by Troy Anderson
As government agencies nationwide cut back on services to the poor, sick and homeless, Living Hope Church Senior Pastor John Bishop says this could be the church’s finest hour. At a time when cities and counties nationwide are asking houses of worship to step up and do more to help the "least among us," Bishop says the church has an unprecedented opportunity to become the hands and feet of Jesus.
"I think the greatest opportunity for the church in America is right in front of us," says the founding pastor of the 10,000-attendee church in Vancouver, Washington. "When we step into the gap, people will see Jesus in skin. They will see Jesus in action and then we’ll have an opportunity to tell them about Jesus. I just really feel we could be positioned for one of the greatest revivals in America’s history."
Bishop’s comments come as government agencies nationwide are cutting welfare and health care services for the poor. As these agencies face soaring deficits, government experts expect these cuts to become even more severe by this summer. In some states across the nation, governors and other officials have proposed to cut welfare and similar programs in half. After years of using accounting gimmicks and federal stimulus funds to pay for these programs, officials are now expecting a "train wreck" this summer.
The problem is compounded by the fact that – although the United States is experiencing an anemic economic recovery – unemployment levels are still high and millions of people have lost their homes to foreclosure in the recession. While many are renting homes and apartments, the foreclosures created a ripple effect, forcing some renters whose homes were foreclosed on out onto the streets, experts say.
Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., says since 2009 the number of homeless people has increased 3 percent to 3.75 million. He expects that number to keep growing in the foreseeable future, especially now that the banks have gotten the "green light to get back to foreclosures." As the need for food, housing and medical care increases, Donovan says the faith community is increasingly stepping into the gap. "They are the provider of last resort," Donovan says. "That’s the biting irony here; they are the first forgotten and least remembered, but they certainly are who you lean on when times become tough."
Unlike a decade ago when the church did less to help the poor and homeless, Donovan says he’s seen an amazing transformation in recent years, especially among youth who want to know more about the problem and volunteer with their churches to feed and help the homeless. Last year, the coalition took 1,700 youth, many from churches, out to spend two nights with the homeless and learn more about their plight.
"What’s happening is that the young kids are saying, ‘We really want to know more about this problem’ and they wouldn’t be doing that by themselves," Donovan says. "So their church leaders are guiding them as well. Now, we are seeing more social justice and ministering to the poor. I would say the Christian message of caring for the least among us is alive and well in America and I have great hope for the future because of that."
Founded 14 years ago, Bishop says his church has metamorphosed in the last seven years from a "very comfortable, predictable and safe" house of worship to one focused on serving the community and sending mission teams to Haiti, India and other nations. In 2008, he learned local and regional food banks had completely ran out of food and hundreds of people were being turned away…
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