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The Relational Pastor: Building Bridges, Not Barriers to the Unchurched

Here are some practical things you can do in your community to influence people toward that critical God decision.

By Dary Northrop

To be completely honest, I am not crazy about the word “evangelist.” I know it is a Bible term, but in our culture many people think of evangelists as pushy preachers who try to force something on someone.

I prefer the idea of being a bridge builder. Think about what a bridge accomplishes. It allows us to go over water, canyons, and potentially dangerous terrain on a smooth surface.

I have owned several horses over the years, including a mare I trained named Colorado. She was strong and highly spirited. But she slowly learned to trust me as I fed her, combed her, walked all around her, led her with a rope, and helped her get comfortable wearing a saddle and bridle. Then came the bridge. We happened upon it on one of our first mountain rides. It was an old, wooden bridge that made a big, hollow, clunking sound when her hooves hit it. She backed away quickly and did not want to touch that bridge again. I decided to walk her across by leading her with a rope. As we made our way along, one tentative step at a time, she seemed to warm to the idea that the bridge would not fail her — and neither would I. At last, we made it to the other side.

People who have little or no faith are often afraid of the bridge that leads to God. It feels like a blind leap and seems so foreign to those who have not grown up around it. Most of these people are not God-haters; they are simply uncertain about the bridge. Perhaps they have heard negative things about it. Maybe they have known bridge-crossers who failed to make the journey seem attractive. Sadly, the church world sometimes gets in the way of people coming to faith. We must patiently and compassionately allow people to approach the bridge and ask any questions they may have.

At the church I lead, I often say something like this: “If you have come today without a personal relationship with God, we really welcome you. This is a great place to ask questions about your journey with God. It’s OK if you feel uncertain or need to think through your decisions.”

This allows people to be in the room and watch people of faith. They learn to trust, respect, and sense the presence of God. If they have come to the bridge to test it, I want to welcome them. If they are only three or four feet onto the bridge, at least they are on their way. That is a good thing.

How many connections or conversations does it take for someone to come to faith? It could be 10, 28, or 233. It is a joy to lead someone to Christ, but we will not always be that person. God may use you as number eight or 16 to help someone on their journey. Ask God to make you a part of the process, regardless of what stage it is. God uses each of us in different ways. I am hesitant to say of new converts, “I led them to the Lord.” After all, it is the Spirit who brings people to salvation. We simply facilitate conversations with them along the way.

When I sense the Spirit drawing someone to Christ, I start with questions rather than statements. For example, I may ask: “What are you feeling about making a life commitment to God? Have you come to a decision about what you believe about God? Would you like for me to lead us in a prayer that declares your faith in God?”

Such questions encourage introspection and help people understand the value of that life-changing moment.

As a pastor, I certainly appreciate the importance of that moment. But I also recognize the worth of the seemingly mundane moments that may lead to it. My driving passion is building bridges that lead people to Christ — and doing everything I can to help them across.

I believe that is your passion as well. Here are some practical things you can do in your community to influence people toward that critical God decision.

Get Involved in Your Community

Join a service club — or several. Find hobbies that let you touch base with other people. Spend time with people who are not a part of the church you pastor.

Make friends with people who are different from you. That may mean hearing jokes that aren’t funny or to your liking or discussing topics you don’t find particularly interesting. People might even try to push your buttons just to see how you respond to them. Get familiar with being in awkward situations. Never compromise your Christian values, but do not draw lines that needlessly alienate lost people.

Do the things in your community that need to be done. Sit with your mayor for 15 minutes and ask this question: “What are some of the greatest needs you see in our city, and is there a way my church can help?”

This lets others know you are not demanding something or pushing your opinion on them but offering to help meet needs. We have influence with government leaders and secular organizations in our community because they trust us and realize we want to serve our city. This builds bridges with people and allows honest conversation about faith.

I believe strangers rarely influence strangers in our culture. I really do not want people who have an agenda of some kind knocking on my door or calling me on the phone. I need to know them first and then hear what they have to say.

