hear not only of salvation received in the past, but of the victories and trials being faced in the present. Prayer and outpourings of help and encouragement can be spontaneous and heartfelt. We must look again at spiritual gifts and be certain that the assembly is equipping people to minister to one another from the gifts they have. Those with gifts of helps, serving, showing of mercy and pastoring will have abundant work to do! When health needs come to light, the church should commit to initiating practical steps that can hopefully be carried forward into the week ahead. Often a warm hug, the working out of transportation, meal assistance or child care needs, even the reading of an encouraging Scripture passage, can have a greater impact than a whole sermon!
None of this is to minimize the quiet ministries of individuals working on their own behind the scenes. But a skillful coordination of needs and helping hands can add another whole dimension to care, and prevent “hurting” ones from “falling through the cracks,” i.e., being overlooked.
Finally, one of the heart warming benefits of this practice will be outreach. People are hungry for a family spirit that goes beyond cold religious formality. Truly, faith without works is dead, and works that adorn the doctrine of God….” (Titus 2: 10) can be started right in the context of the gathered church!