Redefining Street Ministry For The Emerging Generation
John Moorhouse (Bear) - Advanced Institute of Ministry
A few years back, my Christian walk had became really difficult. I was caught up in a cycle of self-condemnation that led to embracing compromise in my morality. Before I knew it, I had fully backslidden from the Lord and found myself in a worse condition than before my conversion. My relationship with my family took a dive and, being discontent with my current surroundings and situations, I decided to hit the road in anticipation of enjoying a life of sin.
I had ended up in the streets of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco where I encountered a crazy new life that was completely different from anything that I had ever experienced before. My bed became the cold, hard ground and my food, the solicited charity of strangers. For the first time in my life I realized how much I had taken for granted the basic necessities that I had access to so freely. Survival had become a constant focus and I had to learn quickly how to adjust to this strange new place.
Having come to a whole new level of brokenness and personal destitution, my view on life took a dramatic shift. The people on the streets acted like they were content and had a handle on things, but though they were projecting an image of freedom, peace and happiness, on the inside they were hurt, lonely and in bondage. Self-medication was the only way they knew how to cope with the stresses of this kind of lifestyle. Drugs were the common denominator that brought the people of the streets together. It was also the way to insure a somewhat better existence on the Haight. Ironically, it was also the force that created the most turmoil among those who sought to benefit from its profitability. It was really hard to find peace while violence was becoming more a reality of everyday life.
The Street Perspective Today
Here I was, a backslidden Christian who leapt from the arms of the modernist church into the cauldron of the post-modernist streets. The people that I met were exploring all kinds of different spiritual paths from Buddhism and Hinduism to Wicca and the American Indian religions.
Feeling disillusioned from experiencing the failures and disappointments of a modernist society, they sought to find a new way to have meaning in their lives without possessing a dogmatically absolutist viewpoint. The world that they had rejected was to them both arrogant and foolish and as far as they were concerned it didn't work. To them, there had to be some other way to find answers to life that didn't condemn and exclude others.
A product of the cultural melting pot that this world has become, these are the streets that we face today. This is the condition in which we find the lost. The old methods of evangelism are loosing their ability to be relevant in today's changing society. So the question now at hand is how do we effectively communicate the gospel to this post-modern generation in a way that is relevant to them without compromising our beliefs?
Modernism and Post-modernism
I think that it is necessary to first define what I mean by modernism and post-modernism. For the longest time, most people have been sheltered from experiencing cultures that existed outside of their own, being completely oblivious as to their existence. Each person's world view was shaped by their own geographical confines. When someone from a culture encountered and interacted with another from outside their own, both parties had discovered a strange new phenomenon: the cultural assertion of two different realities.
So the question that plagued them was
“who is right and who is wrong?” The natural response from both parties was
“I am right and they are wrong. And I must get them to accept my reality as the truth.” This is the modernist mind set that has been dominant for some time now. Today, we co-exist with many different cultures and beliefs among us. As a result, the modernist perspective is becoming looked upon as the height of arrogance. People are no longer asking themselves
“who is right” but rather what do these different beliefs have to offer me in my pursuit of answering the questions of life.
The Post-modern Dilemma
In light of the post-modernist perspective, we are presented with some new challenges in communicating the truth of God. First of all, the belief in an exclusive truth has been discarded and therefore they cannot see any one religion as possessing all of the answers. Secondly, any attempt to discredit the claims of another religion becomes extremely offensive to them. The post-modernist tends to lean towards a more humanistic approach by expecting to find the answers within themselves. They have become skeptical toward believing in something that they have not yet experienced and so it becomes discredited until otherwise proven.
Because of the post-modernist viewpoint that is held by most people, an attempt to give them straightforward street preaching will cause them to put up their defenses and not consider anything that you have to say. They will sense that your motivation for approaching them is to convert them to your belief ystem and, in turn, they will shut you out. Their views of Christianity tend to be negative and they will impose upon you the worst stereotypes available unless they see that you are for real.
Fortunately, the post-modernist view doesn't present us with a list that is entirely made up of obstacles. There are potential bridges that can be found in their need for spiritual sensitivity, experiential/personal spirituality, practicality, social needs, peace and a desire to break out of former norms.
They are looking for spiritual people to mentor them and show them what is practical and effective. With that said, I would like to touch upon an approach that I have found to be highly effective in communicating the heart of God, and which demonstrates the core of what faith is supposed to look like: Friendship Evangelism.
A practical solution to the problem of facing the post-modern perspective is to seek to build relationships with these people. By doing so you invite them to openly see who you are and what you represent. Saint Francis of Assisi once said that we must
“preach the gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”
Unless they can see a genuine difference in our lives in comparison to the rest of the world, they will in no way be interested in what we believe. Another benefit from establishing relationships is that you get to learn where they are coming from, discern their spiritual barriers and be able to take specifics into prayer.
Planting Seeds by Meeting Needs
Probably the most effective aspect of friendship evangelism is meeting the needs of the people. You would be surprised how much you can touch someone's life by simply giving them food, clothes, blankets or even a shower.
In doing so, they experience the love of God in a genuine, tangible sense.
“The kindness of God leads us to repentance” (Romans 2:4B). When I look back upon how I came to the Lord, I see that it wasn't the words that reached my heart, but rather it was the love of God manifested through the life of the believer. This is the essence of authentic Christianity.
A good way to start off meeting needs and building relationships is to set up a regular feeding schedule. It should consist of feeding once to several times a week. That way, you can interact with these people on a weekly basis which leads to relationships. If you do this under the banner of a ministry, you can claim a non-profit status and be able to get food from a food bank for super cheap (18-30 cents a pound, as well as a lot of free items).
