"So how about that weather?"
Lake Park, Minnesota, on Tuesday, September 26th around 5:38 PM.
In 22 minutes, the Moorhead Coyotes 5th and 6th grade football team will take on the Raiders. We were excited for our 6th grader to join the team, not just because we love football but because we want him to learn how to relate to other people, both his age and with his coaches. And we wanted the opportunity to meet some parents as well, making some connections and building some relationships.
Since mid-August when practice started, we have met 9 of the parents. We know them by name, and some of them know our names as well.
But today, as the team prepares to play on a rainy evening, most parents still are hunkered down in their cars before trudging out to the field to endure 90 minutes of cold and wet in the name of football.
This summer, we spent time studying the message of God’s mission, or the gospel of Jesus Christ. We spent some time talking about being citizens of the kingdom and ambassadors to those outside the kingdom. We talked about methods we use in functioning as ambassadors as a community in our community.
Six aspects of this kind of ambassadorial, relational work entails initiating relationships, learning information, discerning interpretation of life, identifying with their experiences, introducing them to people in our community, and hopefully through that making the introduction to Jesus as Lord and Savior.
From there, we exert influence on one another as we grow in Christlikeness together, joining him as he seeks and saves his people in our community.
This post focuses on initiating relationships, which may just be the most difficult aspect of relational evangelism and outreach. Kids may be able to run across the street and say, “Hi, I’m Alex. Do you want to play?” As adults, we find this much more difficult. But, I hope to encourage us in this direction with some basic practices we can employ on Sunday mornings, in the dorm, at the office, and in the neighborhood.
How did Paul Initiate Relationships?
But first, what guidance do we have from Scripture that informs the what, the why, and the how of initiating relationships?
We look to Paul as we have 28 chapters of insights into how the gospel moved forward in the book of Acts, not just through Paul but through the church. And, we have his epistles which give us even more to see when it comes to the relationships he forged. He was the perfect person to take the gospel into cities filled with both Jews and Gentiles. As a highly educated Jew and a Roman citizen, God used him to bring the gospel deeper and deeper into that society.
Fast forwarding to Acts 16, Paul and Timothy were going here and there, being stopped by the Spirit and redirected. They were eventually sent into Macedonia, where they arrived in Philippi. They were being intentional in looking for people to meet, and went outside the gate to the riverside thinking that was a place of prayer. They saw some women, and initiated conversation.
They met someone, learning her name and occupation (Acts 16:1). Her heart was opened by God to pay attention to the gospel and she believed. Persecution quickly followed, and they were jailed. But they took this as an opportunity and prayed and sang as the fellow prisoners listened. They trusted God, and after some crazy stuff shared the gospel with the jailer who also believed.
He thanks God for the relationships and partnership in the gospel he built, right from that first interaction (Philippians 1:3-5). He built such deep relationships with this church that he says things like, “...I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace...” and, “...how I yearn for you with all the affection of Christ Jesus.” Out of love, Paul initiated a relationship with a woman by a river. And they took the opportunity they found in being jailed and shared the gospel with the jailer, and these were the seeds of a church plant in a leading city of the area (Acts 16:12). And, it resulted in a wonderful letter that helps us to better understand the gospel and its effects upon our lives.
God had pointed them in the direction of Philippi, and when they were there they went and met some people. Now, obviously there are many miraculous things that happened in Paul’s missionary journeys, but this seems pretty normal from our perspective. Going and meeting Lydia is pretty innocuous, and they didn’t know what would flow from that. They trusted God, they initiated a relationship, and amazing things happened.
Why is this so hard for us?
Alex joined a football team and was able to make friends immediately. Kids can run across the street to the new kids that just moved in and strike up a friendship with ease. Why can’t adults? Why is this so difficult?
In an individualistic society as ours, where meaning is found within and forging identity is a daily struggle, actual friendships are seen with suspicion. What is this person trying to get from me? Can they truly just want to know me to know me?
When we have identities to forge, each person becomes someone who can either contribute to this identity flourishing or detract. It’s much easier to friend someone on Facebook where I can manage even the most minute details of how others see me. Kids aren’t as worried with identity, and running across the street becomes the most obvious thing in the world to do.
We need to be grounded in who we are in Christ, where we don’t relate to other people based on what they can do for us. We know them because we want to, because Jesus knew us yet loved us (Romans 5:8). We aren’t forging our own identity or finding our own meaning, so we can go to others with no false motives other than to know them and to help them know Jesus.
In this, the very act of initiating is one of faith where we believe the truth about our justification, our reconciliation, our regeneration, our redemption, our adoption into God’s family.
