The day of
I had finished my part of a meeting with a congregational leadership team. They had other agendas to address that did not concern me. They invited me to feel free to leave.
As I left the building I went out the door I typically used. I realized on the covered porch outside this door were three people laying down — two men and a woman. There was no outside light on so I tripped over them. They were part of the homeless tribe in the downtown area of this city.
It was not unusual for them to be there. In a certain sense it felt like a safe place. During the past year the congregation had begun serving homeless people an evening meal once or twice per month. Also, they provided shelter from the cold on nights when the temperature fell below a certain degree.
They had positively branded the church as a welcoming place to homeless people, and not one where they were told to leave or the police were called. The congregation was proud of the things they were doing for the homeless.
Earlier that same day I had a conversation with the pastors of this congregation about how their homeless ministry was doing. They acknowledged it was perhaps doing too well. The homeless felt so comfortable about the church facilities that they would sleep there, take care of toilet practices outside in the bushes, and engage in some drug and alcohol dependence practices. And sometimes enjoy sexual intimacy there.
The morning of the day I encountered the three homeless people, the church staff held a dialogue about this ministry and the presence of homeless people during times direct ministry was not taking place. It was the week after Easter when this dialogue took place.
One key issue the staff discussed was the fact they had to cancel the Easter egg hunt because of the fear of children reaching for eggs and actually encountering the products of toilet, drug and alcohol practices. In other words, the separation between the missional efforts toward homeless and the programs of the congregation had disappeared.
Handling this presented a dilemma. Welcoming the stranger was a theological affirmation of the congregation. Developing holistically the lives of children was also a theological commitment of the congregation. Could they exist not just alongside one another but in the same space and time?
The day after
The next day I had another meeting with the pastors to continue planning for the congregation’s spiritual and strategic journey. The issue of the homeless trio came up.
The night before, after the congregational leadership team gathering was finished, one of the pastors encountered the homeless trio as he was leaving for the evening. His compassionate ministry spirit was stimulated, and he spent an hour or so in conversation with the trio. They were known to him and he to them.
Overnight he realized the dilemma of the same space and same time for missional engagement and congregational ministry, and knew he had to do something additional. The homeless people were easy to find so the conversation continued. But there did not seem to be an immediate solution.
He had a colleague in nonprofit ministry who was once homeless himself, but whose life pattern had changed dramatically. He called this person for advice and counsel. After he laid out the case, the colleague said the trio was not at a place where they were ready to receive the help that could be offered to them. He said they had not yet reached a classic place of desperation where they would yield to redemptive ministry.
Surprisingly the colleague said it was best to call the police and have them removed. Harsh as that might seem, it was actually the best for them at this time. It involved the pastor having to go to the police station and file an actual complaint. While this was not what the pastor wanted to do, it was something he realized he needed to do.
The next day
The dialogue with the pastors on the third day of my visit focused on multiple issues. One of them was the issue of renewing the core of the congregation through intentional disciple-making processes as a balancing action to the multiple missional engagements of the congregation that were extending their ministry.
The pastor who had focused on the homeless trio for three or four hours over two days acknowledged there was an imbalance. He had realized it during his time of involvement with this homeless trio. He knew he and the congregation would continue their homeless ministry, but he also needed to find more ways to develop people as disciples who understood, affirmed and participated in ministries like this one to homeless people.
Finding the right balance is not easy. Our rescuer mentality as ministers at times draws us toward situations of immediate need. It is difficult to maintain a healthy perspective on how to renew the core of the congregation for the long-term while extending prophetic ministry in the community context.