Article Apr 20, 2018

10 things that will kill your church's orphan care ministry: Part 1

This is part one of a series born out of several years of consulting with and observing many churches across America develop orphan care ministries.

Over time, I have noticed 10 common mistakes that cause these ministries to struggle, and even fail. I want to share those observations with you in an effort to help and to stir a discussion about the good things being done to minister well in orphan care.

1. A disconnect from the gospel

The gospel is the answer for the orphan crisis. God entered human history to destroy the power of death, hell, and sin, and to restore what has been broken by the curse of sin. We can’t ever lose sight of the fact that children are orphaned because we live under the effects of the curse of sin. This world is broken, and sin and death still reign, but the reign of sin is temporary.

There is a King who has come and has done the good work that brings hope. And that King is coming again. One day, he will return and establish his Kingdom and complete the work he has begun. He will restore what has been broken. Sickness, death, and indifference will be gone. Our work will be over. There will be no more orphans!

Right now, we are living in a great paradox. It’s what I remember my New Testament professor in seminary calling the “already but not yet” tension of the Kingdom of God. On the one hand, we are already citizens of the Kingdom as Christians. On the other hand, we are citizens living in an alien land. We are living in a broken, struggling world until Jesus completes the establishment of his Kingdom. It’s that tension that defines orphan ministry.

In our urgency to deal with the very real and pressing suffering of the millions of orphans across the world, we mustn’t be satisfied to only deal with their earthly suffering. We have to remember that they, like the rest of the world, suffer at a much greater level. They suffer in their need for the gospel and its ultimate promise of rescue. The gospel demands that we not forget their spirits as we try to care for their physical needs. Disconnecting from the gospel will kill our orphan ministries in effectiveness and, ultimately, in substance.

We can afford neither the extreme of gospel proclamation without meeting physical needs or meeting physical needs without gospel proclamation. Our only extreme should be the extent we are willing to sacrifice to do both together. In that, we will follow the example of Jesus.

2. Doing too much, too fast

The scope of the global orphan ministry crisis creates a healthy sense of urgency in us all. We can easily fall into the trap of rushing headlong into ministry without enough care or consideration when we recognize the enormity of the challenges posed by the needs of orphaned and vulnerable children, particularly the scores of children that will “age-out” of institutions this year. We have to balance the urgency of the need with our capacity to do ministry well.

As I have observed church orphan ministries, there are several common errors to avoid in doing too much, too fast. Here are a few:

Alerting the church to the crisis with no plan for how to address it. Remember the old adage, “To fail to plan is to plan to fail.” If you pour on the statistics and videos during Orphan Sunday but don’t give the church a way to respond, all you are going to do is stir emotion and frustration. Moreover, you are teaching the church that inaction is acceptable to God.

Failing to choose partners well. Rushing into a ministry relationship with an ethically questionable partner because you “just have to do something quickly to respond to the orphan crisis” will eventually lead to problems (and possibly disaster).

Missing opportunities because the church’s bandwidth is maximized. No one can do everything, and no single church is going to solve the orphan crisis. You have to be strategic about growing in doable increments. If you stretch your people and resources to their absolute maximum, you leave no freedom to respond to great, unexpected opportunities for ministry that come up along the way. Always leave a little wiggle room.

Contributing to the notion that orphan care is a fad. Orphan care is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to be committed for the long haul. If you begin with a big splash that gains a lot of attention but is not sustainable, you reinforce the notion that orphan care is the evangelical cause of the moment. Fatherless kids have been disappointed and abandoned enough. Churches can’t be guilty of contributing to their hurt. What you begin, you must be able to maintain.

Keep an eye out for part two in this series, where I’ll share more observations about mistakes in orphan care ministry.

A form of this Lifeline article originally appeared here.