Every now and again (more often than I would like) I need a slap up the side of the head when I lose perspective on what Jesus values in ministry. I often look for efficiency and cleverness to accomplish a task when only humility, time and a receptive spirit suffice. A book by J.B. Phillips provided this corrective for me recently through a quote from Adventures in Solitude, in which the author reflected on months of illness:
As I thought during those long days, it seemed to me that the hospital cherishes a spirit, or an attitude, that the Church sadly lacks. I felt in it a respect for the human body and for human life beyond that in the Church, as it stands today, for the spirit of man.
The hospital diagnoses before it prescribes; the Church prescribes before it diagnoses. The physician stands humble before the human body, studies it, doubts about it, wonders at it; labours to fit his remedies to the exact disease. Is there in any church an equivalent humility in the presence of the spirit of man? Is the priest willing to inquire and doubt and wonder? Does he know before he tries to cure? Must the Church cultivate certainty lest knowledge turn and rend it?
Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of the author’s church is not mine to judge. However, it does apply to my ministry. One of the hardest, and yet most important, lessons I was taught (and still need to keep learning!) from my missions experience is the danger of speaking a message before properly discerning the question. The answer I provide may be accurate, biblical and significant, but it is inappropriate when the context of the question is not fully appreciated.
If I do not listen carefully to the context and concern that stimulated the question, my answer, even if it consists of a clear and logical gospel presentation, will miss the mark. When I am overly focused on the message I want to present, the result is an unfortunate lack of spiritual sensitivity to the person with whom I am relating; I fail to “read” or attend to their concerns and background. On the other hand, when there is suitable sensitivity to the other’s perspective, coupled with an appreciation for the relevance of the issue being addressed, then God’s message can be presented in a way that resonates with the hearer by bringing healing to their hurt, forgiveness to their guilt, cleansing to their shame, and peace to their fear.
Such an impact cannot happen until I learn to stand humbly and patiently before their spirit to listen and diagnose. The process of Significant Conversations is my attempt to apply this lesson of sensitivity to the concerns of those people who enrich my life but have not yet come to Christ.
(quote: David Grayson quoted in Phillips J. B. and Duncan D. 365 Meditations by J. B. Phillips for this Day. Word Books, Publisher Waco, Texas, 1975. P. 120)