There are also a lot of organizations out there that exist to provide non-profit groups with items like blankets and clothing. It is most practical if you live in the area that you are focused on doing ministry in because you can invite people inside to have some food, take a shower or spend the night when needed.
Being fully Hospitable without Becoming a Doormat
I do want to warn you that when you start to meet the needs of the lost on the street you will eventually get some people who will try to take advantage of you. The best way to deal with this is to be really loving with them while explaining that you cannot give them special treatment because it would be unfair to everybody else that you are trying to help.
It is important to be hospitable yet without becoming a push-over. If you confidently assert yourself in your decisions, they will most likely back off.
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be cunning as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matt 10:16).
The Role of a Shepherd, the Heart of the Father
Remember that you are a representation of Jesus to these hurting people. A lot of them may have never read the Bible or even been to a church, so we are their only connection to the heart of the Father. We must strive to facilitate that heart and extend His love to them through obedience to the voice of God.
As a shepherd, He loves and cares for the sheep in the deepest possible way.
“Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). If we take on this attribute as a loving shepherd then they can begin to have a right understanding about who He is and how much He loves them.
Exercising your Unique Gifting
One thing that I have come to realize is that even though we are commissioned to preach the Gospel to every living creature, not everyone has been given the gift of verbal evangelism. I would even venture to say that those who have the gift comprise of about 10% of the body of Christ.
The beautiful thing about friendship evangelism, however, is that you don't have to be an expert on apologetics in order to have an effective impact on the lives of those you want to reach. Rather, God will use the gifts that He has given you to work in other ways that verbal evangelism cannot. We must be as sensitive to the Spirit of God as possible so that we don't loose touch with the creative ways that He is moving to minister life to the lost.
Jesus, the Ultimate Role model for Evangelism
One way to understand the manner in which God desires for you to reach out to these people is by examining the way that Jesus interacted with the people. He was often found hanging out in the streets with sinners while meeting their needs with healing, food, love, and listening to their problems. The only time He got up on a soapbox and started preaching, is when He had multitudes following Him. But when He was with the people in the same manner that we encounter people on the street, He was intimate, gentle, loving, and compassionate. Jesus fully emptied Himself so that whatever He did it was by the will of the Father and the strength of the Spirit. Likewise, we must die to our own agendas and initiatives, laying down our own strength and receiving that which is perfect from the Lord.
Spiritual Discernment through Conversation
Once you have established a relationship with them and they can see that you are genuine, then you will have the ability to speak into their lives more freely. But even so, you must use tact in order to remain relevant to their understanding of things spiritual. Listening skills are the most important to employ in your conversations with them.
By listening carefully you are not only conveying to them that you care but you can discern where they are coming from. I often find that even the most basic conversations can tell you a lot about one's perception of who God is.
One time I was talking to someone and I asked them about where they were from, he ended up telling me about how he came from a broken home and that he had a lot of anger towards his father for not being there for him. From this I was able to discern that he viewed God as somebody who didn't really care about him and thought of Him as being distant.
People have a tendency of projecting the attributes of their earthly fathers onto God because they are the example of a father figure that they have been exposed to all of their life. They will not always be this open with you but you can depend on the Holy Spirit to reveal things to you about the person that you are speaking with.
Finding a bridge
A good gateway into a conversation about Jesus is to look for a common ground in experiences of life that will allow you to share about how the Lord has helped/healed you with that issue. When you do this I find that people will usually start sharing with you about their own spiritual beliefs. At this point it is of extreme importance to listen to what they are saying and not try to immediately point out why their belief is wrong.
Instead, listen carefully for something that is true so you can use it to connect with them. Since absolute truth is cohesively integrated together, you can use a shared truth to act as a bridge to relate other truths of the gospel.
When expressing truth it is best to try and explain it through a medium of something that can be experienced. The truths that you share will not hold credibility with them unless they are based upon something that you have personally experienced. The parables are a good example of relating truths through something that can be encountered in life. Anything else, they will regard as hearsay and not give much thought into it. This can also be a way to invite or challenge someone to experiment with experiencing God.
For example, somebody could say that they do not believe in a personal God. Then you can talk to them about how you have personally experienced Him. After that, you can challenge them to ask God to reveal Himself to them in a personal way. This opens up a door to talk with them more and ask them about what they have experienced through their experimenting.
Keeping your Guard up
“Be sober, be vigilant for the devil your adversary walks around like a roaring lion, seeking for whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) Whenever you do any kind of ministry that deals with the people that Satan has in his clutches, you become a threat to him. He will try to do whatever he can to stop you from releasing a soul from his grasp.
Trusting in the Lord's protection is vital during these times. God will not allow Satan to mess with you in any way that you cannot handle but he will try your patience. We must come against the gates of hell with the power and authority of God through prayer.
Coming back to the Heart of Jesus
It is truly amazing when I look around at the different ministries that the Lord is moving through. I see the Lord calling the body back to a place of simplicity and authenticity. The church today is starting to awaken to a practical, organic approach in ministry. Waves of creativity are coming in droves and they are sweeping throughout the church, reviving us to a fresh new perspective.
At first I felt that the Lord was showing us a new way, a different approach to our walk with Him. But as I am taking part in this, I come to realize that this is the way that it was meant to be all along. God never changes, He is the same yesterday, today and forever. However, He is always relevant, always fresh. When we come back to the place of truly abiding in His Spirit, we become in tune with what He is doing and how He wants it done.
The material that I have previously mentioned on how to minister to the streets is not new. This is what the early church looked like. The only thing that has changed is the environment in which it is presented. God's ways are timeless and will always be effective. It is up to us to lay down what we have built on top of them and return to what He gave to us the way that He intended it to be.