Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
The Local Church: A Place of Compassion in the Syrian Crisis
By Rupen Das
November 10, 2014
In the “fog of war” in Syria, it is very easy to miss the small signs of hope in the midst of the evil. One of these signs is the role that many local Arab churches have assumed during the Syrian civil war. As the Syrian crisis developed and spilled into Lebanon over the past three years, the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD) decided to respond to the unfolding humanitarian crisis. As a church-based agency, it has worked to empower local churches inside Syria and in Lebanon to reach beyond their comfort zones and social boundaries to help those in need. This is a story of reconciliation that has not yet been told.
Syria had occupied Lebanon for twenty years and every Lebanese family has stories of their homes being destroyed, family members killed, imprisoned, and tortured, and the country systematically ruined. The decision by a handful of Lebanese pastors to reach out to Syrian refugees in Lebanon meant being able to forgive the Syrians and then lead their congregations to forgive. This went against the grain of Lebanese society and, to date, most of these pastors face opposition for their actions from family, neighbors, and others in the community. In one church, 85 percent of the congregation left the church because the pastor decided to help the refugees. Inside Syria, where the Protestant churches over the centuries had become very insular, many among them decided to make their churches places of compassion for people of any faith to find help.
In the process, we are learning lessons about the role of the local church in the midst of crisis.
1. The local church is an institution in the community. Evangelicals too often focus on the church as a spiritual body that is concerned primarily with what happens after life. There is no doubt that the church, as the Body of Christ, is a link between physical and spiritual realities. What is often not understood is that a local church is a religious institution within the community, and therefore has obligations to the community in which it exists. John Inge, the Bishop of Worcester in the UK, writes about a Christian theology of place. Places and community are integrally linked and together build the identity of the other. A local church exists in a specific physical and social place within a community for a purpose. It has visibility, history, credibility, and relationships.
2. A local church needs to be a church and not an NGO or a social service organization. The primary functions of a local church include being a worshiping community, preaching, teaching, discipling, counseling, praying, and assisting those in need. Many Christian NGOs and donors that seek to work with and through local churches unintentionally turn these churches into social service organizations through their requirements and restrictions. Some well-intentioned donors, because of historic precedence, require churches receiving their funding not to be involved in any spiritual activity during the period when aid is being provided for fear of manipulation of the beneficiaries of the aid. While there are power dynamics in every human relationship and eliminating them is not realistic or possible, these dynamics can be managed and their impact minimized. If a donor chooses to work through a church, there should be no conditions to the aid as it is being provided nor manipulation by those providing the aid.
3. The local church needs to minister to those outside its community. In the Arab culture, the family and the tribe take care of their own, such that the Arab social context can be very fragmented. As Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf discussed in his book Exclusion and Embrace, churches have often excluded those who are outsiders and different as a way to protect themselves during times of crisis. However, God has embraced us in spite of our desire to be different than Him and what He created us to do. This is the model for the church to show compassion to outsiders and not just those within the church.
4. The local church needs to partner with others within the community and beyond. The local church has specific roles and functions within a community. In order to be compassionate, it does not have to provide the full range of social services. Instead, it needs to partner with other organizations and individuals within the community and beyond with similar values. Such a network would enable the church to access the needed services as and when needed while maintaining its distinctiveness within the community.
5. The local church needs to understand its mission and mandate: The community of the followers of Christ should not only remember the last thing He said (the Great Commission) but also the greatest thing He said (the Great Commandment): to love the Lord and one’s neighbor. The Micah Declaration refers to the mission and the mandate of the Church as “integral mission.”
Integral mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission 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. If we ignore the world we betray the word of God, which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world… As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.
In the Syrian crisis, the local church as an institution in the community has enabled access to areas and to refugees and those affected by violence that would not have been possible otherwise. While many organizations are providing assistance, the local church can be a place of refuge and compassion.
A version of this article first appeared on the website of the Institute for Middle East Studies, a research and resource institute founded by the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary with the mandate to bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond.
- Rupen Das is program director of the Masters program at the Institute for Middle East Studies in Beirut, Lebanon.
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