Building healthy relationships with those we serve in ministry
Back in the early 70s, before Gordon-Conwell had launched the Center for Urban Ministerial Education, their urban extension in Boston, my seminary students were usually only in the city for a year or two, and I was concerned that their relatively brief interaction not be detrimental to urban people for whom trust of outsiders was difficult. I was concerned that the students be able to initiate and carry out a truly redemptive relationship with an urban person and then prepare the person adequately for their departure. In the short time that students would be with people, I didn’t want them to operate paternally, but to really love them.
I wrote out a series of what I called “Steps to Short Term Involvement” to guide the process of building relationships that mattered. The goal of all this was to encourage my students to try not to minister on a deep level to anybody until they fell in love with them and really cared about them.
Some time later, I realized that these steps described the way that God reached out to me through Jesus Christ. As I continued to consider these steps, they seemed to have universal application for building relationships in ministry. I could imagine the Apostle Paul using them. Since they seemed to be broad principles related to the Gospel message itself, I renamed them “The Process of the Gospel.”
The Process of the Gospel
- Positive regard
- Relevant communication
- Meeting perceived needs
- Meeting basic needs
The Process of the Gospel works because it is how God works. Let’s look at each of the steps, consider how God demonstrates each step as he reaches out in love to us, and how we might apply these steps to ministry today, not only in short-term urban involvement, but in any context where we are involved in relationship-building.
God observed for a long time—for thousands of years between the fall and the coming of Christ—before he acted in sending Christ. God had also observed the human condition and sent emissaries such as the prophets to his creation before sending his Son.
Observation is a basic skill we don’t often take the time to develop in our hurried culture. We usually want to act too quickly. People from cultures that are fundamentally relationship-based are more skilled in observation than those of us in the technologically-based Western culture, because people of relational cultures tend to learn from modeling, which requires keen observation. Observation is a great tool in understanding the needs of a community and it aids those involved in community organizing. You may remember that Nehemiah used this skill to great advantage in preparing to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. It is a humble skill; anyone can do it. No college degrees are needed. But it challenges the greatest intellect to assimilate and make sense out of what one really sees.
So in a situation pregnant with counterproductivity, we should first observe, or, in a sense, “study” the situation. We need to see the real people in the way they really operate. Observation is the beginning of any real ministry.
We are also the objects of observation! If we want to be a force in our communities, we need to be seen in the real world. I heard of someone who said, “I don’t see no preachers in the grocery store”, implying, “Are these people for real? Are they like me? Where are they?”
Let me take that critique and set up a hypothetical ministry example of a woman we will call “Mary.” To reach “Mary”—a lady who needs to buy shoes for her five-year-old, and who is a key person in her community—means that I should live in her neighborhood and shop at the corner store. Observation has to be done from within her context. We will get back to Mary in a moment.
Positive Regard or Positive Appreciation
The Son of God came because he loved the world. Despite our fallenness, we are loved by him. God sent his Son not merely because God felt sorry for these poor fallen creatures, but because he really loved them!
Having positive appreciation for the context in which one does ministry is a basic way to minimize counterproductivity and maximize productivity. The model for positive appreciation is God who “so loved the world.” Thus, don’t start working with people as a minister until you respect them, and until—in the highest sense of the word—you fall in love with them.
When we first moved into the city, we took some street youth into our home. They all had criminal records—a long history of “B&Es” (criminal charges of “breaking and entering”)—but they were very honest. One night as we were sitting around, one of them confessed for about an hour all the worst things he had every done. Then, when he finished he turned to me, “Okay, Doug, your turn!” This self-confessed thief was more honest than I was!
We became very close friends with a Muslim man from Bangladesh, even though our faiths were very different. We eagerly preached to each other, but we respected each other. When shopping together, we would park our car pointing east in the shopping center lot when it was time for him to say his prayers. He eventually became so impressed with our work that he wanted to start a Muslim “Emmanuel Gospel Center” in Bangladesh! Our goodbye at the airport was a very intense embrace, evoking tears from people around us. No, as far as I know, he didn’t become a Christian, but we had experienced the first step; we both loved each other.
