John Ashmen's interview in The New Evangelicals

Hardly a day goes by when religion is not in the news, often associated with theocracy, oppression and terrorism. In this book, Marcia Pally rebuts superficial view by offering the this first in-depth look at “new evangelicals”—those who have left the Religious Right for a broadened focus on economic justice, environmental care, and democracy. The far reaching effects of this shift—in the US and abroad—ask us to reconsider religious stereotypes and refine our political thinking.

The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good (2011, Eerdmans Publishing) 
by Marcia Pally

John Ashmen, President, Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, Colorado Springs, Colorado, home to many organizations of the Religious Right.

I live in Colorado Springs, a city of 400,000 people and headquarters for about 120 national and international Christian organizations. Because it has so many ministries, some people refer to the place as the Evangelical Capital of North America. How they all ended up here is an interesting story, but I see the mass gathering as more of an opportunity for synergy than a cause for celebration.

Focus on the Family is probably the most widely known Christian organization in The Springs, as we call it. Focus has a unique niche in the evangelical community, but the agenda of Focus is not necessarily the agenda of the other ministries in town. Quite often I’m asked if my organization vigorously opposes abortion and gay rights the same way Focus does. 

Unfortunately, in the Christian parade, abortion and gay rights have become the two sides of a big bass drum that is beaten so loudly nobody can hear the sweet strands of the gospel. We need to back off on that heavy pounding if we want people on the sidewalks to hear the redeeming melody that is Jesus.

Regarding the paradigm shifts in Christian organizations--denominations, parachurch organizations, and megachurch movements have all had their turns in the driver’s seat of global ministry. Today, ministry is cause driven. And it is youth-led and technology-enhanced. This paradigm shift is befuddling many of the long-standing, heavily structured religious institutions.

What I mean is that you rarely hear people say they are called to foreign missions; you hear them say that they are about AIDS orphans or clean water. And they don’t wait to jump through all of the hoops that the big sending agencies require. They look online to see who’s doing what, Tweet or text their desire to engage, and pull up Priceline to get a cheap ticket to the action.

Another wrinkle in the blanket of Christianity these days that some people can’t seem to iron out is evangelism methodology. Asbury Seminar Professor George Hunter does a great job of contrasting the traditional “Roman style” with the unconventional “Celtic style” in his book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. The Roman style—characterized by presentation, decision, and fellowship—that fit so well with the modern era does not seem to be the preferred method of postmoderns I meet. The Celtic style—characterized by fellowship, worship, and commitment—is seen as not only a normal progression for a 21st-century mind, but something that Jesus himself embraced with His disciples. 

One of the things that makes the Celtic style so compatible with our current culture is that a basic Bible knowledge that most people had thirty years ago—like knowing some of the Ten Commandments, who Jesus was, what the Apostle Paul did—is pretty much non-existent today. Certainly people can come to terms with the claims of Jesus and commit to following him after hearing a simple presentation; it happens all the time. But most folks today need to journey with the gospel for a while—to see how it plays out in the life of someone they trust. The Celtic style has hospitality written all over it: it’s about joining in, observing and even participating in worship, asking questions, making mistakes, really finding out what it means to follow Jesus.

When you think about it, Jesus never asked his disciples to commit to something or sign on a dotted line before he pulled them into his circle. He simply said, “Follow me.” He meant live with me, listen to my words, watch me, try doing what I do. And when you really get my message, my spirit will make it clear to you…and you’ll change the world.

Never before has there been a generation more passionate about changing their world for the better. Today’s young, active followers of Jesus have a deep desire to do something significant and lasting; they simply need to have specific direction and ongoing encouragement.

The things taking a hit because of this exciting fervor are the more traditional church activities. For example, I recently asked a friend whose kids have always attended a well-known Christian camp if his youngest daughter was registering for the next session. He told me, “I can’t get her to go. She says, ‘Dad, I can’t sun myself on the beach and play games and eat all of that food when there are kids my age in Haiti who still don’t have roofs over their heads.’ And she’s 12 years old!”

My friend admits that his daughter is probably getting her cues from a 19-year-old down the street, but she still does a great job championing the message: For some, a Christian camp is no longer a summer option; it’s a moral choice.

At AGRM, we recognize the contagious passion young people have to make a difference in their world. They come from dissimilar backgrounds but collectively feel spiritually mandated social responsibility regarding “the least of these” as described in Matthew 25. We believe their perspectives are valid, and that their energy, wedded with the wisdom of those more experienced, could start a revolution of compassion that would fully awaken the church to action in this critical area of personal conviction.

That’s why we have the vision statement we do: “AGRM will foster and feed a movement of diverse, energetic disciples who will see the practice of hospitality to the destitute as both a catalyst for life transformation in Jesus and a fundamental expression of their Christian faith, thus propelling the church into the lead role in society’s quest to alleviate homelessness.”

The Association of Gospel Rescue Missions has its North American roots in post-Civil War New York City soil. By the time the 20th century rolled around, an informal federation of people helping the destitute and addicted was forged. In 1913, it became formalized as the International Union of Gospel Missions.

