Ministry to Homeless People
by Paul Hazelden

Module 1, Assignment 1

Ministry to Homeless People

by Paul Hazelden

Spurgeon’s College

MTh in Applied Theology




Student’s name:              College number:

              Paul Hazelden              910006


Module name:

              Ministry in Contemporary Society


Staff member to whom submitted:

              Rev. Dr. Peter K. Stevenson


Essay title:

              Ministry to Homeless People

























I confirm that this work is the result of my own independent work/investigation and that it has not been submitted towards any other academic award at Spurgeon’s College or at any other institution.



Signed Date

Spurgeon’s College

MTh in Applied Theology





Ministry in Contemporary Society


Ministry to Homeless People



Paul Hazelden




1.        Anecdote  4

1.1.    Introduction   4

1.2.    Different challenges . 4

1.3.   Three stories   5

2.     Analysis. 6

2.1.   Is this our job?. 6

2.2.   Wealth and poverty  6

2.3.   Some of the problems. 7

2.4.   Understanding differences. 9

2.5.   Participation in Ministry  9

2.6.   The spiritual dimension. 10

2.7.   Discipleship  10

3.        Application  11

3.1.   Understanding the Gospel 11

3.2.   Project evaluation. 11

3.3.   Patterns of church activity  12

4.     Action. 12

Bibliography. 14

Appendices. 16




Ministry to Homeless People

I have chosen to use the “Four A’s” model.  This choice was made mainly on the basis that the fewer major sections I need to include, the more chance there is of saying something meaningful about some aspect of this complex issue.

1.                      Anecdote

1.1.            Introduction

The early years of my Christian ministry was spent initially with students and ex-students, and later mainly with people in and around several council housing estates in Guildford, Surrey: an area of considerable economic deprivation.

Some three years ago, after a year spent training evangelists, I unexpectedly found myself running Crisis Centre Ministries (‘CCM’), a Christian charity ministering to homeless people.  Our core activities include: a drop-in centre feeding hungry and homeless people; a training programme to enable people to access employment and formal education; and a church for street people.  In each of these areas, and all our other work, we seek to hold together social action and evangelism.

1.2.            Different challenges

Much of what I have learned over the years about the principles and practice of Christian ministry can be directly applied to this new challenge. However, in some areas my experience is being turned upside down. For example…

None of this, of course, is unique to CCM.  Much, perhaps all, of our experience will be shared by youth workers and other people working in similar projects across the country.

For example, we recognise and identify with the frustration of working with young people in London described by Pip Wilson: talking about the consequences of taking a group to see ‘The Cross and The Switchblade’, we hear that “sixteen young people had been converted after the showing of the film.  But again we saw little response from those sixteen young people, even though we prayed and worked hard at bringing them into Christian growth experiences.” [Wilson, 1985:123]

In our work with drug addicts, we have a very similar experience to other projects operating on similar lines, such as the Kaleidoscope Project in London, and their stories of failure, frustration, accidental death and suicide [Blakebrough, 1986] could be repeated many times over by our clients.  But then again, so can the stories of eventual (if not final) success, forgiveness, miraculous answers to prayer, and astonishing examples of God’s grace being poured out.

1.3.            Three stories

There are many stories I could tell to illustrate the challenges of this present work: here are three which happened within the space of a few days. Please see appendix 1 for some background information about the context and terminology used.

2.                      Analysis

A full analysis of the issues facing Christians who seek to work with homeless people is beyond the scope of this short assignment, but it is hard to see how a reflection can avoid mentioning the following areas.

2.1.            Is this our job?

Many Christians feel that the business of the church lies in saving souls, and any activity not directed towards this end is a distraction.  John Stott addresses this idea in the opening chapter (“Involvement: Is it Our Concern?”) of his classic work, Issues Facing Christians Today [Stott, 1990:2-28].  While I fear he is overly enthusiastic at some points (his criticism of Rauschenbusch on page 7, for example), the overall thrust of his argument is clear and persuasive.

On a more theologically sophisticated level, some Christians argue that we are called to care for individual people who are hurting or damaged, just as Jesus cared for the poor; but we should not attempt to tackle the underlying problems because Jesus commanded us ‘do not resist evil.’ I am persuaded by the argument [Wink, 1992:195] that this is better rendered as ‘do not mirror evil’ and does not constitute a prohibition to social action.

