A megachurch pastor in Chicago put his congregation through a test of sorts. The pastor dressed as a homeless person and “camped” outside of a couple of his church’s campuses. His congregants’ response to him brought tears to the pastor’s eyes.
“I wanted to see how we’re doing—you know—when it’s hardest to love,” Pastor James MacDonald told his congregation after he walked on to the stage, shopping cart in tow, and peeled off his homeless person costume.
MacDonald then preached a message on loving people who are not your favorite, when “there’s nothing in it for you.” “The closer the person is to us and the less-common the struggle, the easier it is to love,” MacDonald said to his congregation. “God forbid I find out my wife has three months to live. I’d quit my job, I’d sell everything…right? What if it’s just an acquaintance of yours and what if the problem’s recurring?”
The Homeless Pastor Test
So how did MacDonald’s congregation do at loving the “least of these”?
MacDonald says, “I was crying inside that beard. I cannot believe the people in this church. The number of people that prayed with me and brought me food…” The congregation was then shown a video of footage he was able to capture during his experiment camping outside the church. In the video, people are seen bringing him food, giving him money, praying for him and asking how they might help him. Some, however, apparently don’t know how to respond, hesitating as they walk by on their way in the church.
MacDonald is the founder and senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, which has seven campuses spread across the Chicago metro area and serves about 13,000 people each week.
This Is Not the First Time the Homeless Pastor Test Has Been Used
A similar object lesson has been performed before, in 2013 in Clarksville, Tennessee. Before preaching for the first time to his newly-assigned congregation of Sango United Methodist Church, Rev. Willie Lyle was awoken from a dream in which he believes God told him to live on the streets as a homeless person for a time. Lyle spent almost five days living on the streets of Clarksville in order to understand what it’s like to live with nothing. With the exception of a few groups reaching out to the homeless (some church and some non-church affiliated), “generally speaking, people are not kind to the homeless,” Lyle said after his experience.
Lyle surprised his congregation on his first Sunday preaching to them by lying on the lawn of the church covered by a big overcoat. He left his hair unkempt and his face scruffy from his experience the week before on the streets. Lyle wanted to see how many people of the 200-member congregation would approach him on the lawn. In all, about 20 people approached him and asked how they could help.
As he preached that Sunday, his daughter-in-law cut his hair and his daughter helped shave off his scruffy beard. He peeled off his “homeless” clothes, revealing his “Sunday” clothes beneath, and donned a tie and suit jacket. “Our goal should be to improve and change the lives of people as we live like Jesus,” Lyle told USA Today. “You see, we look at the outside of others and make judgments. God looks inside at our heart and sees the truth.”
We should note that a video claiming a pastor named Jeremiah Steepek did something similar to the congregation he was stepping into pastor has not been verified as a legitimate account. More on that can be found here.
The Test Forces Us to Take a Look at How We’re Doing
The question is a good one for churches to ask themselves: How would our church respond to a homeless person camping outside the doors? Perhaps your church experiences this regularly. How we answer this question could mean the difference between serving Jesus and ignoring him. As Scripture tells us, we serve Jesus when we serve the “least of these” (See Matthew 25: 31-46).
Watch the video of Pastor MacDonald and his congregation below: