Dating back to 1825, rescue missions have offered
food, shelter and spiritual assistance to the homeless
and needy. They typically offer a wide range of services
such as emergency food and shelter, youth and family
services, alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs,
education and job-training programs and assistance
to the elderly, poor and at-risk youth.
Their scope is quite impressive: The 277 primarily
North American rescue missions that comprise the Association
of Gospel Rescue Missions involve more than 9,000
full-time workers and 300,000 volunteers.
For many Christians, these missions evoke images of
hearty volunteers working with grizzled, skid-row
alcoholics. Yet nearly 70% of those served by rescue
missions today are under 45 years old, 73% are local
community residents, and 40% are women and children.
Just as rescue mission clientele has changed and rescue
mission sophisticationhas grown, the relationship
between churches and rescue missions has changed.
Today, while some churches continue to send volunteers
and monthly donations to a nearby rescue mission,
others -- especially larger churches -- are developing
a sense of shared mission at new, unprecedented levels.
Transforming Los Angeles One Block at a Time
The Dream Center in downtown Los Angeles, a ministry
of Angelus Temple, is one example.
the 12 years we've been here, we've seen crime drop
17%," says Kelli Carter, the Dream
Center's Director of Outreach, regarding the Rampart
District of Los Angeles. Kelli runs the church's Adopt-a-Block
Program -- a ministry that mobilizes up to 500 people
weekly to serve the communities that surround the
and teen residential programs in their own building.
The Dream Center also recently partnered with a local
department store to provide 1,800 backpacks during
a back-to-school event. The local fire department,
police department and city councilmen were all involved
in the event.
the church's members go out, according to
Kelli, "we ask people what
they need and then we do our best to fill
those needs" whether it's providing diapers,
cleaning up yards, taking out the trash, painting
or cleaning houses.
a result, when provided with transportation
to the Dream Center church services, around
600 people from these neighborhoods climb
into buses each week to take advantage of
In addition to working with such traditional
rescue missions as Union
and the Los
Angeles Mission, the Dream Center also
Fewer Missions, But Larger Reach
Phil Rydman, Director of Communications for the Association
of Gospel Rescue Missions notes that while the
number of rescue missions in the United States has
declined over the course of the last quarter century,
the reach of those remaining has "grown dramatically."
Twenty-five years ago, the typical rescue mission
was a mom-and-pop organization, staffed by caring
people who were doing the best job they could. "Today
we have missions that house hundreds, even thousands,
of people every night," Phil comments. "We
have missions whose budgets have grown to over $10
While the needs of people on the street have grown,
so has the number of services offered by approximately
500 rescue missions across North America, many partnering
with churches like Dream Center to bring rescue mission
work into needy communities.
In 2005, the 300 rescue missions associated with AGRM
served more than 37 million meals and provided over
14 million beds. They distributed over 26 million
articles of clothing and counseled 1.5 million individuals.
These missions also provided services such as dental
and eye care, after-school programs for nearly a quarter
of a million children and served 46,500 kids in a
The networking and vision that allows the Dream Center
to pull together corporate sponsorship along with
the participation of other civil entities is becoming
more common in this ministry space. Phil Rydman reports,
"Missions have gotten more sophisticated in their
fund raising efforts and in getting the word out about
what they do. It used to be that the rescue mission
was the best kept secret in town."
Helping Church People Make a Difference
The big change that's hitting some North American
churches involved in this kind of work is that Christians
in these churches are venturing beyond the comfortable
confines of their safe church buildings into communities
where they previously would have locked their car
doors. As these believers reach new neighborhoods,
they find that they are stretching themselves spiritually
and receiving more than they give.
Rydman comments on this phenomenon, "I
think that the church is full of people who
are hungry to have their life make a difference.
They're saying, 'Give me something to do that
is significant.' Rescue missions are a place
where people can connect with people and see
their lives changed dramatically."
Kelli Carter concurs, estimating that fully
80% of the 2,000 regular attenders of the
Dream Center are involved in one of the church's
outreaches. "People are tired of sitting
in their pews and getting fed all the time,"
Kelli explains. "They want to help and
they want to do something to better the life
of someone else."
The experience of Jim and Beth Govea and their involvement
with the people of Nickerson Gardens, one of the largest
public housing projects in Los Angeles, illustrates
the change from getting involved in this kind of ministry.
"We went to Nickerson Gardens and were blown
away," Jim Govea says. "We went door-to-door,
stopped and talked to people, serving people. I thought
to myself, 'This is what the church is supposed to
do.' I thought we were going out to bless them, but
they blessed us!
"Adopt-a-Block is so much more than going out
and serving people in the projects, Skid Row, etc.
. . . it's about what God wants to do in all of us
for His glory and purpose."
Does it Take to Start a Rescue Mission?
Shields is the founder of faithmaps.org,
a freelance writer and consultant. Stephen
is also a manager with USA
Today, formerly a bi-vocational pastor
and a frequent contributor to Next-Wave.
Stephen currently serves on the Leadership
Development Team of Grace Community Church
in Columbia, MD, and with his wife, Beth,
Grace's outreach to Katrina survivors in Louisiana.
Stephen received a M.Div. from Grace Theological
Seminary and lives with his wife and three
daughters in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
He can be contacted at email@example.com
and blogs at