Glimpses from the Syrian Crisis: Impact of the Local Church Showing Compassion

What would happen if a local church were to reach out in compassion to those in need as part of who they are, and not just be a closed community that looks after their own well-being. As the Syrian crisis escalated and Lebanon became inundated with refugees, a small group of churches decided to reach out to the most vulnerable among them.

The challenge for the Church throughout history has been to try and find a balance between ensuring that the faith of the community survived, and engaging with the world around them in meaningful ways. Jürgen Moltmann, the German theologian at the University of Tubingen, describes the struggle between identity and relevance that the Church in every generation and in every country faces. The struggle is for the church to constantly define and protect its identity, which is often defined by its history, in the midst of competing and changing values in the surrounding cultures, and threats from the political context. Unfortunately, this causes the church to be inward looking and thereby loosing its relevance. However, the process of remaining true to what it means to be a people of God and followers of Christ, while engaging with the community and finding ways to be relevant, will change the church.

The tension between survival, faithfulness and relevance is still very much as the core of how churches in Syria and Lebanon are engaging with the Syrian crisis. Because of the existential threats that Christians and churches feel, many of the historical churches through their denominational relief departments provide assistance to their members who have been displaced or are in need. Some of the local Protestant Churches, on the other hand, have seen this moment in history as a strategic God given opportunity to move from the margins of society (being considered latecomers in the social and religious landscape), by becoming places of compassion and having an influence with the Gospel within the larger social context.

Lessons about the Role of the Church

Over the past sixty years the local church has been mostly marginalized in matters related to evangelism, missions, church planting, or ministries of compassion such as relief and development. As a result, specialized agencies have evolved to handle these efforts. As the political and social events unfolded in the region, there was an urgent need to rethink the understanding of “church” in order to respond effectively. The local church, as it had evolved over time, presented significant barriers in moving beyond its walls to engage with those not part of its community. There was a need to interpret and define a place and a role for the local church within the larger context of society. There are a number of lessons we (at the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development) are learning on how local churches can become places of compassion within the community.

1. The local church is an institution in the community: Evangelicals often focus on the church as a spiritual body that is concerned primarily with the after-life. There is no doubt that the Church, the Body of Christ, is a link between the physical and spiritual realities. What is not properly understood is the fact that a local church is an institution in the community. John Inge, Bishop of Worcester (UK), writes about a Christian theology of place.[1] Places and communities are integrally linked, which together build the identity of the other. A local church is part of the community and together with other institutions in the community helps create the community’s identity. The church exists in a specific physical and social place for a purpose. If this holds true, then the local church has obligations, as do other institutions, to the community in which it exists.

The local church as an institution in the community naturally has visibility, history,   credibility and relationships. As a part of the community, it is a natural and logical place from which a relief project can be implemented, as long as there is no conditionality or manipulation using the aid that is provided. The local church needs to move from its understanding of being an exclusive club with rigorous entry requirements, to being a place where compassion is expressed and experienced by any one in need.

2. A local church needs to be a church and not an NGO or a social service organization: Many Christian NGOs and donors that seek to work with and through local churches, unintentionally turn these churches into social service organizations through their operating and management practices, requirements and restrictions. A local church is a worshiping community, with preaching, teaching, discipling, counseling, praying, and assisting those in need, “for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4: 12-13). Through all of these activities, the local church is to be salt and light in the community.

 Well-intentioned donors, because of historic precedence, require churches receiving their funding to not be involved in evangelism or any form of proselytism, or in any other spiritual activity during the period when aid is being provided. This is based on an international humanitarian standard called the Red Cross Code of Conduct. They feel that it would be manipulative because of the power dynamics involved between those providing the aid and the beneficiaries.

The reality is that power dynamics are a part of every human relationship; eliminating them is neither realistic nor possible. However, they can be managed and their impact minimized. The fundamental issue in being able to manage the power dynamic is that there should be no conditionality to the aid as it is being provided, nor should there be manipulation by those providing the aid. The local church needs to continue to be a church and not morph into a social service agency, not forgetting that helping those in need is one of its functions among all the others.

3. The local church needs to also minister to those outside its community: Describing the structure of tribal and sectarian societies in the Arab world, Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century North African Arab historian and father of sociology wrote, “Only tribes held together by group feelings can live in the desert…” as the group ensured the survival and well-being of the individual. Tribes were very much inwards looking, safeguarded their wealth, and took pride in their heritage and identity. Compassion was only shown towards those who belonged to the tribe. Blessings and benefits were only for those who were part of the tribe. The tribal god was for their blessing and protection only and not to be shared with anyone else. This tribal mentality continues to define the religious landscape of the Middle East today. Each religious groups tries to take care of its own. Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf described such attitudes within the church as exclusion and embrace (also the name of his book[2]).

The inherent question is, who is the local church excluding and whom should it be embracing? The impact of reaching beyond one’s communal and social boundaries cannot be diminished. An often-heard comment from many Muslim families receiving food aid from churches for the first time was, “But you know we are Muslims?” The impact of showing compassion to the outsider, one who does not belong, is an absolutely radical statement by the local church.

4. The local church needs to partner with others within the community and beyond while retaining its identity as a church: Local churches have specific roles and functions within a community and are afraid of loosing their distinctives if they were to start addressing social needs. Providing assistance to those in need can be intimidating because of the wide range of needs people have. The local church needs to be a place of compassion that can connect those with specific needs with other agencies and organizations that have the expertise and resources to help. Many churches will network with other churches, but find it difficult to network with service providers and helping institutions in the community who share similar values.

5. Local churches need support in designing and reporting on aid received: One of the major complaints of donors against the work of local churches is that they don’t understand or appreciate the requirements of donors, and cannot write proper proposals nor provide reports or accountability as required. Most local churches neither have the culture nor the capacity to provide what donors need, in the format that they need it. One of the most significant lessons learnt through the Syrian crisis, is that churches need support to be able to do this.

Underlying these lessons is the reality of the Micah Declaration’s statement of purpose. “Our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.”

Concluding Comment

Martin Accad’s SEKAP spectrum identifies a continuum of how Christian-Muslim interaction takes place.[3] At one extreme is syncretism, which seeks to reconcile the differences between Christianity and Islam; at the other is the polemical, which “adopts warlike strategies in relating to the other religion, where one seeks to destroy and uproot the tenets of another in order to replace them with one’s own.” The Kerygmatic approach that Accad advocates is a positive proclamation of the Good News. He writes, “…the nature of kerygma: God’s gracious and positive invitation of humanity into relationship with himself through Jesus.”

The local church by becoming a place of compassion is able to make real in word and deed, God’s gracious invitation to His Kingdom through Christ. It ensures that the church’s interaction with people of other faiths is not just verbal and intellectual. It moves beyond the apologetic and the polemic, and integrates life and theology into a wholeness, which most people understand.

[1] John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2003)

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996)

[3] Martin Accad, “Christian Attitudes Towards Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach,” in Toward a Respectful Understanding & Witness Among Muslims, edited by Evelyne A, Reisacher (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012)

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