How to Avoid Compassion Fatigue

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In my work of mobilizing churches for mission with TMS Global, I’ve heard countless stories from pastors and mission teams about the limited missional engagement from their people. It’s what most everyone complains about. If there is engagement, it usually involves a small percentage of the congregation and is limited to particular age demographic.

One of the reasons for this disengagement might involve compassion fatigue—people are just worn out. Compassion fatigue may result in apathy, burnout, low morale, depression, and disengagement from the work of mission. And there are just as many ways to address compassion fatigue as their are consequences. We can focus on being a “simple church.” We might introduce spiritual gift inventories and personality profile teachings so people can find their fit in mission. We can even stop all missional activities. All of these attempts may be worthwhile, but I’d like to offer some perspectives that might shape the ways you manage compassion fatigue in your congregation.

One way to address compassion fatigue is to help your church recapture a biblical vision of mission. Here I point to a problem many ministries encounter—a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel. Paul said in I Corinthians, “It is this Good News that saves you…” (15:2a). And what is this Good News? Paul says, “I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as Scripture said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said” (I Corinthians 15:3-4, NLT). The gospel is the Good News of Jesus Christ—his death and resurrection, and his deliverance and healing from sin for every human being on planet Earth. When we receive the gospel, we experience justification and forgiveness. But I’m concerned that many people confuse the gospel with the second great commandment, of loving others. The gospel transforms lives. There is no substitute for it. No amount of compassionate service or “social justice” will accomplish what God can when the Good News of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to a lost world.

A biblical vision of mission prioritizes gospel witness to the world. That’s why Jesus said in his last message to the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere – in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NLT). When we focus our mission on the right priorities, of being witnesses, we unleash the power of Holy Spirit in us and through us for the world. We are driven to prayer because we know deep down it’s only God who can win our community to Christ. Lives transformed by the power of God beats compassion fatigue every single time.

Granted, there are legitimate concerns some have in setting such a high priority on ministries of witness: the gospel becomes a disembodied abstraction or mission becomes too reductionistic. But Paul says the gospel is “most important.” While incarnational service can solve temporal needs, it will never heal and satisfy a person’s deepest spiritual need. Compassion can point people in the right direction, but it can’t restore them to God. What often results is that compassionate ministries devoid of gospel witness lead to compassion fatigue. A focus solely on compassionate ministry can inoculate a Christ-follower from ever becoming a bold and effective witness for Jesus. Worst of all, the very people we are serving might miss an opportunity to hear about Jesus.

A friend shared with me about an experience he had with a Christian compassionate ministry in a large city. The ministry gave away hundreds of thousands of meals to hungry persons in the name of Christ. My friend asked the director of the ministry, “What is your plan for telling them about Jesus?” The director shared there was not plan for this; they were trusting Christ to make this happen, as if by some kind of spiritual osmosis people would come to know and understand. My friend asked next, “How many persons have come to faith in Christ through your ministry?” The answer was none.

I encourage you to evaluate your church’s compassionate ministries. Are you sharing the gospel of Christ through them? Do the people you serve have opportunities to hear and respond to Jesus? Are you witnessing the power of God at work in changing people? Are those who serve able to build deeper relationships, or only staying busy in ministry? Train your people to how to share the gospel and invite lost people to follow Christ.

When I begin a coaching relationship with a church about its mission, I challenge church leaders at the outset to answer two important questions. First, going forward, how will you define mission? Starting here leads churches to establish the importance of gospel witness. Second, what is God’s compelling vision for our ministry? Dealing with these core matters first is a game changer for most churches. They start doing the right things, based on an intentional plan and not a “friends and family plan.” Over time, it changes their missional priorities—who they partner with, how they serve, and how they spend their money in mission. That kind of intentional focus is an antidote to compassion fatigue. More than that, Christ followers are captured by a vision to become passionate and effective witnesses for Christ through the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit in some of the most difficult places in the world.

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Dr. Duane Brown serves as the senior director of church ministry for The Mission Society.

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