We are called to love our neighbors (Lev. 19:18; Mat. 19:19) and value them as creatures in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27). History has shown that Christians have not only led the way in humanitarian ministry, but are willing to persevere in obscurity and without accolade. Most religions have a “Golden Rule,” but few base their actions on the divine image in humans. For these, the only real ground for humanitarian action is social pressure, and once that has been pacified, the effort usually wanes. Islam and Judaism affirm the image of God, but they deny a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Our role for engaging in humanitarian aid is to act in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:41). Introducing someone to Christ is the ultimate humanitarian act, and that may require a cup of cold water. Our social efforts must facilitate our commitment to disciple-making. We should note that some inter-faith ministries do not permit the exclusive promotion of Christianity; therefore, our participation in them is not conducive to Christian mission.
Gifts always have reasons. When a boy buys a girl flowers, or a salesman gives you a pen, or Grandma buys you a Christmas gift, you don’t wonder why.
But when we help the poor, the reason is not obvious. A problem develops when there is not a clear reason for the gift. The assumption is formed that we give because people who have resources are supposed to give to people who don’t. That’s why in an impoverished country a person will ask for money from an American he has never met before. He asks without a reason, because Americans give without a reason.
Emergency response, like the Good Samaritan’s, can be done without a given reason. Otherwise, most giving should be done in the relationship of the family of faith. God designed families and churches to meet all needs. People in the family of faith should be cared for, and those outside should be invited to enter. Material help should demonstrate to the world what it means to live in the family of God.
The chief work of missionaries is to bring souls to Jesus. However, in fulfilling that task they have been used by God to raise the standard of living in many countries. The January/February 2014 issue of Christianity Today reported on research which proved that countries which welcomed “conversionary” Protestant missionaries became more democratic and enjoyed greater progress than other nations.
"Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women) . . ." (p. 34). Missionaries in China worked to end the opium trade; those in many countries taught people to read and established schools; around the world they have built hospitals and fought disease; missionaries have been leaders in the fight against slavery and against the abuse of women and children.
Whether in structured social ministries or through informal "sidebar" activities, God has used missionaries to uplift nations through both spiritual and humanitarian blessings.
"Missions is all about reaching lost souls," some say, and it’s true in a way, but people are body, soul and spirit. Loving our neighbor has to include the whole man, which often involves his physical needs. Setting up a false dichotomy between the “spiritual” and the “physical” is a trap. The gospel is good news for the entire person.
Social ministry has a prominent place in our Wesleyan heritage. “Soup, soap, and salvation,” was a common Salvation Army phrase; Wesley often emphasized meeting physical needs.
Humanitarian ministry is often the gateway for people to hear and understand the depth of God’s love for them. As their tangible needs are met by God’s people, they are more open to hearing God’s message.
Ultimately, through our acts of service we are serving Jesus Himself. “As much as you have done it unto one of the least of these…, you’ve done it unto me,” Jesus said. We are called to love in deed and in truth, not forgetting the Great Commandment on the way to the Great Commission.
When operated correctly, social ministries can be a means to an end, the goal being the salvation, discipleship, and servant-leadership training of the local people. Medical aid, humanitarian assistance, educational training, well drilling, latrine building, vocational training, and similar activities can provide points of contact with unregenerate community folks. These "entry points" into their lives open doors for relationship building and evangelism. I appreciate what Francis of Assisi said: "By all means witness, use words when necessary." The aforementioned humanitarian ministries break down doors and walls when reaching such people as Hindus and Muslims. Sometimes humanitarian assistance / aid can be a blessing to the local people; sometimes it can be a curse resulting in paternalism and dependency. Thus, let us not neglect the role of humanitarian ministries, but let us keep them in their proper place as we work to build the local church -- the people, not the buildings.
The role of humanitarian ministries in world missions is: