Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Church’s Response to Homelessness

Yesterday I reviewed Mike Yankoski’s excellent book Under the Overpass.  I promised a little more interaction today.  So, here you go…

Honestly, I have always had a heart for the homeless.  Perhaps it was because I too grew up in poverty.  Maybe it is because God is stirring in my heart to minister to the broken and needy.  But one thing that I have always struggled with is knowing exactly how to minister to the homeless.  What should be the churches response to homelessness? 

I know that Mark Dever has caused quite a stir by some of his statements on the church’s response to societal ills.  Just check out the comments on the Out of Ur videos between Dever and Jim Wallis, or here, and here.  But honestly I think I agree with Dever when he says in sum:

15. We, as a congregation, are not required to take responsibility for the physical needs in the unbelieving community around us. We do have a responsibility to care for the needs of those within our congregation (Matt. 25:34-40; Acts 6:1-6; Gal. 6:2, 10; James 2:15-16; I John 3:17-19) though even within the church, there were further qualifications (e.g., II Thess. 3:10; I Tim. 5:3-16). Paul’s counsel to Timothy (in I Tim. 5:3-16) about which widows to care for seems to indicate that the list was intended for Christian widows. One qualification seemed to be lack of alternative sources of support. Thus the instruction that family members should care for the needy first, if at all possible, shows the kind of prioritization of allowing for families—even of unbelievers—to provide support so that the church wouldn’t have to do it (I Tim. 5:16). We can extrapolate from this to conclude that support that could be provided from outside the church (for instance, from the state) should be preferred over using church funds, thus freeing church funds to be used elsewhere.

To get the full force of his argumentation check out this article by Kevin DeYoung.  I tend to agree with Dever that our primary responsibility as a church is not to end poverty.  Because the heart behind everything he said in that talk, I believe, is this statement: “We as pastors must make sure that matters of secondary importance should not absorb our attention and energy to the detriment of our primary charge to preach the Gospel.”

On the other hand I fear that such an attitude can lead to what happened to Mike Yankoski and Sam Purvis here:

Sam had an idea.  ‘I’m going to ask the pastor if he can help us out with some food.  My stomach is growling.’  He got up and walked away, but was back shortly, looking disgusted. 

‘You wouldn’t believe what just happened,’ he said.  ‘So, I went and asked for the pastor.  He was standing in the back, getting some coffee.  I asked him if he could help us out, if he could hook us up with someone who could feed us.  I told him we didn’t have any money, that panhandling here was bad.’

Sam paused and shook his head.  ‘You know what he said?’  He said, ‘That’s not what we do here.  We’re here to worship.  We can’t confuse our purpose’.  (Yankoski, Under the Overpass, 140-41)

Is it possible that our “preaching the Gospel” is not only with words or with a sermon but by actually loving people and feeding them as we proclaim the gospel?  I agree with Dever that there is a real danger with confusing the gospel with social action.  But I also think that if we are not careful Dever’s take on social justice can lead to a calloused and narrow view of what it actually means to apply the gospel. 

What do you think?  I’m still interacting with some of these things.  I could use your help…


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hey Bro - good looking website. It'd be nice to meet you sometime (or did we meet in seminary?)

    At any rate, I totally agree with Dever. There is no command or example as the church as an institution involved in giving to the poor. If a church truly cared for their own, it is doubtful they would have enough to dole out to the general public. I always have had a hard time feeling right about giving away church money and resources knowing how many people in our church need those very resources.

    However, I think (in this text) Mark fails to mention is something he certainly believes. Though the church is not commanded to collect resources and give to countless poor, individuals are required to give to the poor ("the least of these" cannot be construed to mean church members).

    So though it would be hard exegetically to call the church to a new program that gives to the poor, a good exegesis would consistently call the believers in the church to minister to the poor. Moreover robust disciple making would model this activity. I have on many occasions given the money in my wallet to a needy person (outside our church), taken them to a shelter, fed them, visited them in prison, etc. Almost every time I have had a "disciple" with me hoping that this activity will invigorate his own obedience to the Word.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't think it is necessarily "wrong" for a church program to be focused on the poor - certainly some good would come of it. But I have been in a couple of churches with very active ministries to the poor, and the intended goal is almost always missed (note I said "almost") - the poor are not changed by the gospel (they often are simply looking for the next handout); and very few church members actually get involved - they are patting themselves on the back because they give money.

    I think it is always best to mention these aspects together. In doing so it would cause the church to stop saying, "Pastor, YOU need to start something so our money goes to the poor" and it would place the impetus on the individual members to actually try to make disciples of the poor, ministering to their needs. A much better alternative to bulk ministry to the poor (which often looks like cattle herding).

    Anyway, those are my thoughts hopefully faithfully extrapolated from Scripture.

    Merry Christmas!

  3. Jon,

    I don't believe that we met in seminary. And thanks for the kind words :-)

    I really appreciate your comment as well. I think you have a great balance in what you are saying.

    If I have your permission I plan on using your third to last paragraph in an article next week. It really hits at "why" I'm trying to think through these issues so carefully.

    Thanks again for the comment!



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