How to Cure Compassion Apathy

by Mike Bell

“Why should I care?” that was the refrain in the Oingo Boingo 80’s hit “Nothing Bad Ever Happens To Me”.  The song detailed really unfortunate things happening to people, and then the non-concern of the observer, echoing a sentiment shared by many of the self-focused masses living out of harm’s way.  We expect that gratuitous lack of concern from the world, but what about in the church?

Why should we care?

It’s an interesting question.  More specifically why should we, as Christ–followers, care about calamity that befalls humanity, or about the physical needs of people as much as the spiritual?

I recently had a Pastor in Arizona tell me that he would love to get his congregation engaged in Haiti, but he can’t even get them to pay $50 to go engage on a local native American reservation on a Saturday afternoon!

There was a time in my own life when I only saw compassion as a carrot…one that was dangled in front of someone so that they would listen to a gospel presentation.  After all, their soul was the most important thing, right?  And Jesus was coming back any minute…why hassle with messy, time consuming (sometimes expensive) relationships with those in need?

But the Bible has a way of being inconvenient….and Jesus, very inconvenient.  His disciples wanted him to send away the masses and the diseased; instead he created a miraculous, labor intensive feeding program and kept on touching gross people.  This shouldn’t be rocket science, but some of us missed the simple truth displayed in the Gospels; if loving the “least of these” is loving Jesus, then the 2nd great commandment is one of the sincerest expressions of the first one. In other words, loving people is loving God. Just as Proverbs says; “he who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord.”  It’s a worship issue.

So what’s the answer? How do we cure “compassion apathy”?

Discipleship. Leading by example. Teaching. Illustrating. And asking good questions about our leadership…for instance;

  • What view of the Christian life are we teaching on Sunday morning? At home groups?
  • Do we imply that the Christian life is primarily about personal faith, personal redemption and lecture lab style Bible learning until we die or Jesus returns?
  • Do we imply that ministry primarily happens in a church building?
  • Do we subtly suggest that what happens at church is sacred, and what happens outside is secular?
  • Does our futurist view of the end times imply that since Jesus is coming back “soon”, the physical lives of people don’t matter?

Many of us in church leadership are victims of a mentality that crept into the church a long time ago. It happened in the 1800’s when liberal theology showed up. Many mainline churches drank the cool-aid, ending up with a low view of scripture and a high view of humanitarian work. The fundamentalist churches (aka conservative aka evangelical) reacted by pulling away from a Wholistic approach to the church’s work in the world, focusing more on saving souls and the spiritual side of life. All the turmoil of wars, disease and economic strife only served to further convince people that time was short. Many of us inherited this mindset, and with it a false dichotomy between the sacred and secular, the physical and the spiritual.

Even though some authors have attempted to address a world on fire by writing about an “irresistible revolution” of “radical” “crazy love” and the “hole in our gospel”, the underlying worldview hasn’t been changed. If you don’t think the physical world matters much, and you’ve also possibly been ensnared by your own convenience driven easy life, it’s hard to get excited about compassion ministry.

Far from being on the front lines in bringing the Gospel of the Kingdom of God; spiritual, cultural and physical flourishing (that food and healing business of Jesus comes to mind again), instead we have spent two centuries being predominantly caught up in evangelism and church planting utilizing an abridged gospel…as if new birth was the sum total of new spiritual life.

We also have the opposite problem with some in the younger generation, who are all bunched up about compassion and justice issues, but don’t necessarily have a theological framework for why they should be. That lack of understanding can lead to careless generosity and supporting things based on feelings rather than Biblical truth.

So we have some teaching to do. Some field training to do. Some living life together on compassion mission to do. Hungry For Life can help you brainstorm discipleship in this area and bring opportunities to your people on the international front.

Yes, Jesus will return and renew this broken world someday, but God STILL so loves the world now, and the world has physical humans living physical lives in it, needing spiritual rebirth, and a hand up in Kingdom living.  Let’s work to restore the church’s reputation as a relevant force of justice and compassion, doing those works that Jesus said would shine before men, causing them to glorify God in heaven.


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