One Church Planter’s Journey in Learning from the Poor


The homeless man who changed my life

Who would have thought that a chance encounter with a homeless man at a local Starbucks would change the trajectory of our church and of my family forever? It was a Tuesday morning, and the man’s name was Delbert. I saw him standing there and asked if he wanted to join me for a cup of coffee. As he shared his story with me, he mentioned that his birthday was coming up on Friday. I don’t know what came over me, but I said, “Delbert, what are you doing for your birthday?” He stared at me like I was crazy. I realized that may have been a stupid question, so I quickly followed it up with, “Delbert, do you have any friends?” The stare deepened. Finally, I just came out with what I was thinking and said, “Delbert, why don’t you invite all of your friends to come to my house this Friday night, and my wife will make dinner, and we will have a birthday party for you, cake and all.” The stare turned into a smile, and we shook hands and parted ways.

That Friday night, something special happened. My wife and I and eight homeless men sat around the table, and we laughed and told stories and acted like family. I have been to hundreds of birthday parties, but I will never forget the birthday we celebrated with Delbert on February 6, 2009.

Feasting with the Poor

Before the night was over, I blurted to the group, “What do you guys think about doing this every Friday night and then having a Bible study afterwards?” Thus began a tradition that has continued to this day. Every Friday night, a group of people from our church invite all of the poor in our city to come to our home, and we share a meal and study God’s word together like family. The vision for these Friday nights comes from something Jesus said at a meal he was attending. After Jesus looked around to see who else had been invited, Luke tells us,
Jesus said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Lk 12:12-14)

Where are the poor on Sunday mornings?

I have concluded over the years that Jesus, who cares so deeply about the poor and crippled being invited into our homes to celebrate a meal, would also want them invited into his home to celebrate one. The next parable makes this clear when the master of the banquet says to his servants, “Go quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Lk. 14:21).

I wonder what Jesus might say if he walked into some of our Sunday gatherings. Do you think he might look around at the people who fill our churches and say, “When you gather together on Sunday morning, don’t just invite your friends or your relatives or your co-workers or neighbors, lest they repay you by supporting your church and making it look attractive to others. Instead, when you gather together, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Invite people who cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

Think about it. We teach our people strategies for reaching their neighbors, we encourage them to invite their friends and co-workers to our services, we pray together with them about their unsaved family – all of these are great things, but what about the poor? What about the disabled? What about the mentally ill? How are we seeking to move beyond seeing the poor as service projects, and instead welcoming them into our midst the way Jesus has welcomed us? How are we seeking to break down the walls that exist between the “haves” and “have nots?” How are we intentionally seeking to live life as family with those who are radically different from us and find themselves unable to pay us back?

I believe that church planting provides an amazing opportunity for us to apply these verses and build Jesus’ heart for the poor into the very DNA of the church. People may tell you that the time to reach the poor is after your church has become self-sufficient, but that’s not what the Master of the banquet says. He says, “Go quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame” (Lk. 14:22).

But aren’t these verses really about all of us?

Our tendency with these verses is to spiritualize them. We say. “Everyone in my city is spiritually poor and crippled and blind, so basically anyone I invite meets these qualifications, if only you have eyes to see it.” What we may not realize is that by doing this, we basically justify not having to invite the poor or disabled at all. On the one hand, you are right. These verses are about all of us. They are about how all of us were spiritually poor and blind before we met Jesus, and to miss that would be to miss the whole point of the passage. But make no mistake, these verses are also about the physically poor and disabled; if you miss that, you will miss the WAY that Jesus has chosen to make his point. What Jesus is saying here is that the presence of the physically poor and disabled in our gatherings is essential to remind us of what all of us were like spiritually before Jesus. The cost that comes from pouring ourselves out for those who cannot pay us back is necessary to remind us of the price Jesus paid in order to save us.

Do you ever wonder why people struggle so badly to remember their own spiritual poverty? Does it surprise you that people seem so consumeristic? Look around…where are the poor? God wants to use more than our preaching to remind people of their spiritual poverty. He wants to use the presence of the poor and the crippled to keep our people’s spiritual needs at the forefront of their minds.

The distracting woman that focused me on the gospel

A few months ago, a homeless woman who suffers from a drug-induced mental illness walked into our church partway through the service, and found a seat in the middle of the sanctuary. While I was preaching, she began to get pretty distracting. She was ripping some pages out of a book and crumpling them up. Even as I was talking about God’s great love, I found myself becoming very frustrated with this woman. Not only was she distracting me, I was pretty sure that she was distracting the people sitting around her as well. Sometime after the service was over, the man who was sitting right behind her wanted to talk to me about the situation. He began by describing how distracting it was and how angry it had made him that she was allowed in the service. Of course, I was nodding because I felt the same way.

Then he said, “But after the service was over the craziest thing happened. While I was still sitting there in my seat stewing, another man from the church walked over and began to talk to this woman. I sat there and watched as this man shared the Gospel with her while she listened attentively. As he was telling her about Jesus, something pierced my heart.”

As I listened to this man’s story, something pierced my heart as well. All of the sudden I realized that this woman whom I saw as a nuisance, whom I had been wishing someone would escort out of the building, whom I had been angry with in my heart – she was created in the image of God. Somehow I had forgotten that she too had an eternal soul. Ultimately, God used this encounter to remind me that her physical poverty and disability were nothing compared to what I was like when I was dead in my sins and trespasses.

And what I will never get over is that God didn’t usher me out of his world. He didn’t look at my rebellion and say, “What a nuisance! I will get rid of you and look for someone who has something to offer me.” He may have been angry at me in his heart, but instead of pouring that anger out on me like I deserved, in love he chose to send his only Son to bear my punishment.

On the cross, God poured all of his anger toward me out on Jesus. Then he raised him from the dead and invited me to come and feast with them forever as a part of their family. That is how my God treated me in my poverty. That is what he did for me even though I was doing everything I could to distract people from his great glory.

I don’t remember exactly what I preached that night; neither does the man who sat behind this woman. But God used her presence to brand the Gospel on both of our hearts in a way that we won’t soon forget.

So go quickly…

The poor desperately need Jesus, and you and I desperately need the poor. They need Jesus to heal their brokenness and to cleanse them from all of their sins. We need the poor to remind us that no matter how put together our lives may seem, we too need Jesus to heal our brokenness and to cleanse us from all of our sins. So don’t wait any longer to intentionally begin reaching out to the poor. Instead, go quickly into the streets and lanes of your city and invite the poor and crippled to come to the feast that God has prepared for all of his people.

Tim Cain is the pastor of Kaleo Church which he planted in El Cajon, California, in 2009 after completing a one-year church planting residency at Bethlehem Baptist Church. His first book, The God of Great Reversals: Finding the Gospel in the Book of Esther, was released in 2016. He will be leading “Grace in the Trenches of Church Planting” at the 2017 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders (January 30-February 1, 2016).