Homeless advocate Mark Horvath has a little known history as a church marketer. He served as a marketing executive for a megachurch before slipping into unemployment and a crisis that forced him to launch the nonprofit InvisiblePeople.tv.
Horvath travels the country talking to homeless people, capturing their stories and posting the raw, unedited video online. He’s changing hearts and minds, and he’s giving the homeless a voice.
Today a new book comes out that was inspired by Horvath and benefits his work. It’s called Open Our Eyes: Seeing the Invisible People of Homelessness (Full disclosure: Yes, I edited it). It features the stories of 35 homeless people, a foreword by Trust Agent author Chris Brogan and reflections from two dozen experts including our own Brad Abare and guest blogger Scott Williams. And all proceeds support Horvath’s work with InvisiblePeople.tv.
We sat down with Mark Horvath and talked about his work, the book and church marketing.
You’ve done some pretty amazing things from social media to online video. What can churches learn from what you’ve done to reach people?
Mark Horvath: Right now we think an iPhone app is cool to reach people, but it’s really not going to change the world. We need to get our hands dirty and start caring for our neighbors. We need to forget all these crazy huge church productions and put our resources into having a serious impact on stuff like homelessness and human trafficking.
As long as we focus on Sunday morning and a talking head, we won’t have an impact on the world. We must stop pointing our finger at people and say you’re a sinner and start opening our arms and hugging people. We have to make helping hurting people a priority. We need to care for people without an agenda. We must start loving those who do not believe as we do.
Point blank honest, the very best church marketing is not a new billboard or a web page hyping a sermon series. It’s becoming a catalyst for real, positive change in your community. The day of churches being able to fill seats with gimmicks has long past. It’s time to wake up and use our resources as God would have us use them, and that is not spending more money on lights, screens, cameras or fancy shmancy lobby displays. Come on, people. Our church lobbies look like a swap meet selling Jesus junk and we wonder why new people are not coming to our church!
Outreach is not a marketing ploy to fill seats. Outreach should be a full-time investment in connecting people to support services. News flash: Your latest sermon is not going to put food in their fridge.
Forget random acts of kindness. We need deliberate acts of compassion.
What can churches do to better communicate their message to their communities?
Mark: The best way for a church to communicate to the community is to stop talking and start loving. I’m sick of going to churches where they talk about love, but there is little outward compassion, especially for nonmembers. (unless it’s the poor people in the trailer park down the street we “adopt” every six months to make ourselves feel better)
Remember this phrase: Attraction rather than promotion. It’s a principle from Alcoholics Anonymous. Create an environment that’s so cool and so loving that people want to come to you. Then you don’t have to beg people to visit.
Be so attractive that the people want to be there. You do that by being their neighbor and helping them. Especially in today’s world. In today’s social media world, we have a bullsh*t meter. You can’t say “Pastor’s going to preach a word,” and believe people will visit—people don’t need a word. They need their mortgage paid. They need food. They need jobs. Here’s the word: Shut up and start doing something tangible to help others.
Fill so many needs in the community—through actions, not words. Clothe people, feed people, love people. You could be the best preacher in the world, but who cares? You do, that’s it. We won’t change the world with preaching.
How can churches do homeless ministry better?
Mark: If churches want to do homeless ministry better they need to actually meet real needs. That starts with listening. Listen to your community. Listen to the homeless people themselves. You might not agree with your local politician, but every community has a homeless coalition. You should commit to go to those meetings and find out what people’s needs are. That’s the best place for the church. It might not be as sexy as going and feeding some homeless people a few times a month, but that’s how you have real, long-lasting impact. You become part of the whole community not just a Lone Ranger
The problem we have is the church needs to start measuring total results, instead of just hyping a few cool stories. Are we really getting people off the streets or are we just bringing somebody up on Sunday morning to make everybody feel good?
We look for individual testimonies and think we’re doing a good job, but the truth is if you look at everything we’ve done over time there weren’t quantifiable results.
The next pastor who says we go to the park and we’re friends with the homeless because they’re lonely, I’m going to slap them. You have to spend more than 15 minutes a week with them. You have to get dirty. You have to be with them.
