From time to time Christians tell my wife and I that “Loving the poor and homeless and your neighbors is all well and good. But that’s really not all that important in the grand scheme of things. Getting them to heaven is the important thing. You should be telling them about Jesus so they can get saved and go to heaven. That’s what they really need.”
In a sense I understand where many such comments originate. I understand the sentiment and passion behind them. However, I sense that those making the comments are repeating some stock statements they have heard somewhere, probably in church.
Figuring Out How To Sell Jesus
Do you remember the heady days of the 70’s when “personal evangelists” were “saving” people right and left? If you read the book “Evangelism Explosion” or attended a two hour “soul winning” class, you too could be a “soul winner”, whatever that term was intended to mean. If you were really good at soul winning, you could “win” dozens of souls every day.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of folks who tried those no-fail soul winning methods discovered the methods didn’t work for them. Their friends, relatives and neighbors would sooner have bought the carcass of a dead dog from them than sign on to whatever religious idea they were trying to sell.
The emphasis shifted back to the churches, where it had been before the personal evangelism craze. As good Christians it was once again our job to convince our neighbors, friends and relatives to go to our church. Then the preacher’s responsibility was to preach the Gospel, the Word, or whatever term you might use, which would convince these folks to repent and get saved.
That plan hasn’t been going so well either. According to recent surveys, the average congregation in the USA reports approximately one person coming to faith each year. Actually the number is slightly less than one.
Many Christians have decided that neither churches nor individual Christians are doing a good job telling people about Jesus. “If someone would only tell people, surely more would repent. Of course many won’t, but at least they’ve had their chance. They made the choice to go to hell instead of heaven.”
They Already Know About Jesus And Churches
I find, however, that theory is rarely correct. Most people have heard about Jesus. Most people like Jesus. They’ve heard about “getting converted.” “getting saved,” “repenting,” going to heaven and so on. They think they know what all that means. Ask them. They’ll tell you.
They also think they know everything they need to know about churches and Christians, and often what they think they know is not complimentary. Using the exact terms I have heard nonbelievers use on repeated occasions, they believe Christians are unloving, mean, angry, hateful, bigoted, homophobic, judgmental, too politically motivated, hypocritical, and more.
Who of us would want to join up with any group that met those descriptions? Would we be interested in what they believe? Would we be interested in their religion or in their God?
I have been surprised by how many nonbelievers can almost quote Ghandi’s famous comment: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Keeping all these things in mind, we try to love people and build friendships and relationships with them. That is our agenda. We’re not selling soap, insurance, or religion. We don’t hand someone a bottle of water and say we’re with such and such a church. We don’t give out tracts.
Sound un-Christian? Perhaps, but it doesn’t work out that way. For example, we’re often asked when giving food, clothes, tarps and other items to the homeless “Where do you get this stuff?
“We buy most of it,” we answer.
“Who gives you the money?”
“We pay for it.”
“Are you part of some church or something?”
“We’re followers of Jesus. We’re not part of an organized church. We come here to spend time with you. We bring church to you. No songs or preaching. Church is spending time with you.”
“Well, the people down here have been discussing why you do this, and we think you do it because of your compassion. Is that right?”
“Yes, we’re trying to show the love of Jesus to our friends here.”
We’ve had variations of that conversation with the homeless, the poor, prostitutes, bikers decked out in their leathers and chains while sitting on their Hogs and others. We take Jesus to them.
Obviously not every person we come in contact with asks these kinds of questions, but we get them regularly, often several times a week.
Almost none of these folks go to church. The church has not been kind and loving to them in their opinion. In their hour of need, be it when a family member was gravely ill or died, when they lost their job, when they lost their home, or even when they ended up on the street, the church was not there for them. The church was sitting in a building singing songs and listening to Bible lessons.
Care About Me First, Then We’ll Talk
We’re often asked, “Could I ask you something?”
With rare exceptions the questions are about God, Jesus, the Bible, church, and so on, questions that somehow relate to their lives. Sometimes we spend twenty minutes or more answering the person’s questions, usually with others inching up close enough to hear the conversation, and sometimes joining in.
