The Syrian conflict has now become a slow meat grinder with hundreds being killed every month while families and communities across Syria are being systematically destroyed.
In the “fog of war,” it is very easy to miss the small signs of hope amid the evil. One sign is the role that many local Arab churches have assumed during the Syrian crisis.
As the present Syrian crisis developed and spilled into Lebanon over the past three years, the Lebanese Baptist community, officially the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), decided to respond to the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
LSESD, a church-based ministry, 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 occupied Lebanon for 20 years and every Lebanese family has stories of their homes being destroyed; family members killed, imprisoned and tortured; and the country systematically destroyed.
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 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.
The church is a link between physical and spiritual realities, but often not understood is the fact that a local church has obligations to the community in which it exists.
A local church exists in a specific physical and social place within a community for a purpose.
As an institution in the community, it has visibility, history, credibility and relationships. It is a part of the community.
Because of this, it is a natural place through which a relief project can be implemented as long as there is no conditionality or manipulation using the aid that is being provided.
2. The local church needs to be a church and not a nongovernmental organization (NGO) or a social service organization.
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.
The functions of a local church include being a worshipping community, preaching, teaching, discipling, counseling, praying and assisting those in need. Ephesians 4:12-13 describes the gifts and function of a local church.
Some well-intentioned donors, because of historic precedence, require churches receiving their funding not to be involved in evangelism or any form of proselytism, or in any other spiritual activity during the period when aid is being provided.
The issue is that there should be no conditionality to the aid as it is being provided nor should there be manipulation by those providing the aid.
The local church needs to continue to be a church and not a social service agency. However, helping those in need is one of its functions among all the others.
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. As a result, the Arab social context is very fragmented.
Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf wrote about this in his book, “Exclusion and Embrace.”
Speaking from within the context of the Balkans, which is similar to the Arab world, Volf noticed that during times of crisis churches excluded those who were outsiders and different as a way to protect themselves.
Yet, God, who has every right to exclude us because of our wanting to be different from him and what he created us to be, does not do so but embraces us.
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.
In order to be compassionate, the local church does not have to develop the skills and capacity to provide the full range of social services. Instead, it needs to partner with other organizations and individuals with similar values.
Such networks enable the church to access the needed services and maintain 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 (Matthew 28:19-20) but also the greatest thing he said (Matthew 22:36-40).
This dual calling to evangelism and social engagement is the basis for the Micah Declaration on integral mission.
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.
Rupen Das is director of the master of religion in Middle Eastern and North African studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. In January 2015, he will begin a new position as consultant for mission and development at the European Baptist Federation (EBF) based in Amsterdam. A longer version of this column first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies blog and is used with permission.
Rupen Das is research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto and the national director of the Canadian Bible Society. He is author of several books, including “Compassion and the Mission of God.”