Going Deeper With People

We elders are called to rise above our own personal reaction to people’s outward presentation of themselves and go deeper in trying to understand and minister to them. Yet, as human beings, we are so limited by the external, whether it be a person’s appearance, personality, social status, financial resources or past interactions and behaviors. It is so easy for an elder to assume a pseudo-spiritual posture, “Of course I treat everyone the same.” But the reality, if we are honest, is that this is sometimes not the case. Preferential treatment to somebelievers and inconsistent attention to allbelievers create an integrity issue for shepherds of God’s people. I have seen it in others and I have seen it in my own life. We are so easily drawn to some people and not to others—on a superficial basis.

The Lord speaks directly to this and as leaders we absolutely must model this behavior andattitude in James 2:1-9. We are to go below the outwardly observable appearance of things, because our judgments based on the superficial will more times than not be dead wrong.

Examples from the hockey world

I was chaplain for a local professional ice hockey team for a number of years and discovered how easy it is to be fooled by the outward appearance. Ministering to them is similar to ministry in the local church. By faith, I know professional athletes have spiritual and emotional needs inwardly, but you wouldn’t think that when they are on the ice banging away at each other.

Contrary to common perceptions, most pro players I have met can be gentlemen and very polite. We have had many in our home and know that first-hand. One even played classical piano music! He came to most of our chapel services.

Another was outgoing, friendly, gregarious—and a Christian. People were drawn to him for he was very likable.

Let me describe some others. One was six foot four inches tall and rugged, with a somewhat hardened look about him. The first time he came to chapel, sitting at the opposite end of the table with a scowl on his face, he asked straightforwardly, “How do you know Jesus was really God?” I figured he was just trying to nail me with an argument. My answer didn’t change the look on his face, and didn’t seem to convince him. I invited him to lunch one day, and discovered he had trusted Christ as a young boy, but that no one ever followed up on him when he moved away to play hockey in another town. His live-in girl friend was raised in a Christian home, where her father, who was a leader in the church, ran off with another woman in the congregation. This young man, it turns out, was genuinely interested in learning more about the faith he once experienced.

Another player met me in the hallway one day outside the locker room. He was the “enforcer” for the team, the one who fights against the other team’s enforcer to protect his own teammates. He was new to the team, I had not met him before. With chiseled body and face covered with welts from the previous game, he stopped in front of me and glared straight in my eye, about 12 inches from my face—he said nothing, not even a blink. Other players milling about stopped to watch. He was known as a trouble maker, not very well liked because of his wild, undisciplined life off and on the ice.

The atmosphere was tense. Looking down at his clenched fist raised up to stomach level, I silently prayed for help! I must have been motivated at that point by the Spirit, for without thinking I formed a fist with my hand and brought it down to hit the top of his fist playfully, just like a fellow might do with his friend. He then did the same to me, smirked, then walked off! I let out a sigh of relief. A short while later he showed up at the chapel service. He sat quietly until the end, then lingered around, obviously wanting to talk. I invited him out to lunch and for 90 minutes, he told me about his life, failed marriage and a six year old son he hadn’t seen in 2 years. He was hurting. And he said he was tired of making a living by fighting. Underneath the unlikable, hardened fighter image was a man who was struggling with deeper things of life.

Another player, was clearly the sort who was the “big man on campus” in his college days. He carried this into the pro ranks, strutting around, flirting with the women (he was married). He had a way of making you feel he was doing you a favor by talking with you. He wouldn’t let me get past the exterior, so I don’t know the real person underneath. Something in me wanted to write him off because of the arrogant attitude. But, like the others, I am sure there is a story behind the face, a human heart and a soul.

Hockey players are humans who struggle with real issues in their lives, which is often covered over by the surface things. We may be drawn to some, but not to others, and in the process miss out on the real person underneath each one. The same is true in the church.

Application to the church

Despite external appearances, most people struggle with various issues of life—and the Great Shepherd wants to minister to them. As under-shepherds, we need to get below the surface with people to find out where they are in their spiritual life and walk. We simply cannot settle for increasing the volume of doctrinal teaching or pounding the pulpit harder and expect profound, real change in people’s lives by some sort of spiritual symbiosis. We need to get to really know them.

To put it another way, we cannot afford to allow ourselves to be drawn to some people to the neglect of others, based on external criteria. Some are wealthy, some are poor; some are great conversationalists, some stutter; some handle themselves well in social settings, others do not. Some are of a “higher” social status, others of a “lower” status in society. Some may have “grated” you wrong at some point in the past, others may have always complimented you. Some pray in a very flowery way using all the “right” words, others stumble along awkwardly. As elders, we are called to shepherd them all, even ones we don’t personally “like.”

How can we do that? Here are some steps to consider:

Honest self evaluation

First of all, some self-evaluation is in order. As an elder, ask yourself the following:

  • Do those with money in my local church get preferential treatment over others?
  • Do some voices carry more weight with me because they are louder or more repetitious?
  • Do I look for “good pray-ers” (eloquent of speech) to pray at important events?
  • Do I spend more time on Sunday mornings (or any other meeting times) with certain people in my social-economic level?
  • Do I ever meet with others for lunch or coffee, or visit in their homes just to find out how they are doing?
  • Do I secretly feel that my status in the world translates into status in the church?
  • Do I cover up my partiality with biblical-sounding rationale?
  • Do I delegate ministry responsibilities based on externals, rather than on spiritual-giftedness?

Personal Visits

In one local church the elders regularly visit believers in their homes, dividing up the congregation between them (see Knowing the Flock Through Visitation,ESN Vol 1 No 4).

During meetings of the Church

In one church, the deacons took the initiative to relieve the elders of their Sunday morning “service oriented” duties in order to free them to shepherd the flock, greeting, talking, praying with, and just spending time with the people. Nothing is more encouraging to the believers than to see an elder off to the side praying with someone.

Small Group Ministry

Consider small group ministry, following the example of the early church, as a way to get to know the believers on a more personal level. Small groups give elders an opportunity to get to know others below the surface (see Small Group Ministry, Vol. 3 Nos. 3-6). Indeed, it is difficult to know them when the only contact comes from casual interaction in large group settings.

The bottom line is that to shepherd God’s people, we mustgo deeper. This takes time, energy and sacrifice. Otherwise, we are left with evaluating their spiritual needs based on the superficial. But the effort to reach deeper with people is rewarded with the joy of ministering to them in their real need.