The rule of thumb is this: you need to really care about people or don’t try to reach them with your message or your service. If you really care about people, whoever you are working with will sense that and, even when you make mistakes—for you will make them—they will forgive you because they know you care about them. But if you are paternalistic toward them, and do not humble yourself, they will pick that up very quickly and will long remember your mistakes.
So also, we don’t try to help people or relate to them in some kind of ministry without first caring for them and caring for their environment positively. If God was not acting out of purely paternal motivations when he sent his Son to first-century Palestine, how much less are we justified in taking such an approach?
This would mean getting to know and appreciating Mary, the woman mentioned above, and seeing her role in the community. Actually, we cannot do the next steps in this process properly until we honestly, and with some real knowledge about her, care about Mary. Even if you later unintentionally offend her, if you really love her first, she will find a way to forgive you because she knows you really care properly about her.
Jesus communicated constantly during his three-year ministry. He spoke with common people, with his disciples, and with religious leaders. In this step of relevant communication, the Messiah became incarnate in the real world. His communication was so effective that some people, whose lives were not pleasing God and whose positions were threatened by Christ, wanted to kill him. Others, common people with all their problems, swarmed to see and hear him. It became impossible for him to eventually go for a time into more populated areas because of the attention he received (Mark 3:7-10).
Jesus, as the “good shepherd” (John 10), poignantly shows us the value of true “positive regard” and “relevant communication.”
Speaking the same language is not all that is involved in relevant communication. In some cases, it doesn't mean too much. Judy and I don't speak Spanish, but we have plenty of friends who do. Once we introduced a couple in our neighborhood to a single Latina woman we had met at a church in another part of the city. The five of us met at the couple's home for a Puerto Rican meal and fellowship. It seemed like everyone was communicating and fellowshipping just fine. We thought we understood what was going on, with our limited language skills. Later, privately, the couple and the woman had the same response to our shared evening. "That woman you brought over is not a Christian!" our friends said. And, "That couple we went to see are not Christians!" the single woman told us. We had introduced these people to each other because we had found all three of them to be sincere Christians and we thought they would enjoy each other's fellowship. Relevant communication had not occurred between them. In their case, theological and class issues clouded their ability to communicate. Speaking the same language fluently did not aid them in achieving essential levels of communication and trust.
Relevant communication is achieved when what you think you are saying to someone is being perceived as you intended it, and when you hear what they intend to say. As you achieve relevant communication, real perceptions and needs can be shared. People will feel safe enough to tell you what they really think. Don’t be afraid to hear negative comments; it can be a sign that they trust you enough to share them. The relationship must be honest. If you know it will be a short-term relationship, make that clear from the start so there are no illusions. This will also help the person prepare for your leaving.
Communication here involves knowing what common people are saying and, to a degree, what they are thinking, and then carefully using stories and other techniques to communicate clearly to them. It means listening so that what you are hearing is really what people are intending to say, and speaking so what others are hearing is what you intend for them to hear. Thus, you should not pass this step until you 1) truly care about the people you will serve, and 2) come to the place where you really understand what they are saying and they understand you.
My friend Dick Germaine often says, “You can’t say ‘I agree’ or ‘I disagree’ until you can say ‘I understand.’”
Ministering to Mary in depth means the two of you will talk together about each other’s struggles and situations so that each is really hearing what the other is saying. I hope this goes without saying, but if this sort of sharing is done across the sexes, this must be done very carefully, of course, so there are no mixed messages. Do not give a foothold for Satan!
Meeting Perceived Needs
Jesus met the needs of people through his many miracles. John testifies that those he wrote about are true, and says of the many other miracles Jesus did: “If every one of them were written down…the whole world would not have room” for them (John 21:25). Yes, Jesus was the Messiah who came to provide the basic need for redemption, but first he met the many needs the people were concerned about. Even Christ, who as the all-knowing God knew what people really and most fundamentally needed, first spent a great deal of time meeting people’s perceived needs, the needs that they sensed they had. Remember him asking someone obviously blind, “What do you want me to do for you?” Christ’s healings and miracles are a beautiful example of meeting perceived needs.