So Christians cannot justifiably argue that social action is not part of our calling.  More importantly, it was an integrated part of Jesus’ ministry.  He calls us to follow Him, and so (in the absence of instructions to the contrary) it must form an integrated part of our ministry. “We do not have two gospels – one spiritual and one social, one concerned with salvation and another concerned with hunger.  We have a single integrated gospel, the gospel of the kingdom.” [Kraybill, 1978:36]

2.2.            Wealth and poverty

One central issue I cannot do more than touch on arises from the economic and social context of our work.  CCM operates in and around the centre of Bristol, one of the seven ‘core’ cities in the United Kingdom, which is itself one of the ‘G7’ – the seven wealthiest nations in the world.

The poverty of the people we work with must be understood in the wider context of a rich society.  This is a very different experience from the poverty of people in societies where the majority of people are struggling simply to survive, or those in cities with vast urban slums and no welfare state.

We regularly come across examples of poverty and depravity most people think (if they think about these things at all) cannot exist in modern day Britain: violence and cruelty as a way of life, hunger so great it drives people to hunt through dustbins for scraps of food, and so on.  But we have to remember that this hunger and poverty arise (at least in part) from the ready supply of drugs and alcohol, and from the ability of addicts to ‘make’ massive amounts of money on a regular enough basis to sustain their habit.

In short, we are dealing with the homelessness of prosperity, not of poverty: it is  real homelessness and hunger, but it is a form of homelessness made possible by the prosperity, not the poverty, of the wider society from which these people come. (Please see appendix 2 for a slightly broader discussion of this topic.)

2.3.            Some of the problems

Problems of working with homeless people include the following.  These are generalisations and simplifications: many homeless people do not demonstrate these tendencies, and the problems, when they are present, are much more complex than I have the space to describe. 

But despite the exceptions, most of the issues described below are characteristic of most of the homeless people we work with.  Many of these problems are compounded by other types of problem such as a history of violence, abuse, addiction, mental illness, family breakdown, criminality and physical sickness.  In the newspapers, it is usually only the addiction and criminal behaviour that receives attention.  (Please see appendix 3 for more details.)

·            Education

Our clients often dropped out of school, and many have problems reading and writing.  Although precise figures are unavailable or unreliable, there is considerable evidence that a much higher percentage suffer from dyslexia than in the general population.  Sometimes they are comfortable in asking for help with reading and writing, but often they will try to pretend they have no difficulty there.

With the clients who are comfortable in asking for help in reading, it is interesting to note two different reactions to words they don’t know: if they feel it is a ‘posh’ word (one they don’t use themselves, such as ‘metaphor’ or ‘consequently’) then it is easy to ask what it means; if they feel they should know it, (perhaps because Christians use it without thinking, such as ‘Psalm’) they will often pretend to understand, and perhaps ask a fellow client later (“Oi! Wass a ‘sarm’?”).

·            Mental ability

Our clients generally have problems in two key areas of mental ability: concentration and connections.

By ‘concentration’ I mean basic mental horsepower – the ability to keep on thinking about something for a period of time.  This means that anything we wish to communicate must be broken into small chunks, and delivered one at a time with breaks in between.

By ‘connections’ I mean the ability to retain several different mental threads simultaneously.  For example, if you read about Jesus telling a parable, there may well be a number of threads which need to be held together if the parable is to make sense and be interpreted in a plausible way.  Some of these threads might be:

Our clients demonstrate concrete rather than abstract thought patterns.  Metaphors are frequently confusing and misleading: the literal meaning can worry people, and the intended meaning is often lost, as the story about ‘spiritual tap-dancing’ illustrates. 

When reading the Bible or using other written material, we frequently need to translate unfamiliar abstractions into something more immediate and familiar.  This is very similar to the principle of incarnation, which is central to our understanding of ministry.

·            Physical access

You can’t arrange to visit our clients at home, so either they have to come to you, or you need to arrange a suitable venue to meet.  Finding a venue is not easy, as most organisations do not welcome homeless people with open arms.  The place you meet is also constrained by the need to ensure the personal safety of the member of staff or volunteer concerned.

Homeless people often do not turn up for appointments: they lose track of the days or the time, or just find something more important to do.  They may well turn up at another time or on another day and expect you to be immediately available to them.  The ability to work spontaneously or at short notice is very important.  Jesus often interacted with His disciples like this in the gospels: grasping opportunities to teach or encourage (“They are hungry? Then feed them!”) as they occurred.

