As I was driving into downtown Syracuse, I noticed a traffic sign pointing to The Mission District, which is home to the Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse. The sign was an official NYDOT traffic sign, so that spoke volumes to me on how the Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse works with the local community. Being candid, normally the first thing you'll notice about a rescue mission or faith based program is how little they work with their local community.
I know in my last sentence I painted with a big brush grouping most faith based missions together. The truth is most still follow outdated models and build themselves into huge ivory towers because they follow Jesus, and by following Jesus they can stay blind to any real change. There are, however, a few faith based organizations that are blazing a trail of change to be able to better help their communities. I love seeing the Calgary Dream Center at homeless conferences, learning and growing how to end homelessness in Canada. I have huge respect for Jeff Lilley and the change he has been able to bring to Seattle's Union Gospel Mission. Most missions have layers of century-old traditions that make real change nearly impossible, so when leaders like Jeff step in, you know they have to face walls of opposition just to take off the neck-tie. I love how Los Angeles Mission is working with Home For Good, and others stakeholders in Skid Row are working on a coordinated entry. I am blown away how my friend Murray Soroka was able to get a group of local churches to 400 people in apartments using the housing first model. Yes, there is change coming, but for every one of the great stories I know, I can share hundreds more of faith based programs that will not work with their community and use the bible to validate outdated models that no longer work.
Please know I love rescue missions, and please know if it sounds like I am coming down hard, it's only because I honestly believe that the faith based community could end homelessness tomorrow if they decided to.
I used to work in church marketing and church growth. For me, the rescue mission model was the model American churches should adopt. Tony Morgan, a church leadership consultant asked, "if your church closed tomorrow, would your community notice"? That one sentence should be the foundation of all church marketing. Forget the elaborate worship experience that leads to dynamic preaching - feed people - clothe people - help people get out of homelessness - work with the community including other churches - do those things and people will want to visit your church. If you're a church leader and you're having trouble filling seats on Sunday, chances are you're not really helping your community FILL THEIR NEEDS.
I was sitting having lunch with Alan Thornton and a few leaders at Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse, and I could not get "New and Improved Rescue Mission" out of my head. Like I said, I do love the rescue mission model, but I hate that because so many missions are resistant to change, the impact of most faith based programs are far from what they should be, and what their community needs.
Old mission model was to make Jesus disciples, but memory scriptures plus forced bible study and work times just adds structure, and when that structure is gone, most people go back to their old ways. I can feel some of you getting mad at me because you can share the names of graduates from your program who are now sober, but do you measure your failures? Do you measure the people who refused to go into your program because they didn't want to be forced to pray at 5:30am? For every person you celebrate as a success, how many failures of people who left your program because you simply refuse to adapt to the world as it is today? Do you keep track of how many "graduates" are still sober and doing good 1 - 3 - 5 years later? The new and improved mission model collects data on failures to adjust programs for better outcomes.
Old mission model runs programs of 30 to 120 days, sometimes a year or two year program they call transitional. Often, the people who need help the most, chronic homeless who have been on the streets far too long are passed up. New and improved mission model embraces permanent supportive housing and tries to create programs that will help everyone in their community - and not just believers.