I pull my toque down a little lower and turn up the grill. It’s a typical Tuesday night at this old Hamilton bus stop. The city’s poorest are huddled nearby, waiting for food. It’s dipping below -30 and starting to snow. Even with my coat and boots, the cold is biting. Once the hot dogs are done, we will give out some coffee and start to open our Bibles with those that are interested. It’s not my first Bible study at an abandoned bus stop. I’ve been coming here for several years now. The only thing I’m more familiar with than this street corner is the advice I hear from Christians before I arrive. Churchgoers seem to come pre-loaded with opinions about welfare, homelessness, and the government. Some believe that physical needs are more important than spiritual. Some are the other way around.
It’s important to make sure you’re well-informed and properly-intentioned before you make it to the bus stop. So without trying to address the ‘how’ of homeless ministry, I’ve composed some questions to ask yourself and your church before you begin to help. Whether you’re starting a drop-in centre or just chatting with folks on street corners, ask yourself these questions before you start.
Are You Willing to Reach Those Unlike You?
The precedent for world missions was most plainly set when the Holy Spirit descended and men from all over the world began to hear, “each in his own native language” (Acts 2:8). In the Holy Spirit’s world, there are no ‘kinds’ of people. There are only souls needing the gospel. Sometimes people ask me questions like ‘why should we do outreach with the poor?’ I’m not sure how a Bible-reading Christian can think that’s a valid question. Christ’s command to ‘make disciples’ (Mat 28:19) is universally inclusive.
For most believers, if they are going to share Christ, they’re going to share with someone who is like them. That’s why most church outreach events centre around a shared interest for a specific demographic; a men’s soccer night, a lady’s scrapbooking night, lasertag with the teens. And as we reach people like ourselves, our churches slowly fill with more people like us. In almost every book in the New Testament you can hear the writers crying ‘the gospel is for everyone everywhere!’
I’ve discovered that ‘homeless people,’ – just like ‘immigrants’ and ‘First Nations’ – are often mistakenly talked about as one big organic unit. As though they all think and act the same. Before you start anything, get to know who you are reaching. Walk downtown. Learn some names. Remember faces. Every one of these people is different. And everyone has an eternity that this generation of believers is responsible for. How many different demographics is your church currently engaging?
Are You Accessible?
There’s a verse often quoted by children’s church leaders “let the children come to me, and do not hinder them” (Mat 19:14). But I would argue that throughout Christ’s ministry His actions continually say ‘let anyone come to me.’ This is perhaps most clearly seen when the Pharisees begin to complain about how often he “receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). It is as though Christ is saying, ‘tax collectors? Let no one hinder them. Lepers? Let no one hinder them. Samaritans? Let no one hinder them.’ Is there anything in your church that hinders a certain demographic from coming to Him?
Start thinking about the ‘where’ of your ministry events. Churches with new building projects often buy a plot of land on the edge of a city. Are you accessible to people who don’t own cars? Many people live on the streets because they have handicaps (physical or mental) and no one to take care of them. Just like the grandmother living in your basement, some people need a reminder that it’s Sunday. It’s quite common for pastors to go and preach a second sermon in the nearby nursing home in the afternoon. It costs very little but solves an accessibility issue for the elderly near your church. What can you do to make your programs, services, and outreaches accessible to the lower class?
Are You Here Longterm?
Clearly, our best example of discipleship in the Bible is Jesus with the twelve. There’s an understanding that Paul’s converts connected with local gatherings of believers, and of course we know he continued to write them letters. What is clear is that the few New Testament role models we have connected with people on a longterm basis. And the handful of people who heard the gospel and then were left on their own weren’t doing well. Simon wanted to pay for the Spirit (Acts 8:18), the men in Ephesus didn’t know about the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2), and so on.
Sometimes homeless people are the most spiritually confused people I know. Because of their predicament, they’ve drawn the attention of priests and Mormons, witches and new-agers alike. Discipleship is always a long-term game. Don’t give people a gospel and leave them on their own. If that were the appropriate tactic, the Bible should have been a few pages shorter.
When I think of commitment, I see no finer examples than Isaiah and Jeremiah. Isaiah agrees to go and preach to a people who will never see, understand or believe (Isa 6:8-13). Despite great persecution, Jeremiah felt he could not be silent. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire” (Jer 20:9). We ought to regain this perspective on the message the Lord has entrusted to us. You have been commissioned by Christ Himself to ‘go.’ Don’t stop going because no one is listening. Don’t stop going because it is hard.
The cold does something interesting to ministry. It weeds out the fakers. And not just among the homeless. Everyone on the street in Winnipeg in the middle of January is there for a reason. They either have nowhere to go, or they legitimately care about the people who have nowhere to go. In the warmth of summer youth groups are always wanting to volunteer at soup kitchens. Wannabe evangelists who just learned a sure-fire five-point gospel presentation show up on street corners. Instagrammers who think selfies-while-serving are the hot new thing are going to be there. But not in the cold. Something I’ve heard said many times about my Bible study attendees is ‘they’re just pretending to be homeless.’ Something most of these guys would say about the churches is ‘they just pretend to care about the homeless.’ Care enough to stay through thick and thin. It will never be easy, especially when you’re dealing with someone who has a drinking problem or a crystal meth addiction. But no matter where they disappeared to last Wednesday night, make sure they know you’re still here for them. Usually, the nights they need the most help are when they get the least. Think of the coldest winter nights as a way to gauge your own commitment. Is being warm more important to you than souls?
Bringing the gospel to the lost is a task so gargantuan it deserves your full attention and effort. Every single person in your city, regardless of their circumstance, deserves to know the good news of Jesus. So get to work! Whether you decide to start with hotdogs or with tracts, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col 3:23).