For most of my Christian life, I viewed mercy as a deed or act, likely one of pity. But in the last several years, I have discovered mercy is an investment – albeit often a messy and costly one. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” If grace is amazing, mercy is magnificent. And when we sow seeds of mercy in the lives of others, we are guaranteed to reap mercy ourselves.
In my recent book, The God Impulse: The Power of Mercy in an Unmerciful World, I unpacked the reality that God’s first impulse toward us is one of mercy. Imagine a time in your life when, like the prodigal son, you totally blew it – yet when you returned to God, he ran to you with outspread arms. Jesus commands us to “go and do the same” (Luke 10:37). Mercy is a bridge, and God created us for interdependency and community. Our capacity, and much of our provision, stems from leaning into him and the communities he has provided in a vulnerable and interdependent way.
What if, just as we are desperately dependent on God’s daily mercies, a broken world may depend on daily mercies from us?
The Reimagine Group and I commissioned this Barna study to explore the notion that if we become imbalanced in our understanding of the gospel, then we cease to be a bridge to a lost and hurting world. Barna found that one-third of practicing Christians (33%) views the gospel as a mission of restoration and renewal, begun on the cross and continued in our acts of love, justice and mercy. This view acknowledges that everything flows from the completed work of Christ—his death, resurrection and ascension—and that his work in bringing his Kingdom to earth will be through his spirit and his Church.
But do we really understand what mercy is? What is our propensity to demonstrate it to those around us through forgiveness, compassion and justice, to represent a gospel that is about more than our individual, personal salvation?
At times, the results of this study are sobering, and I hope they will serve as a catalyst or, at least, a mirror for my fellow believers. I know they have for me. If I see mercy as a deed, it is easy for me to check it off my list or even outsource it to another party, like I would for landscaping, tax preparation or automotive repairs. Has this same spirit of outsourcing crept into our displays of compassion? Looking at a number of areas of need, from poverty to incarceration, this study shows that only 17 percent of practicing Christians feel they personally carry a primary responsibility to provide help in person.
Embodied mercy is the full picture of the gospel. Jesus’ ministry was hands-on, always seeing the people before him, being moved to compassion, reaching out to touch them and providing physical and spiritual relief. His mercy toward us was an investment in our eternity. I hope The Mercy Journey leads us back to that same type of expression—in our hearts, homes, churches and communities.
Founder of The Reimagine Group
Jack Alexander, founder of The Reimagine Group, has a business background as an entrepreneur and has cofounded and built business services and technology companies across diverse industries. He is author of The God Guarantee (foreword by Timothy Keller) and The God Impulse (foreword by Walter Brueggemann). Jack often speaks at churches, events and conferences and enjoys consulting with business leaders, pastors and ministry leaders. Jack and his wife, Lisa, live in Atlanta and have three sons and six grandchildren.
Embarking on The Mercy Journey
Tense. Divided. Broken. Hostile. Vitriolic. Isolated. Anxious. Unjust. Skeptical.
These words pop up often as Barna Group gauges atmospheres and attitudes in the U.S.—yes, even in the Church.
Perhaps they ring true to your own experience, or at least call to mind recent headlines. In this contested climate, when it seems like the loudest voice often wins, it can be tempting to root faith expression in having the right ideas, the clearest doctrine, the best arguments. But, as representatives of the whole gospel, Christians have an opportunity to be not only messengers of truth but also ministers of mercy, in their homes, workplaces, churches and communities. As Tim Keller shares on page 43, mercy depicts and embodies truth.
Jack Alexander, founder of The Reimagine Group, and his team first approached Barna to survey perceptions and experiences of mercy for his book, The God Impulse: The Power of Mercy in an Unmerciful World. The Mercy Journey further explores that data and its themes. The study is primarily based on surveys conducted in April and May of 2018 among 1,502 practicing Christian adults and 600 senior Protestant pastors in the U.S. Living mercifully pertains to the posture of our hearts and the work of our hands, and this survey covers both, asking about topics such as: giving and receiving forgiveness, what mercy looks like and to whom it should extend, and how individuals and churches go about providing relief to those in need.
The researchers recognize that some of the terms in this report—mercy, as well as compassion, forgiveness, justice, truth, empathy and so on—are interconnected. Further, perceptions of these virtues and reports of how they have been either experienced or carried out in the lives of Christians are subjective. But Barna’s hope is that this introspective study of how practicing Christians and pastors believe they have received and offered these gifts will produce more thoughtful conversations and compassionate endeavors. In embarking on this journey, the presence of Christians and the work of the Church can become a healing balm in a merciless age.
The Mercy Journey Map
This report is part of The Mercy Journey collection, a data-driven exploration of the topic of mercy, based on Barna research conducted in partnership with The Reimagine Group. This resource is set up to first inspire reflection and then action, moving outward from our hearts, to our homes, to our churches and, finally, to our communities.