Gospel rescue missions have a long history of providing lifelines for those drowning in the waves of adversity and the undertow of addiction. For more than a century, they have been keeping watch on the waterfront of despair, and countless thousands of men, women, and children have been saved in every sense of the word.

Rescue mission used to be about that long line of men winding around the block looking for “three hots and a cot.” They were men—almost always—who were functional at one time, but because of an addiction to drugs or, more often, alcohol, they became dysfunctional. They came to the rescue mission and found redemption in Jesus that led to a reorientation for life. And then with rehabilitation through the mission’s programs, many worked their way back to functionality.

Over the years, rescue missions have also served unemployed veterans, abused runaways, mentally unstable outcasts, the desperately poor, and refugees—basically, all people to whom Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” And now, with the staggering increase in homelessness and so many close to homelessness, rescue missions are constantly busy and needed more than ever before. The single women with children who will be knocking on the door of a rescue mission tonight represent the fastest growing segment of the population seeking services.

AGRM is still North America’s oldest and largest network of independent crisis shelters, and rehabilitation centers offering radial hospitality in the name of Jesus. Currently in AGRM, we have about 275 member missions, representing most of the first- and second-tier cities on the continent. A few of our members are small start-up works in third-tier cities or rural areas that offer just a day shelter and meals, but most are complex, multifaceted operations with short-and long-term addiction recovery programs, job training, transitional housing, and more. On the high end, a mission could have an annual operating budget of $30,000,000 or more. And interestingly, if AGRM’s member missions were one organization, over the past dozen years, the collective annual donations would consistently place it in the top ten charities in America.

AGRM’s missions employ the shelter concept, which isn’t real popular right now, particularly in Washington. The current push is "housing first." Proponents want to forget the continuum of care. They believe that if you just give someone a house, all of his or her issues will eventually get worked out. I believe that if you put a homeless person in a house you get just that: a homeless person in a house. If you don’t address the reason people are homeless—which in many cases, not all, revolve around addictions, limited education and job skills, mental stability—you end up spending major taxpayer dollars with embarrassing results. One of our member mission directors told me about a man who recently graduated from his addiction recovery program. The man use to have a homeless voucher obtained with HUD [US Department of Housing and Urban Development] funding. The mission director asked him how he lost his free housing. He answered, “Well, when you're using crack and you invite your drug dealer to live with you, that's kinda what happens." 

There are no required programs or strings attached to [HUD] homeless vouchers, and authorities have strict limitations regarding checking up on people. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that this plan has some serious problems.

Regarding the challenges of changing AGRM--as you know, with a hundred-year-old organization you have a hundred years of tradition, which isn’t all bad, but also a hundred years of structure, which isn’t all good. Structure upon structure tends to make you rigid and rickety. The AGRM board hired me—the first person to lead the association who had never led a rescue mission—to set a course for future relevance in a sea of complicated societal change.

The image that a lot of people have of a rescue mission is a hundred hung-over men slouching in a chapel while a heavy-handed preacher describes in detail God’s terrible wrath for the wayward. The meatloaf is cooking in the next room—and everybody can smell it—but nobody gets any until after the altar call. Let’s be honest, if someone is hungry and you suggest that they turn to Jesus as part of a prelude to supper, they will gladly turn to Jesus or do jumping jacks or renounce the Red Sox, as long as it means meatloaf for the moment. 

While that image unfortunately still lingers in some minds, a grace-based model is what’s emerging in today’s rescue missions in city after city. The life-changing gospel is still being imparted to the guests, but to guests who have just showered and are wearing fresh, warm clothes and have a full stomach. The image being projected is no longer “repent and then come get something to eat,” even though that was never actually the case. Instead it’s “have something to eat because the God who has given me a deep love for you wants you to be not only physically renewed but also spiritually renewed through his Son, Jesus.” In short, it’s about choosing to play the abundant life card instead of the hell card.

At AGRM we are helping missions rethink quality. For years, organizations that have worked with the poor and have no fees for services—they depend entirely on donations—have found it easy to justify meager facilities. I believe that pious shoddy is still shoddy. Quality is critical. We are putting heavy emphasis into our revised certification program that emphasizes regulatory conformity, cleanliness, best practices, and the like. And it’s starting to pay off. I can take you to rescue missions where the lobby looks like a relative’s very inviting living room, where the accommodations are like an Ivy League college dorm, and where you’ll likely ask for the recipe for dinner’s main course.

Underlying this is a new emphasis on hospitality. I’ve already alluded to this several times. The New Testament church was spread through the ministry of hospitality, and it is something that today’s church needs to reclaim. I’m not talking about entertaining, where you get the carpets shampooed and the furniture dusted and invite somebody from church over for dinner. Entertaining is inviting people into you house. Hospitality is inviting people into your life, and letting them know that no “room” is off limits—what’s yours is theirs. It is only an understanding and practice of radical Christian hospitality that will eventually move the church back to its intended role—a role that will influence the poor, ease the government’s burden, and represent the heart of Jesus.