The Church in the Plastic Bubble

A week ago I posted a blog entitled, Driven to Abstraction, where I shared a story of a young pastor disillusioned with his congregation after they refused to accept the presence of homeless people in their midst.  Today I received an email that I know was meant to be helpful, but it put me in a rage and I have been wrestling with it all day.  While I understand and sympathize with some of the points made, in the end I find it to be a perfect example of much of what is wrong with the church today.  What I draw from it is that the church is more driven by fear than faith, safety than service, comfort than taking risks, and providing programs than creating community.  Perhaps I am too hard on this pastor.  You decide.

Dear Rev. Dick,

We live in a hostile and violent world, one the likes of which we have never seen before.  Therefore it takes wisdom and cunning to know when we are being faithful and when we are being foolish.  I appreciate the idealism of your article (Driven to Abstraction) but feel you could benefit from someone with a little more experience to put things into perspective.

I have worked in urban ministries for over 30 years, and I have learned some very valuable lessons about ministry to the hungry, the homeless, the poor, and those wandering our city streets.  We (the church) are not equipped to handle these people.  Some of these people are dangerous.  Some are mentally ill.  Some are predators looking to take advantage of anyone they can.  We really don’t want these people in our churches, and here is why.  We have a responsibility to protect those who trust us and make a commitment to be with us, work with us, support our ministries, and lead us.  These people must be kept safe.  The church should provide a safe sanctuary so that none ever feel threatened or in peril.  It is our role to be in ministry to those in need in the world, but we must use common sense.

Our policy is simple:  we only engage in services ministries a minimum of 15 miles from the church.  This way we can do good work for these people who need it, but they cannot become dependent upon us.  They don’t come to our worship services or show up at our door looking for handouts.  We go to them in other neighborhoods to feed and clothe them, offer them prayer and worship, and to support ministries of shelter and distribution in other parts of town.  We have found this to be a fantastic solution — we are in ministry to the poor and we provide a safe environment for our own people.  Everyone wins.

It would be nice to believe that we can open our arms to everyone in Christian love and welcome them into our churches, but this is sadly not the case.  There are too many troubled and violent people in the world who know no boundaries.  We cannot allow them to threaten our fellowships of faith, for then who would care for them.  Sadly, we must keep a boundary where we cross to them in love and service, but across which we do not invite them.  We cannot afford to put innocent lives at stake.  I know this may sound cruel, but from one who works day in and day out in the city, it is the best way.

There is more to ministry than just saying “Jesus loves you,” and trusting that everyone will behave.  Knowing these people as I do, most of them are not ready or able to be a part of a healthy community.  And our churches are not really ready to receive them, so it is better for churches to support those who are.

You write some wonderful articles, but this one was a little naive and to my mind, a little irresponsible.


I am probably the last person in the world qualified to speak for Jesus, but a few thoughts come to mind as I reread this letter.  First, I am not sure that Jesus would agree that our world today is more violent and dangerous than any other, especially the one that drove nails through his flesh to kill him on a post.  Second, I can’t find the 15 mile rule anywhere in the New Testament (or the Hebrew scriptures for that matter).  Third, the “us/them” dynamic always ticks me off — especially when people act as if this is ‘normal’ just because it is the way things are.  Fourth, it isn’t an either/or issue.  Certainly we need to use good common sense and work to keep everyone safe, but this is just good leadership and design.  If we aren’t ready to receive others into our fellowship we can learn and prepare to be ready.  Fifth, ministry ‘to’ is very different than ministry ‘with.’  I believe ministry ‘to’ can be good and helpful, but it is ministry ‘with’ that is truly transformative and necessary.

Insulating ourselves from the big, bad world simply isn’t a part of my reading of the Gospels.  Holding the poor and marginalized at bay because they might hurt us isn’t there either.  Judging who belongs and who doesn’t, is at least mentioned in the Gospels, but it’s a slippery-slope with too many scenarios that don’t end well.  Establishing policies of appropriate distances for doing ministry — well I just don’t believe we have that luxury.

I haven’t spent 30 years out on the streets, but I have walked some bad neighborhoods in the Bronx, Philadelphia, Chicago, East St. Louis, Nashville, Indianapolis, Brooklyn, Queens, and San Francisco (to name a few).  I was always with others, and there were times that I was very scared and situations that I would have preferred not to be in.  I have encountered some of the violent, dangerous, troubled people mentioned in the pastor’s letter.  But these threats were few and far between.  For every potential problem, I met a dozen good people struggling to get through life.  Are they dirty, smelly, loud, pushy, needy, and a bit disconcerting?  Many of them are.  Would they disrupt the calm serenity of most of our churches?  Undoubtedly.  Could there be problems with behavior, and might there even be the threat of violence?  Without question.  But it is also worth keeping in mind that 86% of all violent acts against church goers are perpetrated by church members themselves, and that another 5% are upstanding members of the surrounding community.  Seems to me that we may be looking for trouble where trouble isn’t likely to be found.

It breaks my heart that envisioning a church with truly open hearts, minds, and doors is viewed either as naive and idealistic or dangerous and irresponsible (or both).  It irritates me that we want to help “those people” just as long as “they” keep “their” distance.  It reminds me of the surreal conversation I had a couple years ago with a woman architect who specializes in helping churches keep undesirables away.  I wrote an article about it — “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” — that I will post here tomorrow.

I really am interested to hear what you think about this.  How can we be faithful witnesses to God’s love in Christ in a world so immersed in fear and division?

15 replies

  1. Following an earlier post concerning the urban minister’s letter to Dan, I found it helpful to reread Fr. Albert Nolan’s Jesus before Christianity and several of Dan’s posts. We have made a couple of changes as a result. Peace.

  2. I am trying to imagine Jesus sanctioning the 15 mile rule when he condemned the rich man just for keeping Lazarus “at the gate”. Ministry with desperate people, whether they are poor, ill, addicted or whatever else makes people desperate, is not without its risks. Maybe that is why Jesus told us that those who lose their lives will gain them. We try to remove any possibility that he might have meant that literally while rationalizing avoiding leading our congregations in mission and ministry that might cost us anything but a little money.

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