Last month I wrote describing my recent (Feb. 93) trip to Beius, Romania. There I worked with a medical mission team for two weeks caring for bodies and preaching to hearts of people who had been denied the gospel during the 45 years of the Ceausescu regime. I observed with delight the wisdom of God to establish and provide the office of elder, and drew some lessons for the importance and the nature of the work of an elder, both in Romania and in the United States.
In this article, I draw your attention to the office of deacon. If ever I saw the need for this office and the wisdom of God in providing it, it was in the Villages of Romania.
BARBIE DOLLS WITHOUT BREAD
She was a little thing, about 4 or 5, with the big, round dark eyes typical of the Roman origins of the general populace of Romania. Pretty as a picture, the poverty in which she lived appeared the more ugly by contrast. Her face appeared on a picture; that picture brought an American cameraman and a reporter from Sioux City, Iowa; their nightly news reports flashed her pretty eyes and desperate condition across the Midwest. The reporter told of her lack of clothing, and how in her impoverished village, she had no toys with which to play. And the gifts began to come in. Soon they piled up-so much so that in her rural, mud-floored hut, she had American toys literally stacked against the wall all the way to the ceiling—Barbie dolls, make-up kits complete with several shades of lipstick, purses, dress-up clothes. The other wall had clothes all in her size, literally hundreds of pounds of new, American-styled fashions.
Wonderful, right? No! Tragic!! The nightly news broadcast had done its job. It had awakened the wealthy Americans to open soft hearts to an impoverished girl. After all, by focusing on her, they had shown the “human side” of the tragedy of Communism’s tyranny. And the American gifts came in by the boxful. But the family still had a hole the size of a trash can lid in the roof; the father still had no job, nor any prospects of finding one; there was still no food; most of the teeth in the mouths of each of the family members were rotting away; the bed on which the little girl and her sister slept still had a mattress with ahole so large that the metal framingof the bed was visible through it.
The believers in the village—there were a few—were justifiably frustrated. All poor, it had been their hope that the plight of the Romanian people would be made known. They could not have known the power of the American medium called television; they would never have understood the ease with which people they had never met would pick up an extra Barbie Doll and ship it to an unknown address, forgetting about it within days. But they knew about the wrongness, the wickedness of stacking up against a weak wall more frivolous toys than a little girl could ever use, more size 8 American sundresses and ski jackets than the village could use in a lifetime, and watching the family starve in the shadow of the heap.
ENTER THE “DEACONS”
Enter the “deacons.” The book of Acts describes what for most, is the foundation of the office. Acts 6 tells of the need in the early church for care for Greek speaking widows, and of the consequent appointment and ordination of godly men who were “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” They (all with Greek names, by the way!) took care of the widows, and “the Word of God spread” as a result.
So too in Romania. Unfortunately, the churches there aren’t clear on the office of deacon, certainly not as we know it. But they know the need and move to fill it. REMM (Romanian Evangelistic Medical Mission), whom you met last month, has joined forces with the believers in the country to try to coordinate the ministry of mercy so that the debacle described above is avoided in the future. The organization they have established is called RCA, Romanian Christian Aid. Interestingly, it does not depend on American gifts! It calls Romanian believers to share of their own possessions to assist their impoverished countrymen. RCA is building.. literally as I write these words, a small warehouse in a particularly poor area. In it they will store the gifts of used (and I mean used!) clothes and other useful items given out of the generosity of the hearts of Christians in Romania. From there, those with cars will make rounds to the villages and provide needed gifts to the poorest of the poor—all in the name of Jesus Christ and for the love of His Church! They don’t know the term “deacon,” but they have them and they work well!
In one village lived a family with 12 children. The father lost his job, hardly unusual in that economy. So did the mother. The father couldn’t live with the progressively thinning faces and protruding ribs of his children. So he killed himself. (The suicide rate in Romania was in 1985, the highest national average in the world, many times the rate in the US). The believers in the village challenged one another. Many farmers whose monthly income averages $25 pledged one-half of their crop for the support of this family! And the “deacons” managed it. They challenged the believers. They made sure the family didn’t get a ton of cabbage but no bread.
NEEDED: REAL DEACONS!
The story could be told again and again, with different statistics, names and faces. Believers will give generously when there is a need.
Such is the response of the truly converted heart. Deacons are not just the collectors of offerings, not merely organizers of the building and grounds of the church. They are the servants who give themselves to direct, channel and appropriately apply the gifts of the people of God to the need at hand. In Romania, there is little question about where the needs are. There is only a question about how best to apply the gifts to meet them.
In the United States, the lessons of Romania are just as important but harder to apply. In most of the churches I am familiar with, the deacons are frustrated. They have little or no vision for their office. They are plagued with self-image problems as they try to answer for themselves the question, “What is a deacon?” And since we live in prosperity, the obvious crisis facing the Romanians is absent. What do real deacons do?
Well, to begin with, they don’t play make work. That is, they don’t invent mundane tasks, call them diaconal, and thus “fulfill their calling.” Yet, such is often the case. Many deacons only pass plates from aisle to aisle in worship services, count the receipts and make sure the money makes it to the bank. Supervised teens could do that!
But the real work of deacons is to administer, to manage the gifts and resources of God’s people and to apply them to the needs that present themselves. That may take some creativity in prosperous America, but it is just as important as in Romania. After all, God gave the deacons to the church as His gift. And God doesn’t give His church Barbie Dolls, gifts that collect dust against a wall, unnecessary and frivolous. He gives gifts to be used because His church needs them.
So how should you deacons work? Try this on for size. At yow next deacon’s meeting brainstorm with the brothers about every conceivable need within the congregation and its area of ministry. Have your eyes open too.
• Are there many single moms? What are needs unique to their situation? Car repairs? Time without their kids so they can take care of personal matters? A male role model for boys?
• How about the needs of the lonely? Believers can be burdened with loneliness; so can unbelievers. How could the church minister the love and mercy of Christ to such?
• And of course, the obvious needs. Cancer patients who need rides to chemo—or radiation—therapy appointments? Terminal patients who desperately need visitors who will read the Word of the Lord to them? Crisis pregnancies? Alcoholics? How about their families?
• And how do you help people financially in prosperous America? Do you assist them to maintain your standard of living? Do you help them payoff their credit card debt so they can go on borrowing? Do you teach them how to budget? Do you manage their money directly until they learn how? Tough questions, but worthy of answers!
Then, having listed your specific ministry needs, take some time to ask the question: “What gifts has God given our church to meet those needs?” Be honest. And be bold. Challenge people to servanthood. Assign people to visit. And above all, don’t figure that you have to meet all the needs by yourself! God didn’t establish the office of deacon in order to have the deacons do what He elsewhere commands every believer to do! All of us are to show love and mercy. Deacons are to manage all of our resources time, talents, treasures—not just their own!
Dr. Sittema is pastor of the Bethel CRC, Dallas, TX.