·            Attitude

There is a significant sense of ‘them and us’ that pervades a great deal of the work with homeless people, and not just between ‘them’ the clients’ and ‘us’ working to help them.  It often seems that they feel marginal because they know they are unimportant.  Sometimes it seems that, from the point of view of society (the ‘important’ people) they just don’t exist.  Steve Turner’s poem ‘The Proof?’ [Turner, 1983] catches this well:

Do you have any identification?
Diner’s Card?
American Express?
Bank Statement?
Driving Licence?

Then, I am sorry, sir,
You do not exist.


·            Social network

Our clients associate on a daily basis with drug addicts, alcoholics, drug dealers and other petty criminals.  This is a critical factor in seeking to help them turn their lives around, and it also makes a significant difference to the standards, social norms, expectations and general understanding of homeless people.  The longer they have been homeless, the more significant this is.  The information they act on is gathered by word of mouth and rumour, with little or no consideration of evidence or sources, or balancing the probabilities.  Extreme scepticism goes alongside extreme gullibility; spiritual truths are more likely to be learned from films such as The Matrix, or television programmes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer than the Bible.

We need to remember to listen to people, even when we think we know much more than they do.  This is a common problem: the Christian faith has been “suffering from a ‘teacher complex’ [Koyama, 1979:51].

·            Generosity

Unexpectedly, many homeless people display (almost simultaneously!) both extremely callous, selfish behaviour, and also extremely compassionate and generous behaviour.  While it is slightly overstated, the following quote describes this well.

In my experience as people slide further into poverty there appears to be an equivalent growth in their generosity of spirit… I believe it stems in part from the empathy of the unemployed with the misfortunes of others – and the knowledge that it could be their turn to suffer similar misfortune. [CCBI, 1997:7]

I believe there is a link here with Jesus’ commentary on the widow’s gift (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4): her contribution “from her poverty” was more spiritually significant than an offering out of surplus.

2.4.            Understanding differences

CCM operates in a cross-cultural environment.  Part of our core purpose is to provide a bridge between the various cultures.  This is one of the most difficult areas to get right. (Please see appendix 4 for a slightly longer description of the problem.)

2.5.            Participation in Ministry

A key part of the CCM ethos lies in enabling clients and ex-clients to participate in the ministry.  We therefore employ ex-clients both as volunteers and as staff.  From this arises a number of practical concerns and questions of principle.

In considering these questions, I try to bear in mind that Jews and Gentiles were both included within the early church: they were both required to change, but they were not expected to become indistinguishable.

2.6.            The spiritual dimension

Can the problems we are dealing with be solved by education, law enforcement, and the application of psychological, sociological and economic principles?

On this point, I have to part company with Wink, who views the ‘powers’ “not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power” [Wink, 1984:104], and Satan as the name given to the “real interiority of a society that idolatrously pursues its own enhancement as the highest good’ [Wink, 1986:25].  The following assessment of his work seems to be fair and helpful.

There are clearly problems with some of Wink’s ideas from the perspective of evangelical biblical Christianity… However… we must acknowledge our debt to him.  He has alerted Christians to the structures and systems that predominate in this world which harm the poor in particular.  Furthermore, he has pointed Christians to the fact that there are powerful forces of good and evil at work within these structures that need to be addressed by prayer as well as by social, economic and political action.” [Hughes, 1998:123-124]

A major challenge we face in much of our work lies in discerning when and how to deal with an underlying spiritual reality: is this person demonised or traumatised by childhood abuse – or both?

2.7.            Discipleship

As far as we can determine, there are no discipleship materials on the market catering for our client group.  For example, Alpha operates in many prisons, but no attempt has been made to adapt the material to suit the needs of the population there.

Our basic response to this problem is to use materials available to us, but to adapt them and take them at a pace our clients can cope with and benefit from.

3.                      Application

For ease of reference, I have already included some of the Christian insight under the issues identified above.

For other issues, it seems to me the ‘Christian insight’ is so obvious and the Biblical material so plentiful that it hardly needs stating.  Society may treat homeless people as unimportant, but in God’s eyes they have importance and value; the importance of choosing the right companions is repeatedly stressed (“Blessed is the man…”), and so on.

What follows now are the lengthier and more general aspects of the application.

3.1.            Understanding the Gospel

Roger Sainsbury [quoted in Wilson, 1985:123] helpfully observes that “our social background affects the way we understand the Christian gospel and the scriptures” and identifies five areas where the gospel as understood and applied by middle class people differs from the gospel as understood and applied by working class people.