We hear “I’ve always wanted to ask someone this, but didn’t know who to ask,” followed by God and Jesus questions.
No building, no sermon, no songs, no flyers, no ads, no sound system – none of those things. But most figure out we’re there because we care.
I remember that old adage “I don’t care what you think until I know you care about me.” I probably misquoted it, but you get the idea. Another way of stating the same idea: We must earn the right to be heard. Our currency is caring and loving.
The church and Christians lost the right to be heard in many peoples’ lives long ago. Instead of finding caring and loving, they found disinterest at best, meanness, hatred, anger and judgment at worst.
Our friends, be they the homeless, the poor, our neighbors or our gay friends, want to talk. They tell us their stories. We listen. They ask us questions. We answer their questions, talk with them, shake their hands, hug them, and in the case of the homeless give them some water and maybe an orange and a pair of socks, a tarp or a warm coat.
Sometimes when we’re on the street and we answer their questions with “We’re here to show the love of Jesus to the folks here in the neighborhood,” they start crying. I don’t remember how many times this has happened, but it’s not unusual.
I’ve hugged a crying biker on his Hog in the middle of the street, a bank robber, Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and more. I even hugged a crying city councilman. (He said “Never in all my life have I ever seen or even heard of such a thing. If churches did this kind of stuff I might be interested in going to church.”)
We go. We care. We love. We share. They ask questions. We answer their questions. They listen intently because we’re answering their questions. Our agenda is love. Period. The Spirit works in that space.
“Thank you for remembering us. We love you.”
“We love you too!”
A Call to the Church
Awaken from your slumber.
Get out of your buildings with your comfortable chairs and comfortable sermons. Meet you neighbors. Meet the poor. Meet the homeless. Meet the people you despise. Meet the people you’re sure are going to hell.
Touch them. Hug them. Learn to care about them and their lives. Learn to love them. Be genuine. They can smell deception from afar.
Learn to share. Share your time. Share your material goods. Share your love.
Leave your theology, your opinions, your Bible verses at the door. They’ve already heard those things from people who don’t care and don’t love, people who have been unloving to them time after time. Don’t share your opinions about anything. Listen to their stories, their opinions. Listen and hear.
If they’re willing to share their stories and their lives with you be thankful. You’re learning to care, learning to love, learning to share.
When they ask why you care, why you love them, it’s o.k. to tell them you’re sharing the love of Jesus. Then shut up. No Bible verses. No theology. Not a word about which church you attend. You – You are the church. So don’t blow it by repeating what you believe about alcoholics, unmarried people living together, homosexuality or whatever you think might apply to them. Hold your tongue.
When they ask about this Jesus, the Jesus they’ve been seeing in you, tell them about Jesus, not Paul or Leviticus. They already know about Paul and Leviticus. What they don’t know about is followers of Jesus who care about them and love them with the love of Jesus.
May they exclaim “Never in all my life have I ever seen or even heard of such a thing.”
May they say as you part ways that day: “Goodbye. We love you.”
And may you reply in return: “We love you too.”
May you hear the echo: “We know.”
Allow the Spirit a space in which to work, and then allow the Spirit to work. Don’t try to sign anyone up for your Bible study, your church, or your theology class. Some may eventually decide to participate in those things, if they find caring and loving. Many others will not. They’ve been hurt too badly in the past and cannot risk being hurt again.
You are the church. For many of the people you care about and love you are the only church, the only Bible, the only theology, they know. For those, you are the hands, the arms, the feet of Jesus.
Awaken from your slumber, oh church. Awaken and walk among the people of this world. Touch them, hug them, love them. Share the love of Jesus with them, that they may see the real Jesus, God with us.
This post is part of a series on How to Help Homeless People by Sam Riviera. He and his wife have been loving, serving, and developing relationships with the homeless in their town for many years, and is writing this blog series to help all of us reach out to the homeless in our towns with the love of Jesus.
Here are more posts in this series: