5 principles for ministering to the homeless

November 21, 2019

I wore an uncomfortably tight checkered shirt as I walked into Re:Center Ministries for my first day. Climbing down the stairs to the Day Shelter, my ears perked up as a familiar melody played from the computer. Timidly, I kept walking by into the next room—yet, something pulled at me. I walked back. “Is that Gregory Alan Isakov?” I stuttered. A man with dark, messy hair turned and grinned at me with the familiarity of a brother: “You know Gregory?” And so, a friendship was born. The man I met that day, who I’ll refer to as “C,” became a dear friend to me during my time in homeless ministry at Re:Center, as did a number of other men who lived at the shelter that summer. 

Homelessness is a complex reality. It sounds simple, but it’s important: there is no one explanation of how people fall into homelessness. I sat with men who suffered from mental health disorders, who were recovering from drug or alcohol abuse, and who had experienced physical and sexual abuse. Ultimately, each man’s story held different tragic turns that contributed to their situation. We fail to honor the complexities of suffering when we oversimplify these contributing factors, or worse, quietly assign blame to the image-bearer on the street next to us. So, it’s important for us to understand this as we seek to care for those in this predicament. 

My time at Re:Center was life changing. While intensive, it was limited, so I dialogued with my supervisor, Jason Crigler, manager of the LifeChange Program at Re:Center, to help form this article. Together, we formulated five principles to keep in mind when caring for men and women experiencing homelessness: 

1. The importance of holistic care

The Christian witness is that the reconciliation that comes through Christ can begin to redeem all that is broken, so the calling for Christians to the homeless is not an either-or of “material” or “spiritual” care. It is a both-and. Those experiencing homelessness have often experienced a painful rupture of their relationship to God, others, and self. Our brokenness apart from Christ is a spiritual poverty that touches all parts of our lives, which is why restoring the homeless requires holistic care. The men in the program attended classes on financial literacy and interview skills. They were also taught the ways of Jesus through Bible studies and attending church. Crigler spoke on the importance of caring for the physical and spiritual well-being of each individual, saying that, “While we’re praying that the Lord does His deep soul work, we are teaching new ways of thinking and new behaviors.” 

2. Affirming dignity

Sociologist Brene Brown in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” The men at Re:Center described homelessness to me as a deeply lonely, marginalized, and vulnerable experience. It is undignifying, and often leads to having their dignity ignored by society.

The Christian witness is that the reconciliation that comes through Christ can begin to redeem all that is broken, so the calling for Christians to the homeless is not an either-or of “material” or “spiritual” care. It is a both-and.

However, as Christians we know that all human beings bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26) and thus have indelible dignity. This dignity is given not by a roof over our heads but by a Messiah on the cross. Christians have a duty to speak about and toward those experiencing homeless in ways that recognize this God-given value. The message of the gospel meets the homeless in their search for someone to tell them they matter deeply. As John Perkins says, “You don’t give people dignity. You affirm it.”

3. The power of empathy

My greatest fear about interning at a homeless shelter was the fear that my inability to relate would lead to an inability to connect. God rebuked this fear time and time again, teaching me an important truth: what’s required to love well is not similarity of story but empathy. It comes down to this: are we willing to do the tough and thoughtful work of imagining what it’s been like to be the person next to us? Will we love them enough to sit, listen to them, and work to understand? 

What most men in the shelter needed from me wasn’t solutions. It wasn’t advice. What they needed and craved was someone to look them in the eyes and ask them their story. They needed a friend. As Harper Lee writes in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point-of-view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” We Christians have a lot of walking to do.

4. Salvation comes from God—not you

This was the hardest lesson for me to learn. My friend “C” was a well-read atheist, and he loved to debate but did not believe the Bible’s teachings. I found myself inflating my own importance, practicing functional atheism in putting the pressure to save him on my shoulders. I had a timeline of two months, and before I left I wanted to witness his “Damascus Road” conversion. Pridefully, I wanted to escort him there. 

This led to an anxiety about my own ability to convince him of the saving power of the gospel, as if God could not draw his sheep to himself without me turning in an impressive, theologically-rich performance. Crigler told me he, too, had to come to understand the sovereignty of God in the work of salvation. Discouraged in the early months of ministry by seeing many men relapse and measuring a lack of success by this metric, he said, “The Lord helped me realize that my job wasn’t to save these men; rather I was to faithfully proclaim the gospel to them. Because even in my best efforts, I can’t change a heart—only God can save.” 

Scripture is clear that “salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9), and this reality frees us to engage people with the gospel without the burden of “success.” Our response is not a passive mentality that shirks our responsibility to discipleship. Nor is our response apathy when people live apart from God. Our response is to trust and draw near to the Father who put the burden of salvation not on our shoulders but on his Son’s at the cross, while remaining faithful in our witness.

5. Learning from the marginalized

1 Corinthians 1:27 says, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” This upside-down pattern of the Kingdom means that those that society overlooks serve as God’s prophetic voices. Essential to loving our homeless neighbors well is recognizing that we’re all saved by the same grace, and it is only by grace that we are where we are (Eph. 2:8-9). 

In light of this, we should not be surprised, but should expect to learn from our homeless neighbors. It is not a one-sided affair but a mutual discipleship, and to see yourself as the only teacher is a grave mistake. As Dr. Andy Watts, my professor of Christian ethics has said, “We dehumanize people the moment we decide we have nothing to learn from them.” What my friend ”C” taught me was the gift of self-giving loyalty. His willingness to share generously of his story, and his eagerness to understand and affirm mine was a reflection of gospel friendship for me—whether he himself believed in the gospel or not. 

A calling for all Christians

Whether you engage with the homeless every day in your job or drive past a woman standing on a corner, to affirm the dignity of each image-bearer who is homeless and work for their well-being is a Kingdom calling. As Tim Keller writes in Generous Justice, “If [a person] doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.” And if you work or volunteer consistently with the homeless, hear the words of the author of Hebrews: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (Heb. 6:10). And Paul adds this encouragement, “Brothers and sisters, your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). 

Cameron Presson

Cameron Presson is  an ERLC intern and senior at Belmont University pursuing a double major in Religious Studies and Communication Studies. With plans to pursue ministry or counseling, Presson is passionate about the spiritual value of the arts and the church's social witness.  Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24