When it comes to being “doers of the Word,” Tony Merida firmly believes part of that challenge involves caring for orphans, widows and the vulnerable.
Merida, lead pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, was one of four panelists at a break-out discussion on adoption and orphan care June 20, during the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in New Orleans.
Merida and his wife, Kimberly, have five children – they adopted four from Ukraine and one from Ethiopia.
“For me it wasn’t just sad pictures that made me want to adopt kids,” said Merida, also co-author of Orphanology: Awakening to Gospel Centered Adoption and Orphan Care. “It wasn’t infertility that made me want to adopt kids. It was theology. God is a father to the fatherless.”
Merida, (center) lead pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, was one of four panelists at a break-out discussion on adoption and orphan care June 20, during the SBC’s annual meeting in New Orleans.
In addition to Merida, other panelists included Russell Moore, author of Adopted for Life and a dean and a vice president at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.; Johnny Carr, who directs church partnerships with Bethany Christian Services; and David Platt, author and pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala. The panel was sponsored by the North American Mission Board and Together for Adoption.
Matt Capps, an associate pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, moderated the event. Capps asked Merida to share some practical tips for how people can get involved in helping orphans and children in need.
The goal for a pastor, Merida said, is to develop a “culture of orphan care” in their congregation. To do that a pastor must also lead by example.
“Leaders must embody the vision,” he said.
“I don’t think necessarily that pastors have to adopt to embody the vision,” said Merida, pointing to Saddleback Church’s pastor Rick Warren, who hasn’t adopted but leads his church in a variety of social ministries. “But you do need to exemplify what you are talking about.”
Start with a simple plan, Merida said. Host a training seminar. Invite local experts on adoption and foster care to speak at your church. Develop relations with local foster care and with adoption services. Develop a way for the congregation to execute what is being discussed by pointing them in directions of action.
“As a pastor don’t feel like you have to have all of the answers,” he said. “Things are changing so often. Don’t underestimate the power of developing relationships with movers and shakers in your church. Start in a small way, and see what God can do with that.”
Being educated on the issue is critical, said Carr, of Bethany Christian Services. In the United States, on any given day, there’s estimated to be between 430,000 to 450,000 kids who are in and out of the foster care system. Globally, he said, there are believed to be more than 150 million “vulnerable” children who have lost one or both parents.
“We don’t need to paint the picture that [150 million] kids need to be adopted,” he said. “That’s not true. I would say millions of kids do need adoption of some sort.”
“If [Christians are] going to be leading in this movement we need to make sure we have a good grasp on that. … We do need to be educated about the reality of the orphan.”
Capps asked the panel about how adoption fits with the gospel and the mission of the church.
“Sometimes people are afraid … we’re going to get distracted from winning people to faith in Christ,” said Moore, dean of the school of theology and senior vice president of academic administration at Southern.
“When a church learns how to accommodate that kid with fetal alcohol syndrome … learns to hold that baby with AIDS … learns to bear with that woman [who is] addicted to cocaine, that same congregation is learning to bear with young believers in Christ and to disciple them,” he said.
“You’re learning to be a family together, all part of the family of God.”
Though the panel encourages everyone to get involved in some way, not everyone is called to adopt, Moore added.
“I spend a lot of my time calling on Christians not to adopt,” Moore said. “Children are not a project. Children are not a charity. Children are not something to fill some hole within your life. Children need parents who are called to be parents through everything with those children. When people adopt kids or foster kids, the story doesn’t end there. … The story begins there.”
There “are 1,000 different ways that God’s calling people to care for widows and orphans,” Moore said.
“If simply you come in with a type of cookie-cutter program, you’re going to miss some of what the Holy Spirit is doing within your congregation,” he said.
Pastors need to ask their congregations how God is calling them to care for the orphans and others in need – whether that is foster care, adoption or helping financially.
“And then see what happens,” Moore said. “Let the spirit blow wherever He will.”
Platt shared how Brook Hills helped mobilize 160 families in their congregation to respond to the needs of foster children in their own county. It began when the church invited representatives from local organizations familiar with foster care to speak to the congregation.
“That just opened my eyes to ‘wow’ … in just our county alone they need 100 plus more families, which means all these kids are in need. They’re just getting thrown around the system in really unhealthy ways,” said Platt, who adopted two of three children with wife, Heather.
“From that [the effort] has grown into now a city-wide emphasis where we are working with evangelical churches all across the city to address the wider need and our metro area to work together to address foster care.”
Platt added, “The reality is if we’re going to make disciples of all nations and engage unreached people, engage people groups all around the world …we’re [going to] come across a variety of fatherless, parentless children in the process, particularly in places where spiritual poverty collides with physical poverty and different social challenges,” he said.
“We have an opportunity to come around local churches around the world and say how can we together address this … as we’re making disciples of all nations … and we’re helping mobilize the entire body of Christ to address this crisis.”