How to Have Gospel Conversations with Torn Up People
There I was with my cup of coffee, peering out my living room window, watching my neighbor collect the morning paper. He was wearing his trademark white tank top and holding his first beer of the day.
We had moved into one of those gentrifying neighborhoods that were common in the early 2000’s, and two doors down was a Section 8 house. Living in this house was a needy family whom I could pray would move or with whom I could have gospel conversations. Honestly, I did both.
On Tuesday evenings in that same living room a group of young families would meet for a Bible study. They were all young professionals, the predominant demographic of the church where I served as an associate pastor.
TRYING TO INTEGRATE TWO WORLDS
I struggled to find ways to integrate my two worlds. My neighbors were materially and spiritually needy. My Bible study was only spiritually needy. Step one of my integration plan was to host a barbeque where everyone was invited—from both worlds.
At first there was not much mingling between the two groups, but eventually my neighbor collected a bunch of us and began to tell his story. He shared with us how he did time. He told us that the woman he was living with was not his wife, but a girlfriend. He relayed that his wife, who was locked away in prison, did not like the idea of him having a girlfriend, but “A man has got to do what a man has got to do.” He went on to tell stories of drugs, drinking, and poverty.
His was a story about the poverty of the soul, and it was dangerous for those of us who were listening. Our churches feel safe when we address material poverty, but this was more than material. We would rather write the check, donate food, or hand out sandwiches than engage in the mess of someone else’s story. Yet that evening, my neighbor was transformed in my mind from a Section 8 neighbor to a man who was poor in spirit. Helping him required more than a handout, it required a relationship. But how could we connect? I had never been in prison, never had a mistress on the side. There seemed to be nothing that I had in common with him other than our address.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I shared more than an address with my neighbor: I am poor in spirit, and I too search for redemption. We were both participating in the story that all of us experience, at least in part: the biblical narrative of Creation, Fall, and the search for Redemption. The search for redemption from our personal fall fills our music, literature, television, film, and sports. It defines our lives, yet rarely do we actually look to Jesus for our redemption.
UNDERSTANDING OUR NEIGHBORS’ STORIES THROUGH A BIBLICAL LENS
As we develop a Creation, Fall, and Redemption framework for understanding of our lives, we learn to connect our story with our neighbors’ stories. As a result, we learn to establish the foundations of transformative gospel conversations.
- Creation: Try to pick a moment of “creation,” or new beginning, in your life. It can be a monumental event like marriage, the birth of a child, or even getting a new iPhone. It can also be each new day, relationship with a boss, a hobby, or an athletic activity.
- Fall: At some point, that new thing disappointed you. It broke or you broke it. How? What pain did it bring? What suffering?
- Redemption: It is following the break, disappointment, or hurt that the key question arises: where did you look to redeem the disappointment? Perhaps you looked to a new relationship. Or maybe an inappropriate relationship, or food, or anger, or violence, or escape, or a bigger and better ____ (fill in the blank).
As you think through this process, you might begin to see a cycle emerge. That thing that we seek redemption in becomes our “new creation.” And when that redeeming new creation is not Christ, our “new creation” will always lead to another fall.
When I see my and my neighbor’s life through this lens, I suddenly have something in common with him. I can actually relate to him. When I experience pain or disappointment, I may not choose alcohol at 8:00 in the morning, but I have chosen baseball and anger. And “redemption-less” redeemers have disappointed me too many times to count.
PRACTICAL STEPS FOR GOSPEL CONVERSATIONS
After connecting our stories through this narrative we can use a modified version of the relationship framework “Love, Know, Speak, Do” (developed by the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation) as steps to cultivate gospel conversations with the needy.
- Love: Because Christ first loved us, we can love others, including the needy. Do you pray for a heart that loves the needy?
- Know: This simply involves finding ways to listen to someone’s story. Maybe it’s a random conversation that they begin, or maybe it starts with your own thoughtful questions. People have a deep desire to be known. Can you listen?
- Love: After we hear their story, our willingness to stay there, talk with them, and be excited the next time we see them are all signs of love. We may be the first person not to walk away from them and their story.
- Speak: This is where we can share our story and unite with them in the longing for redemption. Tell them about your falls and your searches for redemption. Gospel conversations will often include such sharing. The needy should hear from us that we do not always look for redemption in Christ (though these conversations must point to the saving work of Christ).
- Do: Walk with them to help them choose better and more Christ-like responses to their falls. Now we have a conversation that can last a long, long time.
Gospel conversations with the needy will become possible as we see our need and often-wayward search for our own redemption. These conversations will then flow out of our experience that Jesus employs a “love, know, love, speak, and do” model of relationship with us.
Now it is time for all of us to consistently practice what Christ models for us!