“If we asked our neighbors to just brainstorm words that come to their minds when they think about our church, how long would it be before the word ‘compassion’ would come to their lips?” Steve Viars, pastor of Faith Church in Lafayette, Indiana, asked those in his Wednesday morning workshop to consider this question.

Then he asked another question, which might need to be answered first: Should we have a compassion ministry? After all, 1 John 2:15 states, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” On the other hand, there is John 3:16, by the same human writer: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” The answer lies in studying the context. “World” means something different in each place. In the former it refers to the world system, while in the latter it refers to the people in the world. We must absolutely love people and show compassion to them.

The book of Titus is uniquely relevant to the topic of compassion. The culture on the island of Crete was in every way challenging. The book of Titus provides three principles for living effectively for God in such a challenging culture.

The first principle is that sometimes Christians’ light shines brightest when the backdrop is dark. Crete had the reputation of being an evil place. There wasn’t much argument on that point from any quarter; even the Cretans themselves agreed. “One of them, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons’” (Titus 1:12). But Crete was where Titus was called to minister. He needed to answer a question, as we do today: Is the culture a battlefield, or is it a mission field? Pastor Viars recognized the validity of the culture being on some level a battlefield; but first and foremost, he stressed, it is a mission field. People need love, but many evangelical churches have positioned themselves as being mad instead of loving their neighbor. They “seem a fortress of hatred instead of a haven of grace.”

So what do we do about that? The second principle for living effectively for God in a challenging culture is that a proclaimed gospel must first be effectively lived. “I am convinced of this,” Pastor Viars said. “Often one of the best tools in an evangelism bag is the power and efficacy of a changed and changing life. And part of our compassion ministry is helping the men and women inside our churches to live in a way that honors the Lord. And where does that start? It starts in the lives of the leaders.” If we expect others to change, first the leaders need to change. This point stands in contrast to the false teachers on the island of Crete, who lived fully evil lives. Growth and change apply to how people function at work (2:9–10) and to the way they relate to the government (3:1–2). A key is to always be aware of what we were like before the gospel (3:3).

A third principle for living for God in a challenging culture is that bad cultures are often penetrated by good works (1:16). Titus contains many references to “good works” (1:16; 2:7, 14; 3:1, 8, 14). Pastor Viars asked, “If the superintendent of the public schools had some sort of deed that needed to be performed, would he think about your church as the obvious call to make?”

Using Faith Church as an example, he said the leadership wants Faith Church to be the obvious call when there is a need. When Viars first became the pastor, a chart listed all the church’s ministries. The upper four boxes contained ministries the church then operated. The lower five boxes were shaded and contained vision for compassion ministries to people, such as the homeless, families in crisis, the elderly, and those who need housing. Today, by God’s grace, not one of those five boxes has any shading—Faith Church is now doing all those ministries.

A church that positively impacts its community for Christ has several levels. The first level is equipping believers to live godly lives. The second is encouraging others to become followers of Christ. The third is meeting human needs with love and compassion. And level four is taking a stand for righteousness in the public square. But nobody will listen at level four if the church is not doing level three. A church’s goal needs to be to hit on all four of these “cylinders.”

The necessary ingredient for compassion ministry is the growth and change of God’s people. Churches should not focus just on the sin of all those around them. Church members must focus instead on how they need to change and grow as Christians, and on showing compassion to others.