Ministering in the Shadows

people in the margins

God has called his church to minister to those in the shadows of his steeple.

As Rachel* shares her story, she pauses and stares off into space, her eyes fixated on what is unseen. She blinks fast as she gets back to telling me how since the young age of 12 she has been using some form of narcotic. While it started on a whim, it has become her daily reality. Everything she did from that moment on was about chasing the next fix that her body yearned for. The effects of that decision decades ago have left her with paralysis down her left side, the lingering effects of an overdose. Even when her body began to fail her, she still sought the next fix to ease her anxious mind. 


I am not sure we will ever know why some people do what they do, but I know this: The Rachels of this world still need a warm meal and a kind word. They still need dignity offered to them. They still need a hand up. Community and most church families have felt the sting of a ‘Rachel’ in their family—a person who has been loved and cared for yet still wanders down a path of self-destruction.

For Rachel, she is trying. She has been clean for two weeks, was recently baptized at a local church, and is doing her best to turn her life around. Her body may still carry the past scars, but through hope, she will find healing. Each day, Rachel and many others come into the soup kitchen I run, not seeking judgment and harsh words but a meal and a safe place to rest for the moment. The program is more than just a meal; it is a lifebuoy that provides a small glimmer of hope for a drowning soul.

God has called his church to minister to those in the shadows of his steeple.             

See the Shadows


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God is calling the church to turn toward people who live on the margins of society. The marginalized have become hidden in plain view. Today, the church needs to begin reaching out to those cast aside by modern gadgets, replacing relationships with devices and the lack of connectedness. In every community, there is a neighborhood or portion of town where the shadows gather away from the glare of community members. In these areas, Jesus can be found today if a church is willing to venture into the regions. 


It is in the shadows where the church is being called back to minister to the homeless, addicted, and those struggling with mental illness. In the shadow of the steeple, many churches are strategically placed in Kingdom opportunities to serve the need. For many churches, the work starts by acknowledging the need, seeing the conditions, and praying about meeting that need. 


Spend Time in the Shadows


Every day the same number of minutes, How a person uses those minutes tells a lot about what they care about and their priority. The lifespan of many churches is about 80 years old. When you evaluate the amount of time that members throughout the decades have invested in their community, she falls short in real kingdom advancement most of the time. 


Suppose every church member has 86,400 seconds to their day. Can a member find a way to serve? The simple answer is yes. Throughout the New Testament, we see men and women who served by advancing the message of Christ by going to the margins of communities to seek the lost and broken. Ministering in the shadows is about investing time in some of the darkest places of the community. It is walking where sin is alive, but Christ’s love can conquer.


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Serve Those in the Shadows


Where is God at work in your community? What community organization is already meeting the need of those living in the shadows? Find that place and serve. How many churches spend minutes, not even hours, of their day, living out the gospel beyond group gatherings inside the four walls of the church? 


Serving in the shadows is about helping where the church can. Maybe it is a soup kitchen serving a meal, collecting clothing for the local clothing closet, establishing an afterschool enrichment program in the church’s basement, or opening the doors of the church on a hot or cold day to provide comfort to those who need extra care. Serving those in the shadows is more about being the hands and feet of Jesus than starting a program. Find where Jesus is already at work and go to work there.


When you drive through the community or step outside the church’s doors, see Jesus in every face you encounter. Christ lives in the shadows within your community. When the church sees Jesus in its neighbors, the church starts to see where Jesus is calling them. Many Rachels need a Jesus-loving church that lives out their faith seven days a week and not just on Sunday. God is calling his people back to the community to minister to those in the shadows. Will your church be one of them?


* Not her real name


Desmond Barrett is the lead pastor at Summit Church of the Nazarene in Ashland, Kentucky. He is the author of Revitalizing the Declining Church: From Death’s Door to Community Growth and serves as church revitalizer, consultant, coach, podcast host, and mentor to revitalizing pastors and churches.