For the poor or of the poor?

The Centre for Theology & Community l

profile-Tim-TOur Development Director Tim Thorlby blogs on our latest seminar for local church leaders which looked at how churches can best serve and include homeless people…

This week, a team from West London Mission helped us to explore two important questions. Firstly, how can churches include homeless people, not just serve their material needs? And how can Christian charities retain their distinctive identity and serve the spiritual needs of their ‘clients’ without losing their professional credentials? These are important issues that affect many churches and Christian charities.

The latest of our new programme of seminars ‘Theology for the Local Church’. These seminars – which are hosted at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in east London – aim to equip churches and Christian charities with the latest theology and practice on a key issue and then to provide the space for discussion and reflection.

West London Mission is a Methodist charity that has been operating since 1887. The charity now includes two city-centre churches and a range of projects across London, including several serving homeless people; the West London Day Centre – a drop-in centre serving 100 people every day, supported accommodation for homeless ex-servicepeople and ex-offenders and also the Haven – a sanctuary for men with long-term alcohol dependency.

In the first part of the seminar, the Mission’s chaplain, Revd Ruth Bottoms, explained and demonstrated some of the different ways in which she works with homeless people to help them explore their spirituality. She highlighted a recent study which had identified how homeless people themselves want their spiritual needs to be taken seriously.

One of her regular actions is running a Spirituality Group each week at the Day Centre, for anyone who wants to take part. The topic varies from week to week, sometimes with guest facilitators, but usually follows the  same format, with some snacks to begin with, following by a ‘stilling moment’ to help people settle in – maybe lighting a candle and some silence – and then plenty of time for discussion. Sometimes the topic draws from a Bible passage, which is read out, or sometimes they use video clips or a guest facilitator may talk about their chosen subject. The sessions are designed to be interactive.


Ruth explained that they are never short of discussion or questions, and that the international mix of participants can bring a very broad range of perspectives. In their Bible study at the start of Lent, looking at the temptations of Jesus in the desert, the participants wanted to discuss which temptation Jesus may have found the hardest to resist. Most agreed that it was probably ‘turning stones into bread’, as many knew from personal experience how bad it can be to feel very hungry. A homeless man from Africa was able to recollect his experience of seeing local farmers react to a draught, and how desperate they were.

Ruth noted that there can be much for the rest of us to learn from hearing the Bible explored by those who have a very different experience of life. This is grassroots Bible study, often with a rich and visceral reaction to the passage opening up new insights for the rest of us. Many churches would be able to help with running such groups.

In the second part of the seminar, Jon Kuhrt (Executive Director of Social Work) and John Deacon (the West London Day Centre Manager and trustee of CTC) discussed their approach to providing a professional service to homeless people which also retained the Christian distinctiveness and ethos of the church whose mission inspired the service in the first place.

The West London Mission seek to use a relational model in how they operate as a charity serving homeless people, which has four main elements:

– They seek to connect with each person as a human being, and find a connection with them, not just regard their involvement as a professional ‘transaction’, as some services do.

– They seek to adopt an attitude of vulnerability in their dealings with homeless people, accepting that we also may have something to learn from them and that we don’t know everything.

– They accept that a certain degree of disruptiveness may need to be tolerated within the organisation in order to be flexible enough to respond to needs as they arise.

– They acknowledge that people often have a number of needs and that everyone is different. So in responding to a person, they seek to address the needs they find, together, not just deliver the individual services that are convenient or easy to deliver.

There can be a real tension between the need for a Christian charity to professionalise and meet statutory standards and its desire to retain its Christian beliefs and practices. However, it is possible for the Christian faith to both inform the design and nature of a professional service and also be explicitly acknowledged, without compromising professionalism. If faith is the motivation for running a service and something we believe is important in life, and something which homeless people themselves want to talk about,  then it would be rather odd to never acknowledge it!

The West London Mission team highlighted a good resource to help Christian charities work through this issue – ‘Keeping the Faith’ by the Church Urban Fund. It is also subject which we may return to another day. But that is for another blog…


The Centre will be hosting a ‘Theology for the Local Church’ seminar at St Katharine’s every two months. Our next seminar will be in May – more details to come. Our seminars are free, but we do ask people to register in advance, by emailing If you would like to be kept up to date with our forthcoming events, please join our monthly mailing list.

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