The groundwork for spiritual work is done in the meeting of perceived needs. We worked for seven years alongside our neighbors to build adequate low-income housing in our South End neighborhood that produced an integrated community. After that was done, twenty churches were planted out of the neighborhood, where previously it had been difficult to plant one. Do you see how the Process of the Gospel steps can help us be better aligned with people and with what God is doing before we take our action?
Meeting a perceived need that someone has shared with you is a beautiful opportunity to deepen your relationship with the person, but be sure to choose carefully the need you will meet. Make sure it is something you can do or that can be done, and then pull out all the stops and make sure it happens. People whose hope has been often shattered do not need another broken dream. It is further very important, after hearing them, to choose to meet a need that it is possible to meet, and to meet it thoroughly together with their help. It is in this action that hope is built in people to even think later about more basic needs.
So, we should not begin with our conception of the needs which we sense people have. Rather, we should realize that our all-knowing God started with the perceived needs of people, so who are we to start with our own perception of their needs? Proper communication is crucial to even understanding people’s perceived needs.
Meeting a person’s perceived needs may take many forms. In the case of Mary, it may mean going shopping together for children’s school clothes, or giving her a ride to the shoe outlet store, possibly exchanging used clothing between your child and hers. If she has a perceived need for friends and you are part of an indigenous local church, you can invite her.
Meeting Basic Needs
Christ’s death on the cross procured our most basic need: redemption. For Christ, “meeting our basic need” meant going to the cross and through his substitutionary atonement achieving victory over sin and making it available to a lost and fallen people. He went to the cross to provide the redemptive answer; all other redemptive activities are at best symbols of what he did.
In meeting basic needs, you will be dealing with core answers that may solve many other related needs or problems for persons, including, but not exclusively, their need for salvation. Too often, evangelicals begin here, but doing this in a hit-and-run way may produce very brief and incomplete results.
Ultimately, we too bring that basic and fundamental answer to people, the one answer that will be the basis for solving all others, salvation which is thoroughly redemptive!
Your friend Mary can now listen to the message because it is coming through someone she knows, and so she hears it clearly, in her own context. If she has come with you to a local indigenous church, then hearing the Gospel and responding and being nurtured in a body of believers who are much like herself, or where she feels accepted, is a natural process.
Multiplication: Leave So It Multiplies
In John 14, Christ said that his followers would do “greater works” (KJV) than he did. It did not all end with Christ’s departure; rather, that’s when it all began! Christ rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and then the Holy Spirit came and brought internal spiritual life to every believer and to the church that then emerged. That multiply-growing church that resulted from Christ’s leaving had internal life.
As a complex, interrelated, living organism (Rom. 12 and 1 Cor. 12), the church became the ultimate learning environment. The various forms it took were created by the believers as the church grew. It was not prescribed. No elaborate instructions were given the church, in contrast to Old Testament regulations given for worship in the temple. New Testament worship was not about manufacturing the parts of a temple building, but about giving birth. Life is multiplied by birth; birth is how all living systems multiply in our world.
Churches and ministry organizations that are run by living social systems give birth to offspring which then, in turn, give birth to others with the same birthing potential. Birth happens when vital developments interact and produce an offspring that can also reproduce. The birthing process rapidly produces multiplication. What is alive has life internal to it, while man’s technological constructs have only external life. Many typical organizations manufacture products that exist for a time, but they do not have the capacity to give birth. Sometimes the programs that churches use are like manufactured products. Without life, they cannot give birth. But when vital people interact with other vital situations, this can produce birth.
Like Christ, we should be able to envision the “greater things” being done by those we disciple. If it all falls apart when we leave, that doesn’t show how important we were, but how unimportant! This process, then, leads the person reached to follow the same pattern with others and the cycle continues. As it goes full circle, the reached become those who reach others. Multiplication is an indigenous growth process.
