As an associate and senior pastor, I have been blessed to serve two churches that developed ministries to the homeless and other needy in their communities. In both cases, these ministries began as God worked in the hearts of lay people, stirring them to start something that would meet practical needs. Pastors didn’t come up with the ideas for these ministries, nor did they have to push people to get involved. God simply moved his people to serve, and pastors came alongside these works and facilitated ministry where they could.
The Bible is clear about the church’s ethical call to alleviate suffering around us. Proverbs 19:17 offers a powerful word to those who do: “Kindness to the poor is a loan to the LORD, and He will give a reward to the lender.” The Minor Prophets repeatedly call God’s people to defend the weak and provide for the needs of the impoverished. James 1:27 gets very specific, explaining that pure and undefiled religion alleviates the suffering of the poor and the widow.
These and other passages provide scriptural reasons for our churches to minister to the homeless and needy. These divine commands are the primary reasons we should do so. In my experience, I have seen the Lord powerfully use homeless ministry to change the churches I have served. I’m referring to an impact other than the difference it might make in the lives of financially needy people. Here are some of those unexpected blessings in starting a ministry to the homeless:
1. Perception in the community among those not needing the ministry
Whether it’s true or not, many churches that are downtown and have large physical plants or possess large memberships have a reputation in their communities of being “that rich church.” Unfortunately, there are many who automatically think that “those people” in such churches are all about themselves.
However, doing homeless ministry in your community can help change these perceptions and attitudes. As people in your community who have zero need for such ministry see your church genuinely help those in need, their attitude toward your church can change. They may even be more personally open to the gospel.
While at my first church, I was speaking to a man who lived in a relatively affluent neighborhood when it came up that I was a pastor. I told him which church, and he mentioned that his son’s public school class had taken a trip to our church’s homeless ministry, and that he was impressed that our church did that. He had absolutely no need for the ministry, but a church that had often been considered as inward-focused by many in the community now had a loving reputation. In my current context, I was amazed at the positive perception of our conservative church by someone who couldn’t be further from us theologically—largely because of our community work.
2. A missional outlook in your church
We are often tempted to think that if we write a check to support missionaries, we have done our part in the Great Commission. Starting a homeless ministry to help those in the greatest financial need in your community helps counteract that false belief. As your church members serve the homeless, they begin to experientially understand that they are to be making disciples in the context in which God has placed them, now.
We frequently talk about how going on a short-term mission trip to another country got us “out of our comfort zone” and helped us grow in our love for others. Local ministry to the needy helps church members do that right where they live, and on a regular basis. Being in real relationship and intentional friendship with members of our communities changes our understanding of the Great Commission. Your members will rejoice in knowing the names and stories of people walking the streets around your church. And it will help them think missionally all the time.
3. Evangelism and leadership training
In my current church, we don’t require our guests to be in a church service in order to receive food, clothing or anything else. During the services, we have multiple church members whose only role is to sit and converse with our guests. Their primary role is simply to build relationships with and pray for our guests. And in the context of those relationships, they have often had the opportunity to share the gospel. This has become a powerful tool of on-the-job evangelism training. Those who have rarely evangelized are able to watch and learn as other believers share the gospel with our guests.
Not only that, but in both churches I have served, ministries to the homeless have become excellent forges for growth in discipleship and leadership. Leaders are developed as needs present themselves, and the Holy Spirit raises up people with unique passions and spiritual gifts to meet those needs.
4. Missions for those who cannot travel
There are many in our churches who would love to participate in short-term mission trips but are unable to travel because of financial constraints, schedule conflicts or problems with their own health or someone for whom they are responsible. One faithful saint in my current church told me that ministry to the homeless allows her to participate in missions, even though she is unable to leave our town because of the poor health of her husband. We are called to Jerusalem, as well as the ends of the earth, and ministry to the homeless can help many church members awaken to the fact that they are engaged in the Great Commission.
5. Unity with other churches
In both churches that I have served, ministry to the homeless has become a rallying point for churches and ministries who love Christ and the gospel, but who come from different denominational and other backgrounds. These churches have collaborated to provide volunteers, food and other materials for homeless ministry. In such a polarized era, what better way to demonstrate that we are Jesus’ disciples (John 13:35) than to come together for the purpose of loving our communities?
By no means is this article meant to set up a legalistic rule requiring every church to have a particular type of ministry. Rather, the point is to share testimony of how I have seen the Lord in two different contexts use mercy ministries to change a church and its relationship to its community. Evangelism and discipleship are interconnected and feed into one another. As we reach out, speaking and living out the gospel, he grows us. And as we grow, we have greater desire and motivation to share the gospel. May God bless you as you seek to demonstrate his love in your community.