Homeless Ministry in Chicago
Benn Silveira, Graduate Student in Biblical Languages and Literature
Serving the Homeless
I think it is fair to say that many Christians have questions about how to effectively serve the homeless population in their local area. Some question whether to give money or even their time to a homeless person. Some are not sure whether to focus primarily on their spiritual need or to address their physical need before the spiritual need. There needs to be a balance between being too gracious or too closed off to the homeless population. Well, where is the balance? I propose that the balance is friendship: friendship with the person whom you seek to help. Why is friendship important for serving the homeless? First and primarily because of Christ’s example. He befriended thieves, adulterers, etc. (Jn. 4; Lk. 19:1-10); he befriended sinners (Mk. 2:13-17). Please keep in mind that Jesus’ purpose for intentional interaction was not to condone sin; instead, it was to be present with them and to show them his love as well as the truth of the Word. In fact, Jesus’ friendship is like a mini picture of the gospel. Part of the gospel includes the good news that God chose to make his dwelling among sinners, not the righteous (Lk. 5:32; Jn. 1:14). Therefore, befriending a homeless person reflects a gospel attitude. In short, if we earnestly want to reach our homeless population for Christ, then we must first set aside our stereotypes, expectations, and discomfort, and intentionally choose to get to know the homeless person as a friend, like you would for any normal friendship. May the Lord give us a heart of compassion to befriend a person without a home!
Now that I have briefly talked about the heart of homeless ministry, allow me to address the head of homeless ministry. By head I mean the mind, that is, discernment and wisdom. My experience at the Pacific Garden Mission (PGM) this summer has taught me that Christians need to have both compassion and wisdom when serving the homeless. Jesus’ command to his disciples to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt. 10:16) as they ministered has become a fitting verse for serving the homeless population. By wise, Jesus does not mean you need to be thoroughly educated, though that is honorable; instead, he means you need to have discernment. Jesus’ command is in the context of warning his disciples about future persecution; this context of persecution certainly warrants wisdom from God. What happens when you don’t exercise wisdom? You have a gentle dove who is naïve; in other words, you have a person full of compassion but lacking discernment for how to show that compassion. There is a saying at PGM that captures the need for wisdom: “Sometimes you’re hurting more than you’re helping.” By having a heart of compassion but no discernment, sometimes you end up enabling a homeless person’s problem more than helping them. So how do you help the homeless person without hurting them? The answer: godly discernment. I say godly because true discernment comes from the Lord, and therefore the believer needs to depend on God for how to interact with each homeless person. This brings up another reason for wisdom: Every homeless person’s life and situation is different. Therefore, be very careful not to stereotype men or women who are homeless. I confess that I am guilty of stereotyping homeless people. However, during my time at PGM I have realized that each one has a unique situation; this is another reason why befriending a homeless person is important. Without getting to know his situation, how are we able to discern whether he is truly in desperate need of a godly friend to show him the love of Christ? In the same way that we need wisdom to tell the sheep from the wolves, we also need wisdom to tell the homeless person who does not want help from the one who does. Please do not rely on your local rescue mission alone to do that type of discerning for you; instead, rely on God’s wisdom, which is perfected over time, as you discern how you can best help.
Sharing the Gospel with the Homeless
Assuming the Christian understands the gospel message, it is necessary then to share it boldly to a homeless person. Bold evangelism may obviously sound necessary, but sometimes, whether to the homeless or others, we might be tempted to shy away from presenting the full gospel message. To be bold does not mean to be fearless but to speak truth despite difficulty, and difficulties can come in different forms for each person. Whatever your difficulty is when evangelizing, overcome it with boldness, which is empowered by the Holy Spirit (another reason to depend on God for ministry). Homeless men and women need to hear the same gospel message that you heard when you got saved; therefore, boldly share the full gospel message to the homeless and don’t hold anything back. Take heart, the Lord will give you the words to say (Mt. 10:19-20)!
If boldness includes speaking the truth despite difficulty and trust implies dependence and confidence, then bold trust means to trust God in the midst of difficulty. In terms of homeless evangelism, the difficulty for me lies in trusting God that my evangelism is not in vain. The nature of homeless ministry is discouraging because many homeless men and women receive the gospel message with gladness but soon return to their own ways, while others don’t even want to talk about the gospel unless you’re also going to give them money. As Christians, we should not be surprised by how the homeless receive the gospel message because how they receive it is not different than how people in Jesus’ day received it. In fact, Jesus used an entire parable known as the Parable of The Sower to explain how the heart of man receives the gospel message. Some receive the gospel, but it doesn’t last; some receive it with joy, but the joy is only temporary; others receive the gospel message and are changed permanently into a new creation (see Mt. 13:18-23). Boldly trust that God will do the planting and watering as we faithfully do the sowing.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.