Middle Class

Working Class




Action (Praxis)

Status (Right with God)

Active Goodness

Personal Righteousness

Social Justice

Omnipotent Lord

Human Jesus

This problem is common to all cross-cultural ministry.  Even something as familiar (and, we imagine, ‘universal’) as the doctrine of justification by faith has to be understood and approached in a culturally appropriate way.  “Perhaps this ‘prince of all doctrines’ (Luther) and the mind of the Asian civilisation do not make a creative combination… I have seen that when Christians take God’s impartiality seriously – unfortunately this happens rarely – the doctrine of justification by faith begins to speak its Asian meaning.” [Koyama, 1976:103-104]

Conversely, it is only the shared aspects of the different cultures involved that enables us to speak to each other at all and to recognise our differences  “In essence, we could only observe differences in perception because these differences were small.  Had any of our groups perceived in a radically different way from ourselves, we could not have determined that fact.”  [Campbell, 1964:325]  Our shared humanity – “and he made from one every nation” (Acts 17:26) – enables us to speak to each other, and to speak meaningfully about God.

3.2.            Project evaluation

As a charity, CCM needs to be effective.  As a Christian charity, we also need to work in harmony with the Spirit, expressing the character of Jesus.  I find the questions asked by [Kraybill, 1978:194-195] both helpful and challenging in this context (see appendix 5 for a list).

3.3.            Patterns of church activity

Normal patterns of doing church do not work for our clients.  Ordinary church life is foreign and alienating for ordinary people; it is much more so for most of our people, and they are generally less able to cope with things they don’t understand than the average ‘man in the street’.

When they do attend a traditional church, homeless people, especially drug addicts or those who have been engaged in violent crime, can be the flavour of the month when they first make a commitment.  People want to hear their testimony and talk with them after the services.  But then the newness wears off, and the ex-celebrity feels ignored and slighted, suspicion and paranoia kick in, and it is very hard work.  How do you include people who are socially very different from yourselves?

It seems that many churches have a choice: should they aim to be homogenous and attract many more people just like us, or should they try to become heterogenous and accept the pain that goes with this opportunity for spiritual development?

Working in a culturally diverse environment, we cannot keep everyone happy, but we do aim as far as possible to build a church event each week using the usual building blocks of worship, prayer and teaching, but doing it in a culturally relevant way for as many people as possible. 

4.                      Action

I have already identified various areas in which we search and struggle to understand how to live and work in a truly Christ-like way.  This is a constant reality for all those involved, in any capacity.

‘Ministry’ does not always mean we have to respond to the needs people have: this is a lesson we need to keep re-learning.  A book I have recently come across [Walter, 1985] and skimmed through reinforces this message: Tony Walter suggests that meeting needs has become a substitute religion for many people in our society, and a distraction for many who are seeking to serve God.

While we seek to be certain of God’s will for our lives and the ministry, it is also important that we learn to live with ambiguity and uncertainty.  We must remember that we can be doing the will of God without being certain and confident that we are right in all our actions and decisions.

In the vast medley of private and public actions and political and economic decisions… some decisions and works finally accomplish the intention of God, or at least are chosen and adopted by him… But in… this chaos… there is a choice that is God’s choice. [Ellul, 1972:69-70]

We cannot achieve our goals through power and control: we are forced to rely on persuasion, prayer, grace and revelation to change both our clients and ourselves. Starting the MTh is one way among many in which we are continuing to seek to be open to hear God speak and guide us.




(3970 words)



Blakebrough, E, No Quick Fix (London: Marshall Pickering, 1986; revised and republished London: The Kaleidoscope Project, 1996)

Campbell, D T, “Distinguishing Differences of Perception from Failures of Communication in Cross-Cultural Studies” in Northrop, F S C and Livingsone, H H, Cross-Cultural Understanding: Epistemology in Anthropology (New York: Harper & Row, 1964)

Church of England, Faith in the City (London: Church House Publishing, 1985)

Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland, A Summary of “Unemployment and the Future of Work” (London: CCBI, 1997)

Ellul, J, the politics of God & the politics of man (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1972)  Translated from the French Politique de Dieu, politiques de l’homme (Paris: Nouvelle alliance, Editions Universitaires, 1966)

Hughes, D with Bennett, M, God of the Poor (Carlisle: OM Publishing, 1998)

Koyama, K, No Handle on the Cross (London: SCM, 1976)

Koyama, K, Three Mile an Hour God (London: SCM, 1979)

