Thursday, July 21, 2011

So, What About Evangelizing The Homeless?

The above photo was making its way around Facebook, yesterday. For the record, the sign reads: "Family kidnapped by ninjas. Need money for karate lessons." Some folks on Facebook thought he was looking for $4 karate lessons. But I digress.

I will say this for the man in the photo. He's creative. In fact, I heard from a fellow evangelist in Canada that some of the homeless in their area actually have contests to see who can come up with the most creative signs.

So, who are the "homeless?" The homeless in my community (and in your community, too) are homeless because they want to be, and because they have no choice.

The homeless are mentally-ill, and they are more lucid and intelligent than you and me.

The homeless are criminals, and they are as loving and caring as your grandmother (assuming your grandmother is a nice lady).

The homeless are lazy, and they are willing to do any kind of honest work to avoid begging from the likes of you and me.

The homeless are an intentional burden on society, and they are men and women who fought to defend our country and who deserve our attention.

The homeless are unsavory opportunists, and they are decent optimists.

The homeless are Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Atheists.

The homeless are lost and bound for Hell, and they are born-again and bound for Heaven.

The homeless are one set of circumstances away from you and me, and we are one set of circumstances away from them.

In other words, the homeless among us are people--sin-stained, fallible human beings with souls. They are people who will spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell. They need the Lord Jesus Christ like everyone else. Therefore, if you do not share the gospel with the homeless because they are homeless, you must repent of your shameful indifference and prejudice.

That being said, I do believe there are right and wrong ways, safe and unsafe ways, to evangelize the homeless among us. What I would like to put forth are not hard and fast rules, but merely suggestions based on my own experience, conscience, and the Word of God. Let your personal experience, conscience and understanding of the Word be your guide. With that, I hope you find this helpful.

Gospel Tracts

Contrary to the musings of those interviewed by Christianity Today, gospel tracts are (and have been for generations) an effective way to present the gospel to the lost. Gospel tracts can go places the Christian cannot go--to a lost person's home, for instance, where it can be read privately and at the person's leisure.

Those who discount the distribution of well-written, biblical gospel tracts as passe, irrelevant, and/or ineffective are either simply ignorant of the historic effectiveness of gospel tracts or have fallen into the trap of believing that the gospel somehow needs the help of man's creativity. While they may not say it with their lips, they say it with their attitude toward the simple proclamation of the gospel--whether in verbal or written forms. To them, the gospel is not enough. To them, the power of God for salvation is not the gospel, but the gospel plus relationships, plus service, plus contextualization, plus...

When distributing gospel tracts to the homeless there is only one rule of thumb I follow. I never give a money gospel tract, like the Million Dollar Bill, to a homeless person. I distribute tracts like these by the thousands. But to give a money tract to a homeless person can be so very easily taken by them as mocking their present situation. And, if they are not in their right mind, they may actually try to use the tract to buy something, which would present an entirely new set of problems for a person already struggling to survive.

Cash Money

As a rule, I do not give cash money to homeless people. The reason should be obvious. I do not want my money to be used to put a harmful substance up their nose, in their arm, or in their liver. Many people are homeless because of drug and alcohol addiction. The last thing I want is to feed their addictions by way of my wallet.

So, what do I do if I come across a homeless person asking for money, for food? I offer to feed them.

When a homeless person asks for money for food, I will either give them a gift card to a local fast food restaurant (I recommend carrying fast food gift cards in your car and/or your evangelism backpack or box), or I offer to walk with them to a nearby restaurant and buy them something to eat. Handling the situation this way serves multiple purposes. First, it's the most practical way to put food in a homeless person's stomach without having to worry about the person misusing cash. Second, by walking with the person to a nearby eatery it gives you time to share the law and the gospel with them. And third, it often reveals the genuineness of the homeless person's request. If a homeless person asks for money for food and they refuse your offer of a gift card or to buy them something to eat, then rest assured the reason they want your money is not to fill their stomach.

If a homeless person asks for money for transportation, help them arrange for the transportation and buy their ticket. Pay the cabbie. Pay the bus driver. Buy the subway ticket. But don't give the homeless person cash. Again, their reaction to your offer to pay directly for their transportation will reveal much about the genuineness of the homeless person's request.

