Below, I will describe a number of the “experiments” we, as a ministry to the homeless, attempted and their outcomes. As they apply, I will describe the issue we saw, the experiment we attempted, the challenges that came up, our failures, our success and what lesson we learned.
1. Meal with discussions
We opened our apartment for daily meals with the homeless. We were not interested in preaching, but in listening and exploring the culture of the homeless, learning their language and understanding their life experiences as they described it. We would pray with people and sometimes give counsel, but we rarely preached the gospel. A challenge was how much time this took away from our family. We learned that we needed to have a separate family night once a week. This program was so successful that we incorporate a meal with fellowship in every meeting we have.
2. Meal in Church
We transferred our ministry in our home to a church context, having a meal first once then twice a week. For our first meal, we advertised with a notice on telephone poles within a one mile radius of the church. From that time on, we relied only on word of mouth. We invited other church people to eat with the homeless and needy and eat with them, even as we had done. Most church folks, we found, were very uncomfortable conversing with the homeless and they felt that people weren’t “getting converted” fast enough. Although the meals were bringing many people into the church, the church after a number of years closed the program down because of what they saw as a lack of spiritual opportunity.
3. Becoming homeless/poor
At the time of the church meal, I was called by the Lord to quit my job, have my family and I become homeless living in other’s living rooms and depend on God without an income, focusing all my energy on ministering to the homeless. Financially, we did not ask for donations, but waited on the Lord for what He would provide for us. This gave us opportunity to learn from the homeless community how to live like the homeless, eating meals where they ate and learning to get by as people of the lowest income.
4. Bible Study
During one of the meals, I began a bible study in a separate room. Every week there were very few who were interested, and even those who came didn’t show a lot of interest in the study. After a few months, I discontinued it.
5. Inviting homeless to church
During the church meal, we would invite some to participate in the main service of the church on Sunday morning. Most would claim that they had nothing good to wear, and others would just say they couldn’t, without giving reason why. A few did join the service, but most of them were either uncomfortable or acted inappropriately for the middle class context. But the church did speak to a few and they still attend the services to this day. The church eventually asked us to stop our ministry among the homeless community.
6. Becoming our own congregation
After no longer having a place for our homeless ministry, we decided to continue our meals but to add a church service and to make the homeless ministry its own congregation. We began meeting in a Salvation Army building once a week, and had a service after an hour of our meal. Most people left at first when the service began, but as time went on, more and more people began to stay. Today, we have about 40 people a week coming to the service in Gresham.
7. Meeting in Salvation Army
Salvation Army offered us a small building to serve our meals and to have our service in. During that time on occasion if they had a project, they would try to cancel our ministry with only a day’s notice. Eventually they gave us a 30 day notice. We learned that we should meet in a church that understood and appreciated our vision of how to help the homeless.
8. Meals with service
In SA, we had worship that would come from the meal. At first we switched chairs to be more like a congregation, but eventually we found that people were more comfortable sitting at tables. Giving an opportunity to worship after a meal was good in two ways: first of all it gave many an opportunity to worship God who otherwise wouldn’t take the opportunity (many begin participating in worship because they felt they needed to “pay” for their meal). Secondly, people felt that we were more noble than the missions and churches who forced people to sit though a service to get a meal.
Scripture was central to our worship. We would have a long Scripture reading in every service, containing a variety of scriptures and the sermons would always be focused on Scripture, not themes or stories, although the points were pretty basic. Given the basic conservative viewpoint of the homeless community, this was a big positive. And it also gave many of the folks to read Scripture and so participate.
10. Sermon participation
Because many who attended the service were mentally ill or socially handicapped, many would feel free to “talk back” or even argue with the preacher. So we incorporated discussions during the sermon time. This gives me an opportunity to get instant feedback from the congregation to see what they are understanding and to even change the direction of the sermon in the middle if necessary.
With our worship we had a music leader who would very simply play guitar and lead people in choruses and short hymns. Few people would actually sing, but culturally it felt more like a service and less like a Bible Study. Eventually, it was said by some that they would find themselves singing the music all week long and the Lord spoke to them through the songs. Music is significant in about half of our ministry times right now.
Many homeless mentioned how the “passing of a plate” felt like a requirement to give to the church and was a very negative experience for them. We decided not to ask for money, so we wouldn’t be equated with greedy preachers or churches. This meant that our ministry was supported by donations without being asked. Some from both inside and outside the congregation gave as God’s Spirit led them. We also had some who offered us food and clothing on a regular basis. Many of these donors continue to provide for our meals to this day. We learned that the ministry can be provided for by just requesting God.
Above are the earliest years, from 1995-2000.