(I wrote a whole book on this topic a few years ago. (Unpublished; Don’t look for it.) So, I have a lot to say on this matter. I am reluctant to blog on it, because I hope to redraft and develop the book further and offer these thoughts there. But that seems somewhat unlikely.)
My years in street ministry have taught me there is an ill-defined line between serving God and serving needs. On the one side we put worship – prayer, song, preaching, (even communion) and perhaps label that part as “saving souls”. On the other, we put feeding, warming, sheltering, and other services such as job training, addiction treatment and a host of other “practical” measures. And then there is a driving concern about which comes first!
I sense the prevailing mood among street ministries in the last 20 years moves the practical measures to the first place. It is common to ask: How do you preach Jesus to someone who is freezing cold and hungry? Shouldn’t you feed and warm the tramp FIRST and THEN tell him about Jesus? Won’t he be better able to receive your message with a full tummy and a warm cup of joe?
I encountered a Baptist Evangelist a few years ago who tried to tackle the question by wheeling in a crew of volunteers to grill burgers and dogs about 20 feet away from his Bible Study (BS) huddle. He passed out pencils and sheets of paper to everyone who attended his BS so they could take notes on his fantastic sermon. But then after 30 minutes of BS, about the time the food was ready, he invited everyone to line up and get some of the awesome smelling food, but in order to get a plate, you had to hand over your pencil which proved you sat through the BS.
Funny. His method actually put a bad taste in a lot of mouths. Personally, at the time I admired his effort. I thought it had an ingenious edge to seeking first the Kingdom of God and letting him add everything else.
Well, it was his way of addressing the balance of “practical” needs and “spiritual” needs. It was a bit unique, but addressed an issue that commonly comes up for discussion among street ministry types. And as I said, I think the prevailing mood is to address the “practical” needs FIRST, though this is obviously not universal.
Fat Beggars School of Prophets (FBSOP) has no budget and no bureaucratic organization (none of the usual structure or cache of resources). We don’t go out “meeting” a lot of “needs” in any ordinary sense of that phrase. On the contrary, most of us actually come from the ranks of the street homeless themselves. While it would be an exaggeration to say we come with nothing to do something, that idea is not far off the mark. I have camped with beggars, bums, and prophets in parks and back lots where we pooled our pocket change and supplied a feast. (This came very near looking and feeling like Jesus feeding 5,000!) I recall a feast of s’mores one night accompanied by Little Caesar’s Hot-n-Ready pizzas that fed us as we sang, prayed, and talked about Jesus deep into the night in a rich blending of meeting both “practical” and “spiritual” needs.
Sadly, no church (or for that matter, no 501c3 ministers) was there to see and experience it.
Now, lest you think the point is to just get all “Christian-Mystic” about this, I must say I have no control over that. FBSOP is either empowered by God or we are a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants ministry. God does not always move in such mystical ways. Sometimes we just sleep in the stink of a nearby dumpster and the bums are more interested in drinking than in praying (rare, but hard to count those times as “successful”). God moves this way and that, but he does not check with me first.
On the other hand, I have a lot to say about the blending of “practical” and “spiritual” needs. In fact, I don’t really treat them as distinctly separate. FBSOP has made it our usual practice to host a communion service and that then IS the ministry – however I am not talking about a pinch of cracker followed by a thimble of juice with some stodgy prayer. No. I am talking about a Luke-14 party with communion at the center of it. And THAT then sets the stage for a discussion of Worship: A Theology of Celebration.
Jesus tells us (Matt. 25:40), those bums and needy people ARE him!
What do you do with Jesus when you meet him? Does worship come to mind?
(Can I get an Amen??? …anyone???)
Yeah, it should come to mind and into praxis. And I think this is a topic that needs to be explored far more carefully than it ever has been, that I have encountered. I look forward to doing that more in future posts.