Throughout America’s history, churches were the first place the hungry and destitute went for help. For centuries pastors took Jesus’ admonitions in Scripture as seriously as He intended. Although salvation is by God’s grace alone, a casual reader of Jesus’ parables about serving the (materially) poor (Good Samaritan, Sheep and Goats, Rich Man and Lazarus) could infer our eternal fate hinges on our response to poverty. Of course, what Jesus is saying instead is that no follower of His will ignore the poor.
However, contemporary church growth strategies seem to preclude continuation of Jesus’ model of leading with compassion (for the poor). No pastor can “out-preach” Jesus, who spoke perfect words yet still thought it necessary to open ears through loving acts of service (before telling people who He is). Failure to follow His example has consequences. Our culture would be far more tolerant of Christians if we were less “tolerant” of poverty…
- Many homeless are content living on the streets, but not Anthony. He never expected to be here, a victim of an unfaithful spouse, a shuttered factory, and subsequent depression. He’s not interested in a life of gaming the system or fabricating a story to extract handouts from local churches and ministries. Yes, Anthony became addicted to opioids to alleviate the excruciating pain of a seemingly hopeless existence, but he’s ready to enter a program. Once clean, His dream is to take another shot at the life he had once envisioned – a job, house, relationship, and maybe even children. However, with no relatives in the area or support network to help him navigate the long road ahead, Anthony isn’t sure where to begin. Until then, his day-to-day objective is simply survival.
- Callie regrets the youthful indiscretions that led to the dire circumstances she’s facing now – the prospect of reentering society and the workforce after serving three years for drug and larceny convictions. She’s unemployed, broke, lonely, but not alone because she found Jesus while incarcerated. The process of reassimilation won’t be easy – with no resources, few connections, and U.S. recidivism rates of 50% (within three years after release). The odds are decidedly stacked against Callie. Her two young children have been in foster care, so she’s anxious to reunite with them and regain custody. However, that won’t happen until she develops and implements a plan to offer them a stable and secure living situation.
- Brock is a military veteran who witnessed carnage during deployments he’d rather forget but can’t unsee in his mind’s eye. His anxiety, outbursts, and unpredictability continually threaten his marriage and job security. His mental health is further eroded by a diminishing sense of worth and value from being unable to provide for his family. Diagnosed with PTSD and Panic Disorder, treatment and therapy provide limited relief from the physical and psychological manifestations of the trauma Brock has endured. Increasingly detached and desperate, he needs what no doctor or medication can supply – hope for a future that looks bleak and relationships with those who’ve awakened from his nightmare.
A church’s biblical, target “customer” should be the lost and poor. Members should embody “church”, Kingdom employees trained and deployed to pursue those “customers”. Yet prevailing Invite/Involve/Invest church growth models encourage treating members like “customers”, leaving little bandwidth for poverty alleviation.
What Churches and Christians Do Today
Christ planted His Church to carry on His stated mission from the inception of His ministry, “to proclaim good news to the poor”. How well are churches fulfilling that mission?…
- Anthony regularly attended church as a child before his parents divorced but didn’t recall an emphasis there on helping the (materially) poor in the community. He also wasn’t aware of any churches offering resources, services, and programs for the homeless – only government agencies and charities. So Anthony hadn’t considered seeking financial or addiction recovery assistance from local churches. Churches had been the primary homeless shelter and food bank in cities across the country (and parts of the globe) for 1900 years, but in the last century has abdicated the lead role in compassion to secular and parachurch organizations. Now, few engage beyond occasional service days or a food drive at arms-length, collecting non-perishable items at the church for delivery to a homeless ministry.
- The prison ministry who introduced Callie to Jesus and discipled her was not tied to a specific church or denomination. So the challenge of reintegrating into society (after paying her debt to it) included trying to find a church family who would accept Callie with all her flaws – and criminal record. Her thoughts drifted to her children in foster care, and the similar dilemma facing kids aging out of the system – how difficult their “reentry” must be, on their own without adequate guidance or support. Callie’s first priorities are finding a place to live and a job, but it didn’t occur to her to approach a church to help with either of those. As far as she knows, government agencies are the main provider of housing and career services for the (materially) poor. However, what Callie really needs now are people, not programs.
- The answers to most of Brock’s mental health issues can be found within a church, yet that’s the last place he would consider going. Clinically, physicians and medications are necessary to treat PTSD and Panic Disorder. Therapeutically, the hope Brock finds so elusive and sympathetic community he’s severely lacking (both available at churches) are equally efficacious. However, serious mental illnesses are too intimidating for most pastors and church counselors, who quickly refer out to “professionals” (and rarely follow up), leaving the impression that only after people are “fixed” will they be welcomed into the congregation. By then it may be too late for Brock and his family – his marriage and job will likely be casualties of the church’s failure to intercede, not only for him but for his wife and children.
Few church leaders realize that broken relationships with God, others, self, and creation are at the root of material poverty. Only churches can address and restore all four!
What Should Churches Be Doing?
There are no short-term answers for helping Anthony, Callie, and Brock repair those four key relationships. Extensive prayer, evangelism, discipleship, and compassion will be required through a team of dedicated advocates and volunteers collaboratively accompanying them on their long journeys toward flourishing and wholeness…
- For those like Anthony caught in cycles of generational poverty, churches can play a critical role, uniquely positioned to affirm their dignity as a child of God. The homeless are not projects or cattle (a name, not a number), so interacting transactionally or herding them through a process attacks their dignity. Anthony has giftings and strengths that churches are ideally suited to surface and show him how to leverage outside and inside the body (of Christ). He wants to work, which glorifies our Father, but most secular programs either: 1) trap the homeless in soul-sucking dependency (e.g. handouts decline as income increases), or 2) mistakenly assume human nature is inherently good and prescribe no-barrier (e.g. housing-first) solutions that don’t deal with the underlying problems of sin and accountability. Churches should engage year-round in walking alongside the unhoused as they plot and execute their own path to a brighter future.
- Jesus not only instructs His followers to visit prisoners but in that same passage also commands us to care for anyone in need of help and hope. So the Church’s obligation to serve Callie does not end when her sentence does. She is a new believer, therefore we must welcome her (no matter how different she appears), assist with career/job training and placement (complicated by the blemish on her record) through the congregation’s network, and prepare her to regain custody of her children. Without the support structure of a church family and Christ-like patience to work with her through the transition from “relief“ to “rehabilitation”, Callie’s reentry and recidivism risks will rise dramatically.
- Our Lord and Savior could have done any miracles to demonstrate His love and power, but He repeatedly chose to heal. Many of the illnesses He cured may have been as much mental and spiritual as physical. Brock’s ailments are psychological but no less tangible or worthy of healing. There are four areas where churches should accept some responsibility for mental health care – recognition, referral, relationship, and restoration. Those suffering mental illness often turn to pastors before seeking medical attention but are typically referred elsewhere. In many instances, a rapid referral is appropriate (e.g. suicide ideation); however, churches shouldn’t bypass opportunities in the recognition, relationship, and restoration phases to address the root cause and remedy for most mental health challenges (i.e. grounding our identity, faith, hope, joy, and love in Christ).
For the past four years, Meet The Need has been building an AI-driven platform to empower and encourage those suffering materially, spiritually, and psychologically. Link2Hope will help them find hope in Jesus, build sustainable circles of support, and take comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone.
It’s Your Turn…
What are other effective ways you’ve seen churches engage in transformational ministry to those dealing with homelessness, reentry, or mental health crises?