Note to leader: Prior to this class, provide for each student the articles “Counting (Helping) Hands” and “How Congregations Serve” from Books and Culture magazine.
Invite one or two group members to share stories of how their congregations were compassionate to the needy. Talk about how those acts of compassion affected both the giver and the receiver.
[Q] What, if anything, surprised you most about Cnaan’s findings? Why?
[Q] It has long been assumed that liberal, mainline churches were more socially active than conservative congregations, but Cnaan’s research proved otherwise—that conservative churches are just as socially involved as their liberal counterparts. Why did such an assumption exist in the first place?
[Q] Discuss the title of Cnaan’s book, The Invisible Caring Hand. Is that an apt description of the church’s social work?
[Q] Cnaan said he was surprised by how little people know about “the wonderful work that congregations are doing.” Does this observation mean that churches should be more visible with their caring hands? Or should the church’s social work remain relatively invisible? Why?
[Q] Cnaan found that many church groups didn’t think of their outreach efforts as social programs, but as activities. What’s the case at your church? Before reading the interview and the book review, did you think your church had social programs? Did your concept of that change after you read the two pieces?
Discover the Eternal Principles
Teaching point one: Christ poured his love on the poor and identified with them.
Think what it must have been like to see Jesus in action. Talk about social service provision! Jesus was all about serving people in need. When he first went public, he said God sent him to preach good news to the poor. He said, “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Shortly after this proclamation, Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes drove him out of town—and Jesus immediately started putting his mission statement to work by driving out an evil spirit (Luke 4:33-35) and healing many (Luke 4:38-40).
In this section, we will read several biblical accounts of Jesus talking about serving others, and several accounts of him doing service.
Ask volunteers to read these three passages of Jesus talking about service, and follow with a discussion:
1. Matthew 6:1-4. What does this passage tell us about how we should go about helping others?
2. Matthew 22:36-40. Jesus says we should love our neighbors as ourselves. What does this tell us about showing compassion? Who is our neighbor? Are any of our neighbors not needy?
3. Matthew 25:34-40. What does Jesus mean in this convicting vision of the last judgment? Who are “the least of these brothers” (v. 40) in your life?
Read and discuss these three passages of Jesus doing service:
1. Matthew 14:13-21. Okay, so we can’t feed 5,000 with just five loaves and two fish, but there are some important principles here. What can we learn, especially, from the reactions of Jesus and the disciples to large crowds? (The disciples focused on the logistics and potential problems; Jesus focused on needs and the opportunity.)
2. John 9:1-7. This passage shows how dense the disciples could sometimes be. Instead of focusing on the blind man’s need, they tried to get theological, asking Jesus whose sin caused the man’s blindness. One can almost imagine Jesus rolling his eyes at the question, but he teaches by word (“We must do the work of him who sent me”) and by example (healing the man). When we serve those less fortunate than ourselves, do we also sometimes tend to look down our theological noses at them? Do we tend to judge? How can we guard against that?
3. Mark 1:40-42. It’s easy to skim past these three verses, but they speak volumes to us. Note especially verse 41, which teaches us three vital lessons about service:
a) It starts with compassion. It’s hard to be a servant without it, so we should ask God to make our hearts more compassionate.
b) We need to reach out. The needy aren’t going to come to us, asking for handouts. We need to meet them where they are.
c) We need to touch. Jesus touched not just any man, but a leper—a carrier of a dreaded disease that sent most people running to the other side of the street. Lepers were considered unclean. Who are the unclean of our day? What does this verse teach about the importance of human touch—a hug, a pat on the back, a hand on a shoulder?
Teaching point two: For the New Testament church, meeting needs was a high priority.
Jesus clearly taught and showed us what it means to be compassionate. But what about after his ascension? What happened after Pentecost? How good was the early church at doing compassion?
Those first believers took the call to compassion seriously. The first thing that happened after Pentecost was Peter’s remarkable sermon (Acts 2:14-40), which resulted in at least 3,000 turning to Christ. But the next order of business was meeting needs—in effect, the first church-based social program.
Ask a volunteer to read Acts 2:42-47; especially point to verse 45. What a radical step that was—selling their possessions and giving to “anyone as he had need.” Granted, this display of corporate compassion took place within the community rather than as an outreach. But the church quickly became seeker-sensitive, as the next passage indicates.
Ask someone to read aloud Acts 3:1-10. On their way to the temple, Peter and John met someone with a great need—a man crippled from birth. Rather than worrying about being late for church, Peter and John took the time to meet the man’s needs—physical and spiritual. There is much to learn from this passage; start by discussing these questions:
[Q] Are we sometimes so focused on doing church on Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights, leading the AWANA team, attending the men’s ministry breakfast—whatever—that we sometimes miss the opportunities for compassion right in front of us?
[Q] What can we learn from Peter and John’s refusal to give money to the crippled man? They met the man’s physical and spiritual needs but not his financial needs. Should we always follow that example? Under what circumstances should an act of compassion include giving money—and perhaps even consist solely of giving money?
[Q] This act of compassion caused the crowd to be “filled with wonder and amazement.” Peter seized the opportunity to point people to God, and ultimately another 5,000 came to Christ (Acts 4:4). Our acts of compassion should also point people to God. How can we be more intentional in making compassion a form of evangelism?
[Q] Read Acts 6:1-7, yet another example of an organized outreach by the Jerusalem church. Here is a picture of church leaders deciding that some should minister the Word, while others minister to needs. How does the church today follow this example? How can we do it better? What is the result when it’s done well (see Acts 6:7)?