We aren’t there to take from the person, but to give the best thing we could ever give.
I gain nothing from knowing the parents of the Moorhead Coyotes team, other than a friend and Lord willing a brother or sister in Christ. At worst, I get an enemy as the gospel is known to offend (see Paul’s cycle of gospel proclamation and persecution in Acts). But, either way, if we get to the gospel, Jesus is proclaimed as Lord and that right there gives him glory and honor.
As those who have received, we give. And this starts in the simplest of ways.
How do we initiate relationships with wisdom?
So what does this look like for us, and what are we hoping for?
To begin, we are looking for relational connection points with people. As fellow humans, we have shared experiences and situations that can allow for deeper relationships to form. In initiating, we are simply looking for the right doors to open.
These can be a variety of things, ranging from the universal to the very specific. The weather affects absolutely everybody, and we all tend to have the same interpretation of weather. Cold = snow + ice = bad. Summer = outdoors = fun. Sure, there’s varying interpretation but at least if someone hates the summer and loves the cold we can understand even if we disagree. This is an easy door to locate an to knock on.
Most people work or at least want to work. And, most have a similar interpretation of work. Some love their jobs and find identity in what they do, others hate their jobs and want to find a job that gives them identity. Either way, we all know what it’s like to grind out the day-to-day working for the man.
As you dive deeper into a relationship, you find other connection points that are more specific to you and the individual. Many people enjoy sports, but not everyone. Reading books is beloved by many, but not everybody. Some enjoy binge watching old TV shows while others enjoy going for long runs.
These are things that many share in common, but its not universal. You can go way more specific. I have Type I Diabetes, and so does Sean Murray who attends our downtown congregation. Sean and I know what it’s like to have T1D and that gives us shared experiences and interpretations. It’s not all we talk about, but its a huge part of both our lives and where we can encouarage and guide one another.
Initiating relationships gives us the chance to connect on the broad and move toward the specific. We identify doors that we can open and start to look into the lives of people we meet.
Shake someone’s hand, exchange names, talk about the weather. Ask people if they like the summer or winter. Learn about where they work and whether or not they like it. Share a little bit about your job, what you like and what you don’t like. Start broad and take the opportunities you find in conversation to go deeper into interpretation and making sense of the weather, or their job, or Type I Diabetes. Ask them if they’re going to school, what they’re studying, what they hope to do with their degree.
But before you get into all of these things, learn their name. Simple, but how many of us forget someone’s name right after they meet someone. If their name is Cathy, ask if they spell it with a C or a K, that’s probably a daily annoyance for them in so many ways so taking the time to learn that shows you are interested in knowing them. This may seem like a ‘duh’ thing, but lets not overlook it.
Because, the goal in all of this is gaining the right and ability to say, “Hello Kathy ‘with a K’,” the next time you see her in church.
If you meet Kathy at the beginning of the service, seek her out afterward and thank her for coming. If it feels right (and you’re a woman, don’t do this if you’re a dude and you’re meeting a woman for the first time) get her phone number and friend her on Facebook. Feel free to invite her to Pastor’s Open House, or your MC, or just thank her for coming and that you hope to see her again next week.
I come with the goal of meeting one person or couple per Sunday. Sometimes this goal is attained or even exceeded, some other Sunday’s I do not meet anyone new. Some Sunday’s I want to retreat and just talk to the people I already know, but I also know what it’s like to sit by myself when a bunch of people are connecting and smiling and talking with one another. I want that! Everyone wants that! And, knowing how my God has initiated with me empowers me to go and meet Kathy ‘with a K’ or Sean the Diabetic.
Of the 9 people I’ve met through FM Athletics, I have had one conversation where I was able to learn more about life interpretation. That has resulted in me being able to say hello to him at every game and practice, and to go deeper. But, others ignore and possibly even avoid me, though we have met and talked. Most do not remember my name. This doesn’t mean I’ve failed, but rather that I have trusted God and made myself available to others. I remember their names, and say hello to them by name. But now for most of us that’s all it has become.
As the Lord moves me here and moves me there, giving new opportunities for relational connections everyday, I hope to be open to those opportunities and step into them by faith. Who knows what will come of a simple handshake or discussion of the weather. Maybe nothing, maybe something.
But in the end, we have the chance to show love, to relate to an immortal being with an eternity in front of them. It may just be a simple smile, handshake, and exchange of names. But this is an overflow of being grounded in Christ, and honors him as we do these things in faith.
So, go say hello to someone and lament the cold weather that is inevitably approaching. Go Coyotes.