Approximately 30 to 50 percent of the homeless are committed, baptized Christians. Yet most of us don’t see them, or even the working class, in our churches. This is not because the homeless or the lower social class don’t go to church. Rather, they have their own churches. Here in Portland, there are churches that specifically target the homeless, and many churches that specifically welcome the working class. There are missions, bible studies, individual worship services and many other venues for the homeless to worship and serve God.
If you don’t see the homeless in your church, it likely due to a cultural difference. Every church is not just a spiritual experience, but a cultural one. We have certain customs and kinds of worship that are specifically for our cultural group which, on the other hand, push away those of different cultural or social experience. For instance, if we speak English in our congregation, we do not offer a welcoming atmosphere to those who only speak Spanish. This is not a bad thing, but we shouldn’t wonder why no Spanish-speaking people come to our services.
Similarly, if everyone in our church is clothed in suits or dresses, smells good and has a small group of like-dressed friends with whom they associate exclusively, it should be no wonder that homeless people, even if they wandered into the church, wouldn’t feel welcome. If the church has a number of unspoken rules, such as not speaking during the sermon or Bible readings, not making statements in the middle of the service, not pacing or making wild movements in the middle of an aisle, then it is no wonder that the mentally ill wouldn’t feel welcome in our church. And most churches aren’t open to having people drunk or high in their service.
The homeless do not refrain from coming to these churches because they are not really Christian. Nor do they avoid them because they are greater sinners than other church-going Christians. It is because they feel uncomfortable, out of place and that everyone is judging them.
If you would like to have the homeless feel welcome at your church, then have a special greeter for them. This greeter is to specifically “dress down”, looking comfortable in the sanctuary in jeans and a t-shirt. The street greeter should be on the look out for the homeless and the mentally ill to specifically welcome them and to explain to them about the service. The street greeter could also keep an eye on the guests to make sure that they are alright and to give them a gentle reminder to respect others around them if needed. If a guest is causing too much of a fuss, then the street greeter could gently lead them outside, and recommend that their street guest could perhaps come again when they are more ready to be in that group of people. Most of all, however, the street greeter is to make them feel at home, as if they were coming to the family to which they had never belonged before.