Boldly Loving the Least of These: Church on the Street’s Practical Theology
By Andy Odle
Bold is…radically loving our most vulnerable neighbors.
What if what Jesus says is true? What if in Christ we really are all one? What if Jesus really tore down the dividing walls that separate people? What if the most despised, outcast, and least in the world really are the most honored in the church? What if all of life—companionship, family, work, government—is precipitated by God’s living commandment to love him and our neighbor? In other words, what if we risked believing in reconciliation?
I am often asked by guests and during my travels about what we do at Church on the Street. Do we focus on evangelism, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or any other such ministry? My response is always the same: we are focused on learning to be neighbors and friends. But here’s the catch, and the danger of such a venture: what wouldn’t you do for a friend?
Ministry has its built-in limits, judgments, and boundaries. Friendship knows no such bounds. Friendship is learning to know one another, learning to speak truthfully to one another, learning to suffer with one another, and learning to celebrate with one another. To be sure, if my friend is hungry, I do what I can for her. If my friend is judgmental or self-righteous, I speak truthfully to him. If my friends don’t know Jesus, I introduce them. If I have wronged my friend, I repent and ask forgiveness. Friendship teaches me how to love my neighbor while also revealing my own needs and vulnerabilities.
As we began to develop relationships in the midst of a large homeless population in the middle of downtown Atlanta, we quickly learned that we could not be a traditional homeless ministry. Homeless ministry in our neighborhood more often than not plays out through an individualistic, divisive, and emergency-based approach by people who come from someplace other than our neighborhood (which we have come to refer to as “drive-by” ministry). Broadly speaking, it is based on the dual assumptions that homeless people are hungry and need to hear the gospel, and that once these problems are addressed, they will be integrated into mainstream society. These assumptions, upon close inspection, turn out to be untrue. Most of our homeless neighbors already know the gospel better than those preaching it and are nowhere near hungry. We also found that it is especially difficult for drive-by ministries to ever move beyond the assumed immediate need. Although under certain emergency conditions this approach may be helpful, we realized that this would not facilitate what we were hoping to achieve.
Our experiment with community started modestly by moving into a neighborhood with a large homeless population, walking out the door, and meeting the neighbors. The exercise did not include bringing handouts to those in need, but rather to simply offer friendship. Over time, relationships began to be forged and lives, on both sides of the divide, were being transformed.
As bonds were formed and friendships began to grow, it became evident that we needed space where community could flourish through more regular and organized gatherings. Through some experimentation and research, we settled on four practices that we felt both expressed and fostered community that would give shape to our day: praying together, eating together, serving together (chores), and celebrating together. In addition, we provide space in the day for what we refer to as enrichment. Enrichment is any activity that may be helpful to members of our community, such as computer use for job searches, résumé writing, and checking e-mail; healthcare workshops; educational seminars; Bible studies; peer advising; small groups; and clothing sharing.
Church on the Street is simply an experiment in believing that the church is intended to be for and with our most vulnerable neighbors. We hope that in our living we are one example of what life could look like because the gospel is true.
In 1999, Church on the Street in Atlanta, Georgia, was founded under the leadership of Kurt Salierno. After enjoying years of fruitful ministry, Church on the Street underwent significant transitions. In 2008, Andy Odle took over the leadership of Church on the Street and began to steer the ministry in a new direction. With a singular focus on reconciliation, Church on the Street began to ask new sets of questions that shape the path they now travel.
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