Share Meaningful Moments

No one enjoys attending funerals, but you can touch every family group in your community if you take these important occasions seriously. Early in my ministry, I went to every funeral home in our community to meet the owners and directors, making myself available to do any funeral that needed a church or pastor.

I have no idea how many hundreds of funerals Timberline Church has done over the last 27 years. We follow up a year later with a card acknowledging the death. People are so appreciative, and they never forget it. Grateful people frequently approach me with a story about how our church provided comfort during a time of loss. I believe there are very few times when people actually need a pastor by their side. But in such poignant moments, spiritual support can make a lasting impact.

Be available for other big events as well, including weddings. Like funerals, weddings eventually touch your entire community. What better way to share in the lives of families than to celebrate their happy beginnings?

Learn about the couple and how they met, and tell their story in the wedding. Hang around for the reception to talk with people. Be a friend who is known for your kindness. You will be a magnet for those needing to connect with someone.

Meet the family and the parents. Get involved in meaningful conversations. Make a goal of having people leave that wedding feeling like you really cared for this couple and invested in their lives. They will respect that.

Be Real

Have authentic friendships with people who have no faith. Set aside any agenda, and just be their friend. Learn to laugh, cry, and enjoy meaningful discussions that may not be about God.

I have many friends in my community who respect me but want little to do with the preacher part of me. So I give them my friendship as best I can. Through the years, I have seen a couple of things happen because of this. First, they learn to trust my faith and see it working in my life without me coming across as weird or pushy. Second, when they struggle with something or their lives start falling apart, they usually call me for support and encouragement. At some point, we all experience crisis moments. This means that it is only a matter of time before I will have an opportunity to point someone to Christ.

In tough times, people are sensitive to the touch of the Spirit in their heart. I have seen God use crazy circumstances in people’s lives to bring them to His truth. I do not believe God creates all these circumstances, but He will never waste opportunities to reach lost and hurting people. Allow God to use you to accomplish His purpose.

Meet People Where They Are

I believe there are three things all people have.

1. They have needs. It may be as simple as giving a cup of cold water, but there are always human needs you can help meet. As you walk the streets of your city and serve your community, be sensitive to the needs around you.

Even little things — such as holding a door, giving someone a hand, or smiling in kindness — can make a difference when people are hurting. It changes how I meet people if I know they have a need.

2. They have hidden pain. I am always amazed at the depth of pain people suffer. It’s easy to assume others are sheltered from pain, sorrow, and bad news. But when I meet people for the first time, I assume their lives have not been easy. This prepares me for anything they may want to share. It also gives me a sense of compassion for them before I know the details of their lives.

When I look out at the members of our congregation, the stories represented there deeply move me. Physical abuse, rape, incest, addiction, the loss of a loved one, disease, chronic pain, divorce, war trauma, guilt, and shame make up the fabric of their human experiences. All of these struggles — and more — fill the lives of people all around us who are trying to put God somewhere in their journey.

Think of Jesus and the way He met with people in need. Consider His gentle compassion in dealing with the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, the lepers, the blind, the deaf, and the broken.

3. They have potential. Jesus saw what people could become. He looked for potential in others, elevated them, and helped them fulfill God’s plan for their lives.

How can we live like this? I believe reaching people for the kingdom of God involves learning how to see the potential in others before they even see it.

Be a People Person

When you walk into a room, assume everyone loves you. Maybe they don’t, but when you make such an assumption it changes your attitude and demeanor. Some pastors and Christian leaders are so insecure they miss starting conversations because it feels awkward to them. Assuming people like you puts you in a frame of mind to minister to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Be a disciplined listener. I made a willful decision several years ago to be fully present. In other words, I give my attention to the person with whom I’m talking. That means setting aside my phone and making eye contact. It means resisting the urge to look over that person’s shoulder and greet someone behind them. Lock onto the moment, whether the conversation is with your spouse, child, a church member, or a lost soul. Give each person your best. This will separate you from the crowd, and people will be drawn to you.

We have the greatest message in the world to share. Let’s share it well and build relational bridges that lead people into the loving arms of Jesus.

DARY NORTHROP is senior pastor of Timberline Church, Fort Collins, Colorado.

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