Christians Should Be Motivated to Minister to Homeless People
This past January, with the temperature so cold my van’s windows could barely defrost, I dropped off six men at McDonald’s so they could spend the day there, protected from the frigid cold.
No matter where you live, there are men and women longing to set their head on a bed they can call their own. We often think of homelessness as an inner-city problem. We see panhandlers on the street corner or pass a young lady and her dog sitting on a blanket. That’s the image of homelessness fixed in our minds.
But in most towns, homelessness looks very different. It’s the single mom who’s unable to put a deposit down on an apartment because of bad credit. It’s the young man who has been released from jail but can’t get a job. It’s the addict or the person with mental health issues who’s been asked to leave their family home again and again. Many sleep in their cars, some will couch-surf for as long as they can, and still others will find a piece of land where they can pitch a tent or roll out a sleeping bag.
Homelessness is always a crisis. But merciful, compassionate, and loving Christians can’t only and always walk the other way. We have a compelling motivation to respond.
FOUR PRINCIPLES IN CARING FOR THE HOMELESS
But it’s not always obvious what the best response is. Our church began to discuss this in recent years. In fact, one of our elders serves as Executive Director of a local transitional home for at-risk women. He is all too aware of the needs in our region, and he led our church to respond.
We did so, with these four considerations in mind.
1. Every homeless person is in crisis.
We were determined not to see homelessness as a problem to be fixed but rather to see the individual as a person in crisis. We must ensure that our efforts to respond do not exacerbate the crisis. It’s true that helping can hurt.
2. Every crisis is an opportunity.
It’s often at a point of crisis that people can begin to respond to the very real issues going on their lives. Addiction, mental health issues, family breakdown, debt, depression, loneliness, unemployment, abuse—the list goes on. Homelessness is almost always a symptom of something far deeper. Every person has a story, and our goal has been to walk alongside someone, hear their story, and offer hope and compassion. Ultimately, we look at these as gospel opportunities, telling the people we come across that their greatest need is reconciliation with God and imploring them to find their rest through faith in Jesus. We hope to never be ashamed or ambiguous in setting forth that message as our goal.
3. Every opportunity can lead to a relationship.
As we have opportunity to walk alongside someone in a moment of crisis, there’s often potential for an ongoing friendship. This happens regularly in churches with vibrant, biblical community. We must be ready for this. Take time to consider what it will look like in the life of your church as you equip your people to disciple someone out of an addiction or with a mental health issue. Are you fully aware of the time and resources that might take?
4. Every relationship can end in disappointment.
Be ready for failure. We cannot save anyone—either from their homelessness or from their sin—so we must be ready to fail. Most people we seek to minister to will walk away, many will take advantage, and some will slip away further than they were when we began. Ready yourself for the emotional toll this brings.
FOUR WAYS TO RESPOND TO THE HOMELESS
As our church considered these points, we put into place the following four responses:
1. Crisis Intervention.
In partnership with other churches in the city, we opened up our facility as an emergency shelter. We purchased cots, pillows, and blankets. During the winter months, as many as twelve residents will sleep in our church’s fellowship hall. Church members volunteer to serve and eat a meal with our guests. They take the time to hear their story. Church members also keep a closet stocked with non-perishable foods so that our guests can leave with some groceries to help them get through the day.
2. Develop Relationships.
We intentionally challenge our members to sit and eat with our guests. We want to hear their stories and share ours. On occasion, we have opportunity to follow up with a guest, and we’ve seen some move into permanent housing. We’ve also invited them to join us for dinner at one of our Community Groups.
3. Discipleship Opportunities.
We’ve developed ministries that seek to disciple the homeless in our city. The New Life Center is a resource and counseling center in downtown Bardstown where a number of our church members serve as counselors. The Unlocked Apprenticeship is an on-the-job training for those who’ve experienced poverty, addiction, or incarceration. We provide employment, training, and intensive discipleship courses. The Way House and Bethany Haven are transitional homes for men and women. We lead What is the Gospel? Bible studies and seek to walk alongside residents.
4. Celebrate Perseverance.
Working among the poor and needy in our city can be emotionally and spiritually exhausting, not to mention time-consuming and costly. Because of this, it’s important to take time to pray as a church—both with each other and with those we come across who are in need. The more we commit to this, the more likely we are to be able to celebrate perseverance and even victory in others’ lives.
We are all broken, and we all have a common need. We must not go into ministry thinking we are people with our lives together seeking to fix broken people. Rather, we minister from a place of brokenness, knowing it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that leads to a lasting hope for restoration and recovery.
The world’s greatest problem is people’s sin. Its greatest need is Jesus. We have therefore a responsibility to extend the hand of grace and mercy to the needy on our own doorsteps.