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“I want to start a community group,” I said. “There are still a lot of people in need, and starting a support group seems appropriate.”
“I have some literature that could help you,” the pastor replied. “Want me to send it?” I agreed, with the promised literature arriving in my inbox moments later. I began to look through it.
That’s when I cringed: it was all related to starting a Bible-study group.
I didn’t have a problem with the subject (obviously), and I certainly had no problem with the structure. It was simple, straightforward, and easy to implement.
Nonetheless, I cringed. I cringed for the single mother, the depressed college student, the struggling addict, the abused believer, and many more examples. Even if I could gather enough people to form a group, these people would likely not come back.
And if you don’t understand why this would happen, then this post is for you.
The Lesson of First Responders
It’s not a question of what we are studying, or how we are studying it, but when we are studying it. And in my observation, the timing of many Christians is way, way off.
Let’s say you’re driving on a rural road, and you witness a car accident, one severe enough to cause injury. What do you do? Do you stop, get out, and rush to the assistance of those in need? Many would, first asking if everyone is okay before turning off the ignition, calling or flagging for help, and so on.
If you’re like many, your assistance would be limited. Unless you are a trained emergency responder or medical professional, there isn’t much you can do, other than call for help.
If you’re a Christian, you could pray for the victims. You may even take the hand of someone and pray with him or her. (S)he likely won’t object: a victim in a life-or-death situation will often take any and all help they can get.
Do you know when they would object? If you are an emergency responder! In that situation, taking someone’s hand and praying with them is going to earn you the honest response of where you can stuff your prayers. Your responsibility is not to pray because you are an answer to the prayers offered by others!
In other words, the timing is all wrong. It’s not what is done or how it is done, but when it is done.
Starting off a newly gathered group of believers with a Bible study is another cringe-worthy example of poor timing.
Illustrating this is easy at the time of this writing. The nation is coming to the end of a pandemic, one causing widespread suffering for many. Asking if someone is injured is likely to cause some eye-rolls, depending on where you are. “Who here is not injured!?” they may reply.
This is in addition to the state of our nation and our communities before the pandemic began. Millions upon millions were (and still are) suffering from a host of problems, ranging from health problems, to psychological disorders, to sociological challenges. Who isn’t injured in our world today?
In this environment, our primary concerns should not be their level of Biblical knowledge, just as it is not appropriate to pray for them just yet: we don’t know enough about them to engage in either study or prayer.
Instead, our primary concern should be the same as someone fully expecting to arrive on the scene of an accident. “Have you been injured?” “Do you need help?” “Who can I call for you?”
In other words, our primary concern is to love them.
Right Message; Wrong Messenger
Much of the gospel’s rejection is due to the fruit of the one presenting it, not the message itself.
Why should anyone care about anything we have to say? Is it because we have the “right” religion? So did the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, a group of theologically trained leaders for whom Jesus had some choice words (see Matthew 23).
Is it because we have many followers? So does Joel Osteen, a man who serves up pastry-teaching to a diabetic congregation.
Is it because one of us graduated from seminary? Paraphrasing St. James, show me your faith through what you know, and I’ll show you my faith by what I do.
Is it because our message contains the word “love?” You’re getting warmer, but loving another (as well as loving God) is something we do, not just something we read and repeat while standing on a platform.
That love begins from the moment we extend our hand (or our elbow) to someone else in greeting. In this environment, the appropriate greeting is not saying “Hello!” with a toothy smile before passing out a Bible tract.
Instead, we need to be leading with questions. “Have you been injured?” “Do you need help?” “Who can I call for you?” If we don’t live what we profess to believe, then we should probably put our Bibles away, lest we slander the Lord through our behavior.
I know what many will say. “We love our neighbor too!” Perhaps, but in my experience, many are terrible at it. And one reason is because they have an agenda. “Gotta study the Bible,” which includes ensuring that everyone receives today’s lesson, whether it is relevant to that person’s suffering or not.
When you lead with love instead of the book, you discover…
- The single mother’s child-care struggles, preventing her from attending a Bible study.
- The college student’s depressive fog, interfering with comprehension of the Bible.
- The cravings screaming in the ear of the addict, competing with the message of the Bible.
- The trauma of the abused at the hands of religion, of which your Bible-study is eerily similar to the environment where they experienced their abuse.
…and you now have an opportunity to demonstrate what you claim to have, before you point to the source.
For those in practice, you know identifying these struggles is not as simple as pointing to blood from a gushing wound. It takes time for people to trust one another before opening up about their personal challenges (assuming they even know what they are). The only way you can discover and address these barriers is by setting aside your agenda and stepping forward with compassion.
“Have you been injured?” “Do you need help?” “Who can I call for you?”
How do you know when you’re loving well? When you have little time left over for a pre-planned lesson or conversation. The needs are many, and the workers are few (Lk 10:2).
If you become skilled at loving others (Is 58), you will eventually hear a few questions in return. “How do you do this?” “Why do you do it for me?”
“Glad you asked,” you will reply, as you reach for the Bible you tucked away, this time without cringing.
When you’re in the harvest, timing is everything.