I find myself frequently telling people that worship is our ministry on the streets.
When I say worship is our ministry, I suspect that statement lends itself to a misconception, but that’s not what I want. Let me explain by example, here’s what I mean: During my tour of Tent City, I saw lots of ministers/ministries come and serve the homeless in a number of ways. By far the most common was to drop off food or sometimes other needful things. Dropping off was most common, but sometimes people would come and cook a meal and serve it too. Sometimes groups would organize service projects like painting, cleaning, making repairs… These were better, in my estimation, largely because the single biggest request residents would make is for people to “just come… and get to know us.”
I remember one young man who would stop by occasionally and strum his guitar and sing spiritual songs. He did not ask for money; he did not preach. But he lent the sweet sounds of praise and worship to the place like as if he were background music. A bit strange, but touching enough. Actually, that was pretty cool.
But there was this one Baptist minister who really put his heart into reaching out. And being a good, conservative, Baptist, he wanted to preach the Gospel and save souls along with his social agenda. In fact, the social agenda was like the sugar that helped the medicine go down. He brought food. But the food was a gimmick – it had strings attached. No food without Gospel.
Now, I am not against the Gospel message one bit! In fact, I am all for it. To be honest, if I have to choose between the two, I’m going with Gospel and forgetting the food! (Not a popular idea.) But in his case people felt played by his Gospel.
He would put his squad of volunteers to work cooking and preparing a meal while he led a Bible study (hereafter referred to as BS). He passed out Bibles and paper and pencils. His lesson would drone on for about 45 minutes until the food was ready. Then anyone who attended the BS could get a plate of food. And the gimmick was that you had to turn your pencil back in to the instructor like a meal-ticket. If you didn’t attend the BS session, then you didn’t have a pencil; if you didn’t have the pencil, you didn’t get fed the food.
I watched this guy go at it hammer and tong. He really tried, and I think he really cared. And he would show up with a church bus that looked like one of those airport shuttles to pick up folks for Sunday church too. Only a couple of older ladies went with him, but he gave it his all. He worked tirelessly for about 9 months, and then suddenly burned out and gave it all up.
I have my idea about why that did not work better for him. I heard others complain about it too. He was rather manipulative. Perhaps there is no way around that in some sense, but in his case that is what it all felt like from start to finish. It felt like he tricked us into sitting through his otherwise boring BS so that we could get a good burger.
Lot’s of ministers came and went, but this one guy really put himself out there, yet burned out in a matter of months when the homeless didn’t take to Jesus or the white, middle-class lifestyle like he’d fantasized. It seems it left a bad taste in his mouth for the homeless.
I have not heard from him in a long time now, but I suspect he spouts those familiar clichés like “Those people are lazy… some of them really want to live like that… they aren’t like us…” and so on.
When I speak of worship as ministry, his kind is definitely NOT what I mean.
I have encountered other ministries in other places where they cut the manipulation out by hosting a meal first and then inviting those who are interested to stay for the BS after if they want to without coercion. And that seems to be a bit better in my book, but it also is not what I am talking about, aiming at, or doing.
When Fat Beggars School of Prophets offers worship as ministry, we seek to employ the homeless (at least the humble among them) as human image bearers for God in ministry to the larger society. And as we explore this notion, we find that happens best in worship.
I will detail that more another time. For now I just want to distinguish my use of the phrase worship as ministry from the misconceptions it might easily imply.