Lessons from a Back Porch in a Bad Neighborhood
I once stood on the back porch of a run-down home in a neighborhood your realtor wouldn’t even take you to. (Trust me.) I was the leader of an evangelistic outreach ministry, and I was with a college freshman I was mentoring. I wonder now if we were talking to a middle-aged prostitute… After many years of trying to understand, I never did fully grasp the world of that neighborhood. I’m sure I got laughed at for missing obvious cues. Anyway, one obvious fact I didn’t miss was that this woman had substance abuse in her past—and probably her present.
Thankfully, the eighteen-year-old I was with knew just what to do to help her: he rattled off a bunch of KJV memory verses from the Romans Road at 100 mph.
He made no effort to see if she knew what “commendeth” meant. He offered no illustration to explain “the wages of sin.” He started sentences with conjunctions (“But,” “For,” “Therefore”) that made no sense without the rest of their scriptural context. He never let the woman get a word in edgewise (not that she tried; she was intently studying the wood-grain patterns at her feet) or asked her a single question before the clincher, at speeds now reaching those of the Micro-Machines commercial guy: “If-you-died-today-where-would-you-go?”
Any one of these communication sins by itself would not be so bad, but taken together they managed to communicate the reverse of what he (should have) intended.
Now, he was nervous. He wasn’t experienced in giving the gospel to people. His inner AWANA from the 1990s was kicking in. He was just being human. That’s why he needed a mentor.
What does a mentor say in such a situation? I wouldn’t say, “Don’t quote Scripture to people,” of course. I think his chipmunk-speed-narration of the Elizabethan English was only one symptom of his deeper problem, namely that he failed to put himself in the woman’s dirty WalMart flip-flops. He didn’t love this woman enough to be concerned with her needs and her thoughts in that moment. All this young man could think of was himself. Human, remember? I’ve done it, too. Countless times. It’s a temptation all Christians have, no matter who they’re talking to and no matter what Bible translations they tend to quote from.
So here’s what I tell everyone who tries to communicate the Bible to others: Love your neighbor as yourself. Talk to people as if they really are people like you are. Ask them questions to show interest in them—have genuine interest in them as real people. Because they are. Real people. Made in God’s image.
I’m a conservative. I don’t like the idea of pandering to people, of watering down the gospel message or the biblical message in any way. But I’ve realized recently how deeply my many years of ministering to low-income people has affected my outlook on Bible teaching—and I don’t think working hard to help others understand is pandering. I think it’s what teachers of the Word are called to do.
Imaginatively placing myself in someone else’s situation doesn’t lead to me sounding like someone I’m not: I won’t claim to have had their experiences; I won’t pick up their particular accent; I won’t (necessarily) begin to wear clothing like theirs. But I will try to see through their eyes and listen through their ears. Everything I communicate in every way I will try, by God’s grace, to make as understandable as possible for them. I hope they will do the same for me when it’s their turn to talk! Differences between people can be trivial, and they can be great gulfs fixed. Less than a mile from my house in Greenville was this other world, between us that gulf. Successful bridges use engineers from both sides of a divide. At the very least, even if people won’t meet me in the middle, I’m going to send my bridge as far as I can toward them. That’s what love does. I refuse to stay on my safe cultural shore and shout across.