Oh, and if a homeless person asks you for twenty-five cents to pay their rent (and I hear this often), I recommend not believing a mere quarter is all they need to secure housing.  Try to help them find a shelter instead of giving them money.

Safety Considerations

Let's face it. Many Christians are naive. Many lack "street smarts." Many have a pollyannic view of the world and the people in it. They lack the common sense to realize that there are people in the world who will use a simple act of kindness against the person exhibiting the kindness. And many Christians are particularly naive when it comes to dealing with the homeless.

If a homeless person asks for a ride, don't put them in your car. Don't assume that all the person wants is a ride. They may want your car, or more. As stated above, help arrange for their transportation if you are able and feel so led.

Do not follow a homeless person into any secluded area. Make sure your interaction with a homeless person is in public view--preferably in a relatively crowded area. Acquiescing to what sounds like an innocent request to follow a homeless person can lead to a tragic ambush.

Unless you are going to conduct a patdown search of the homeless person (and I don't recommend doing that), you have no idea whether or not the person is carrying weapons on his or her person, or in their personal belongings. Never place yourself in a position in which you find yourself alone and isolated with a homeless person.

Chris Yarzab captured this beautiful moment (as well as the photo of the homeless man receiving a meal) during an Ambassadors' Academy. Two ladies in our group had the opportunity to share the gospel and pray with a homeless gentleman. Needless to say, men in our group (including Chris) were close by and keeping an eye on the ladies.

Notice that the ladies have their eyes closed while praying for the man. There is nothing in the Bible that says you must bow your head and close your eyes to pray. A Christian can communicate with their Lord in any language and in any posture. For safety reasons, I recommend praying with your eyes open--not only when praying for a homeless person, but anytime you are conducting evangelism on the streets. You can't defend yourself against what you cannot see.

Make sure when praying with strangers (homeless or otherwise) on the street that you limit physical contact to that which is both appropriate and safe. You do not want to put yourself in a position where a stranger can grab hold of you and render you defenseless.  Nor do you want to put yourself in a position where a stranger can later allege inappropriate physical contact on your part.

Service and Evangelism--They Are Not One and The Same

While this article is not exhaustive regarding the evangelization of the homeless, I hope it has been instructive. Before I close, I would like to make one more important point. Service and evangelism are not one and the same.

There are many wonderful ministries around the world that focus on the needs of the homeless. Praise God! And I hope I've already made my position clear. Christians should help the homeless in practical ways, whenever they have the means and the ability to do so.

Sadly, however, there are likely many ministries to the homeless, whether para-church or church-based, that fall woefully short when it comes to the primary mission--the gospel.

Service is not evangelism. Feeding, clothing, housing, and hiring the homeless is not evangelism. Loving the homeless is not evangelism. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, and Atheists work hard to feed, clothe, house, and hire the homeless. Christian, without the verbal proclamation of the gospel, your efforts regarding the homeless are no different in the heart and mind of the homeless person than the efforts of the unbeliever.

Feed the homeless? Yes! Clothe and otherwise help the homeless? Yes! But if that is all you do, Christian; if you stop there; then all you have accomplished is to make the homeless person more comfortable on their way to Hell. If you give a homeless person your coat and a hot meal, but you do not give them the gospel, and if they die that night in their sleep they will go to Hell warm and filled.

No homeless person (no person, for that matter) receives Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior because you loved and cared for them. They receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior when the Father draws them to Himself, causes them to be born again and, as a result they repent and believe the gospel they have heard--hopefully from you--placing their faith and trust in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation.

Can God use your act of kindness as a means of preparing the homeless person to hear and respond to the gospel? Certainly! Service and evangelism should go hand in hand. But they are not synonymous terms. It is a both/and, not an either/or proposition. Serve the homeless. Love the homeless. Love them enough to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.

Christian, be the "Good Samaritan" in a homeless person's life, today.  And as you meet their physical needs, please do not forget to meet their greatest need--the need to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.