One goal in leaving is to leave in such a way that life comes out of the people that you are working with, so they start reaching people you could never reach. Then you have begun a birthing process; then the leaving process produces results. Win people who will win people. Plant churches that will plant churches. Plant seminaries, perhaps in the sense of contextualized practitioner ministry training schools, that will plant seminaries. As you follow this pattern, you will be part of the living system dynamic, part of the way God is building his Kingdom.
Mary is now reaching out to other people with the same message she has heard. She has been nurtured in a local indigenous church, and there is a base of faith that is larger and stronger than just herself; thus there is more potential for her to bear much fruit. We have often found that new converts have the potential of reaching far more people than the older Christian who has few, if any, close non-Christian friends. Mary can and may in the end reach more people who are like her than you will, because she will have already done steps 1-5 of the Process of the Gospel for many years in her own people network.
The Process of the Gospel in larger systems
The Process of the Gospel works. When we do this process enough, it becomes intuitive and works at all levels, from the very personal to working with very large social systems. The total process continues to operate outwardly in a concentric development.
We begin as Jesus did in the Gospels, ministering to those all around us. Following this personal development with people, we can continue to use the Process of the Gospel in concentric development outward—such as we see in the book of Acts—to our church or to an ethnic group to many groups and even to an entire city and then a region. This process is successful because it helps us work in the living system of a person, a church, or an entire city.
Here’s how the steps look on this larger scale:
- We observe the church or the city.
- We develop positive regard for the church or the city.
- We have relevant communication with the church or the city.
- We work with the church and the city to meet perceived needs.
- On the basis of meeting perceived needs we begin to more and more address the basic needs of a church or the city.
- When basic needs are met, the process should multiply so that others in the church and city do it as well.
Let me briefly introduce this idea by showing how I have seen this at work in two of the bulleted areas.
We observe the church or the city
When my wife and I came to Boston in 1964, and began to ask God how to serve him effectively in the city, we did a lot of observing. Not all of this was casual, but much was intentional. For example, in 1969, my wife and our colleague, Chet Young, drove down every street in Boston spotting churches and placing them on a map, because we wanted to understand what was at hand, what God had already done across the city. At that time we found about 300 churches. Intentional applied research and observation eventually became such an important part of our pattern that in 1997, when Rev. Brian Gearin joined our staff to work in the area of economic development, a ministry area in which he had many years of experience in the Philippines, we insisted that he not start any new program until he spent six months observing, studying what others were doing in Boston, networking, talking with pastors, and getting to know the city. Only then, after this period of observation, was he able to launch an effective program in close partnership with others already at work in Boston.
We work with the church and the city to meet perceived needs
There have been many ways we have worked with the city to meet perceived needs. When pastors asked staff at our bookstore if we knew of any building space where their churches could meet, we worked with dozens of newly planted and growing churches to help develop shared space partnerships. When research showed that most young urban people were not going to college, including Christian colleges, and those that were going struggled to succeed, we worked with churches and community groups to start church-based higher education guidance and tutoring centers for high school students and worked with colleges to develop plans for helping urban students succeed. When research showed there was only one full-time youth pastor among Boston’s 500 plus churches in 1995, and those part-time and volunteer youth workers were in danger of burnout, we worked with others to discover the reasons and to develop programs to help urban churches establish and grow effective youth programs by supporting youth workers. When Pastor Soliny Védrine observed in the 1980s that the new Haitian churches and pastors springing up in Boston were not interrelating, he established a yearly luncheon for Haitian pastors and their wives, a meeting that continues today and from which has sprung many opportunities for shared ministry among and between Haitian churches in Boston, across New England, and now across the Haitian Diaspora, including a separate organization, the Fellowship of Haitian Evangelical Pastors of New England.
There is much more we could say about applying these steps to larger systems, but I hope these few examples will inspire your thinking as you pursue redemptive relationship building not only with individuals you serve, but also with churches, cities, communities, and other larger living systems.
(This article was previously published in the Emmanuel Research Review, Issue No. 42, November-December, 2008. This text does not appear in The Cat and the Toaster, but the teaching is referenced on p. 331.)