Kraybill, D B, The Upside-Down Kingdom (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1978)

Stott, J, Issues Facing Christians Today (London: Marshall Pickering, 1984 and 1990)

Tournier, P, A Place for You (London: SCM, 1968)

Turner, S, Up To Date (Hodder, 1983)

Wallis, J, The Call to Conversion (San Francisco, California: Harper, 1992)

Walter, A, All You Love is Need (London: SPCK, 1985)

Wilson, P, Gutter Feelings (Basingstoke, Hants: Marshalls, 1985)

Wink, W, Naming the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984)

Wink, W, Unmasking the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986)

Wink, W, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992)


In addition, I have regularly consulted a number of web sites over the past few years.  Some of the more significant sites are listed below.

Big Issue:

Child Poverty Action Group:


Home Office:

Homeless Link:

Homelessness Act:

Office of the Deputy Prime Minister:

Salvation Army:


Social Exclusion Unit:



1. CCM Organisation and Terminology

It may help in understanding the stories if I clarify some of the context and the terminology we use.  Clients are the people who use the services and facilities provided by CCM; many of the volunteers work directly with the clients to help them in a variety of ways; and the staff are employees who, amongst other things, provide support and back-up for the volunteers when they need particular skills, trained help or access to specialist information.

2. Creating Poverty

It is an odd feature of the way our government defines poverty (a household with an income less than 60% of the national mean) that the richer society as a whole becomes, the more people are classified as living below the poverty line.

Because of this, many people prefer to speak of ‘relative poverty’ as a central issue our nation needs to address: if other people become richer, this does not make me in real terms any poorer, but it will certainly make me feel poorer by comparison.

It is clear that if you exclude the homeless, any comparison of the poorest people in society today against the poorest people at some point in the past (say, fifty years ago) will show that they are much better off today than at any point the past.  This is true almost irrespective of which indicators of poverty you choose: annual income, access to health care, possessions, or life expectancy.

The economic figures demonstrate that the poor in Britain are better off today than ever before.  But sociological studies suggest that the poor feel themselves to be much worse off. My feeling is that  this discrepancy can be explained to a large extent by the combination of four factors.

I am not suggesting that these developments are all entirely ‘bad’ – most people would regard the weakening of class barriers as a good thing, for example.  I am very sceptical about the psychological and social consequences of exposing children to so much television, but this is not the place to argue the point.

But I am suggesting that the combination of these four factors has created a massive and rapid change to the ways in which most people perceive and respond to questions of wealth and poverty.

It is this massive and rapid change, I believe, which has combined with the weakening of the social structures within society (the family, and, to a lesser extent, the church) to create a destabilised environment which produces a growing underclass of homeless and effectively disenfranchised people.  And these people are poor in absolute (not merely relative) terms, in every measure other than the amount of money that passes through their hands.

3. Issues Faced by Homeless People

The issues identified in the paper will be recognisable to most, if not all, people working directly with homeless people.  They are derived from the collective experience of people working for Crisis Centre Ministries and the other organisations represented on the BCAN Homeless Forum.

A longer list of issues is provided in the Volunteer Training pack produced by CCM in association with BCAN.  These include the following.

It should be noted that most research and briefing papers concerning homelessness are concerned with the public policy issues, and not the experiences of homeless people themselves.

4. Culture Clash

The definition of ‘culture’ or what distinguishes one culture from another goes far beyond the scope of this assignment.  But it is clear from discussions with our clients that different cultures can overlap, and within one culture you can often distinguish several sub-cultures.

A shared culture can be used to identify a group of people – it can be argued that this is the fundamental purpose of any culture.  So the following list of people groups is also a list of competing and conflicting cultures: for each item on the list, there is a specific culture (/sub-culture) associated with it, setting the members apart from those not included.

5. Project Evaluation

1.     What are the specific needs which this programme is meeting?

2.     Do people need this particular project so much that they’d recreate it if it were terminated?

3.     Is it congruent with the spirit and purposes of the gospel?

4.     Does it in any way promote an exclusive self-righteous posture?

5.     Do people enjoy and eagerly participate in it?

6.     Is flexibility built into its very structure?

7.     Is there a designated time for serious evaluation of its functions?

8.     Is there an effective decision-making process to declare an “institutional funeral” if necessary?

9.     Is the structure radically committed to serving the sick and poor in the Spirit of Jesus?

10. Is it clear that this structure is not sacred and that the people of God have the authority to declare its moratorium?


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