See and Befriend

October 23rd, 2013

Jesus sent out his disciples as “salt” and “light,” to befriend and minister to people on their turf and to make more disciples among all people. Paul said that we are “ambassadors for Christ”; God’s appeal is mediated through us.

Many Christians, in many generations, “got it.” Early Christians ministered to people, spread the gospel, and planted house churches in cities east and west. In the second and third centuries, urban Christians loved their neighbors, gossiped the gospel and, at considerable risk to themselves, ministered to sick people during epidemics. Eighteenth-century Methodism, likewise, took ministry to the neighborhoods and hospitals.

In the nineteenth century, C. T. Studd led a mission movement, announcing, “Most Christians stay within the sound of church and chapel bell; I would rather run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” More recently, lay armies have proliferated an incredible range of “outreach ministries”; of these, recovery ministries are the most visible.

But most churches have been AWOL in recent years. They have circled the wagons to protect their people from secular influences. Gripped by a ghetto mentality, they homeschool their kids, exercise at the church, shop with Christian merchants only, socialize with Christians only, and plan to retire in a community for Christian retirees only.

They have not completely forgotten the secular community around them. Their cars may play “witness” by displaying Christian bumper stickers. Their judicatories may pass resolutions on behalf of poor people or ethnic minority people—but without engaging them, or entering their world.

Once we could assume the church’s presence in the community. Today, when I suggest in field seminars that we reenter “the harvest,” people’s eyes glaze over. They typically ask what this would even look like. I find myself responding from experiences with two subcultures—the “muscle crowd” and the “mentalists.”

As a teenager, I pursued both “pumping iron” and performing as a magician. I discovered that both the body-building and magic-show populations are essentially secular people; they’ve never been substantially influenced by the Christian faith, although they are sometimes (very) nominal Christians who can tell you the name of the church they stay away from! The differences between the two groups are notable.

While everyone who lifts weights in a health club is an individual, the more hard-core they are, the more they have in common. As in my case, inferiority feelings may have first driven them to the gym. They may be more narcissistic than the population at large. They are certainly more “macho” than guys in general; their workout apparel from (say) “Intimidation Clothing” serves as a clue. Steroid abuse seems common; early deaths are not uncommon.

They believe in their folk wisdom more than in any scholarship. They learn to train from each other, not from exercise science. Likewise, they live their lives more informed by self-help gurus than by any serious psychology, philosophy, or theology. So the lifters in the Pain and Gain film declare, “Believe that you deserve it, and the universe will serve it!”

By contrast, mentalists may be rooted in nineteenth-century spiritualism, or in the “ESP” paradigm catalyzed by J. B. Rhine’s 1930s research at Duke. From either (or both) of these roots, many mentalists are skeptics. They have quick minds but seldom profound minds; their worldview is often scripted by pop science. Some are fundamentalists-turned-inside-out. Beneath the bluff, they are always interesting people; many of them have experienced personal tragedy.

From my involvement with these two populations, I have some insights about befriending almost any population.

  1. Recall that God’s prevenient grace precedes you.
  2. Be genuinely interested in other people and in what they do. (If stamp collecting is not your thing, don’t go there!)
  3. Read what they read; be sufficiently informed to fit in as one of them.
  4. Begin where they are—with their language, their needs and issues, and whatever they already know that you can build on.
  5. Get into conversation with them. Do more listening than talking.
  6. Record your insights.
  7. Opportunities for ministry will surface—regularly but unpredictably.
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