This week we asked our bloggers to describe a failure or difficulty encountered in ministry.
There are some lessons it seems like I have to learn over and over again, including, what I have come to call, the #1 rule of evangelism: Meet them where they are.
I did not learn this rule from Presbyterians, but from Baptists — the kind of Baptists who understood that “If you build it, they will come” is just as ineffective a strategy as “Beat them over the head with your Bible.” Instead, their number one rule was, “Meet them where they are.” You could take this literally — as in, stop building programs designed to attract, get out of your church building and go meet some people in the real world — but it is really meant to be a spiritual statement.
Last year one of the young women in our youth group started bringing two of her friends to church with her. This was not — as you might hope — because she was so eager to share God’s love with her friends. It was because she hated coming to church and this was the compromise she had made with her grandparents. These newcomers had little to no experience with church, God or the Bible. They came because the McDonalds next door had good Wi-Fi and because they had fun listening to music together from shared headphones while I was trying to teach them about Jesus.
My experienced youth group leaders insisted that we try to rid them of their headphones, which was clearly the correct adult thing to do. But sometimes I am bad at being an adult and so, not having the heart to demand a higher standard of behavior when I wouldn’t have minded listening to some music myself, I ended up coming down to their level. I asked them what they were listening to, I learned about their favorite music, looked at their favorite anime drawings and was introduced to several new iPhone games along the way. We kept asking them to put their phones away during Sunday school and they kept rolling their eyes — so I ignored the phones and started rolling my eyes back and teasing them just like they teased one another.
Slowly they opened up and began asking for prayers during our sharing time and telling us about their struggles at school. The next year that friend who originally brought them to church moved away. I was so disappointed! Not only was I going to miss her, but I was sure we would lose the company of all three of them right when we were starting to make some progress.
Boy was I wrong! The first Sunday of the fall one of those two girls showed up, gave me a big hug and began to tell me how she was still going to come to Sunday school and youth group… and in fact she was joining the church choir as well!
Then it happened: I started hearing comments from the choir folks about how it bothered them that she didn’t dress properly and didn’t seem to know church etiquette. I felt my patience snap. Didn’t they get how big of a miracle this was? Didn’t they understand how hard I had worked to get past those prickly teenage defenses? This was what we had been praying for and now they didn’t like it because it didn’t look the way they expected it to. My protective mamma bear came out — if they chased away this girl who had come to trust me to make this place safe for her I swore there would be hell to pay.
It was then that I realized I had done it again. I had come so far with this young woman by refusing to judge her — by choosing to see the interesting and funny person underneath it all. Yet I was failing to do the same for my own people. I was judging them instead of meeting them where they were. I had forgotten that their hearts are just as fragile and their anxiety just as real as any teenager’s. I had forgotten that number one rule: Meet them where they are.
The number one rule of evangelism isn’t any magic program or fancy outreach. It is building relationships of trust, one person at a time – and it is just as important inside the church as it is on the outside.
CAITLIN THOMAS DEYERLE is pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband James, their cat Calvin, and a very rebellious puppy named Molly.