In Louisiana I was out with a group and we met a homeless man who was dying from AIDS. They wanted to pray for the guy. They said it would comfort him. I said it’s only going to comfort you. He needs a doctor. If our family is in a car accident we’ll call 911. But if we see a hurting person we pray for them and say God will take care of them, but we don’t take any action ourselves. We use prayer as an excuse to not take action ourselves.
We can’t base our ministry on creating a couple of nice stories. We need to have real results, which is housing and jobs and health services.
You said this recession has shifted you from ministry as a job to ministry as a lifestyle. What do you mean by that?
Mark: The other night I was watching the online service of a church I used to work for. The pastor’s wife was asking everybody to pray over fliers for a new Saturday night service they were going to have. That it’s anointed of God, for God’s favor and all this magic Jesus stuff.
I was a marketing executive there. If the madness hadn’t affected my life, my focus would still be in church marketing. They were praying over fliers to hand out to people like there’s some special anointing when you touch the flier—it’s a gimmick. They’ve been desperate to fill seats and they’re trying desperate things. That was my life. Helping desperate people come up with new gimmicks to trick people into church. If I still stayed at that church, I wouldn’t have been able to be real. It was a toxic work environment with closed communication to protect the king. Sadly, although there are many great churches, there are far more that are lost like this one.
Today my whole focus is what I believe Jesus actually taught, putting myself in the backseat, second to strangers I don’t even know. I was taught wrongly that God is this warm fuzzy feeling. When I feel God, it’s when it’s late at night and I’ve already helped two to three homeless families and I want to go home and I’m hungry and tired. And I get a call to help another homeless family. And I don’t want to, but I do it anyway. I feel God when I discipline myself to give up whatever comfort I wanted to help someone who is more disadvantaged than me. To me that’s real ministry. That’s everything the Bible ever taught.
Oh my gosh, that was my life. It could still be my life. But here I am. I don’t have the same creature comforts I had when I was doing magic Jesus, but I can go to bed knowing there are formerly homeless people who are sleeping inside because I stopped talking and started making things happen.
In the book you say that as the world gets worse we need to get better. Do you think the church has stepped it up in response to the current economic meltdown?
Mark: No. I don’t. What’s happening in the recession is horrible, and we’re only seeing the beginning of it.
We have a silver tsunami coming that’s serious. All the baby boomers are at the retiring age and their 401Ks tanked and they have no health care. In 5-10 years this will be such a crisis. You’ll see more and more wheelchairs on street corners. It’s going to tax the social service system. You’ll see shelters that are designed for seniors.
As I look at all this, it’s bad. It’s worse than anybody wants to talk about. Well what an opportunity for the church. But a Christmas pageant with camels is not going to help a bunch of 60- to 70-year-old people who don’t have money for housing.
Pick up any Christian materials, walk into any Christian bookstore, watch any Christian TV and you can see that we’re still just talking to ourselves.
I really believe the church of tomorrow is going to be a Dream Center type church—housing hundreds of people, feeding hundreds of people. It’s not a perfect model, but there are no perfect models. But that’s why I call the Dream Center my church. They’re trying to get better while this economy gets worse.
We need to stop preaching Revelation and get outside the door. You can still have a Sunday morning service, but it can’t be the main focus.
Ed Young Jr. has a leadership series called Leadership Uncensored. One of the tapes is “It’s About the Weekend, Stupid.” I used to buy that hook line and sinker. That’s wrong, stupid. That’s how you do a business. It’s not how you take care of people. This is where the church doesn’t get it. The church isn’t building a better church. The money we’re spending to be relevant is astronomical. All the things we chase—they’re all gimmicks.
I think the solution is the church, we just need to start loving more than ourselves. We only help other Christians or people we think we can convert. We don’t help people for the sake of helping people, which is what Jesus would do. I believe in the church, but it has to change. Clearly something is wrong, but we keep doing the same stuff.
If we put our priorities on people instead of a pastor on Sunday morning, we might be able to change this world.
I still believe in church, but church is not the answer. It’s what we do outside the building that is.
Thanks Mark. You can purchase a print copy of Open Our Eyes: Seeing the Invisible People of Homelessness from Amazon or buy a digital copy for the Kindle. You can also learn more about InvisiblePeople.tv and follow Mark on Twitter.Photo by Kevin D. Hendricks