God created humans for His glory and pleasure and to do His work on this planet. In Christian society, specifically within the church, there is one area of ministry that is vastly overlookedstrangers. When reading the text, Reforming Mercy Ministry, I was intrigued by the chapter entitled Stranger Ministry. When I began considering strangers and people in my community, I became ashamed of what I was not doing for our Lord. The idea for my project was born from this shame. I decided to use the tools of Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, specifically focusing on three that are appropriate to use with strangers. When ministering to strangers one must attempt to reach that person at their level of need by imploring one of three love languages: words of affirmation, quality time, and acts of service. The scope of my project began with a group of children in my backyard and branched out to their families and others within our community.
The idea behind this project was to use the resources readily available to me (the children in my backyard) as a spring board to reach others around me. We live in a small, rural, working-class community with many young families all around. We have lived here less than a year and do not know most of the families. My son has 6-12 friends under the age of 12 in our backyard playing every afternoon. Of those 6-12, only two attend church.
In planning my project, I came up with a three leveled objective:
Build relationships with the children in my backyard.
Using those relationships, gain access to their families and begin ministering to them in their homes.
Use my experiences to encourage my church members to reach out to other strangers in our community.
Phase 1: build relationships with the children in my backyard. Initially this proved to be more difficult than I imagined. I soon discovered that they were here to play with my son, not talk to me! This is where the love languages words of affirmation and quality time were helpful. I began by just observing un-obtrusively and trying to find small things that they were doing that I could encourage them about. For example, the kids were playing a game on the trampoline and couldn’t all fit. One of the younger boys volunteered to sit out so that the others could play more comfortably. I spoke loud enough for everyone to hear and said, James that was very considerate of you. Thank you for putting others before yourself. The smile on his face made my day. Another instance where words of affirmation helped build a relationship was when the smallest boy fell and was hurt (more hurt feelings than hurt body). His sisters were playing here as well but did not seem concerned about him at all. One of the other girls left them and sat with the little boy until he stopped crying. I told her that what she did would make Jesus proud because it was very much what he taught about in the parable of the Good Samaritan. This gave me the opportunity to briefly share this story with the group of kids.
When the weather began to warm up, the opportunities for quality time became more regular. Most of the children who play here are from low-income families without many options for recreational activities. This is why they all ride their bikes or walk to our house. First it was just the trampoline, but once the temperatures began to climb to 80, the slip-n-slide became king. Now, I assure you that I did not don my bathing suit to join them, but quality time was spent nonetheless because they needed three things from me: permission to ruin my yard with the wet plastic monster, help setting up, and crowd control. Hours of quality time were logged with many opportunities to share God’s love and desire for these kids.
Even in the awkward moments when I had to play substitute parent I began to see that the kids didn’t mind the correction. They now respected me and were open to my ideas and suggestions. One such instance happened recently. It was another slip-n-slide day and this time a group of girls were joining in the fun. When I walked outside to see how things were going, I was surprised by the lack of material on the girls’ swimsuits. As politely as possible I told them how glad I was that they could play today and that I would appreciate it very much if they wore a t-shirt over their swimsuit because we have very modest and conservative expectations of body coverings. I cringed, expecting an eye-roll with a sassy remark or a dramatic exit (which would have been on par for these girls).
Instead, they all made a remark indicating that they were sorry, put their shirt on, and continued playing. This is when I knew that we were getting somewhere.
Since I am a Christian (as well as a pastor), my goal for building relationships with these children was not to have little friends, but to get them to come to church, introduce them to Jesus, andas stated earlierreach their families (in no particular order). My first successful goal accomplishment came on a Wednesday night about two weeks into the project. Each Wednesday night the play time is cut short because we have church, which means coming in at 5:15 to eat and get cleaned up. Every Wednesday for the previous 5 months when I would go to get my son from outside, I would say, OK, kiddos! Time to clean up, Nathan has to come inside; but you can join us at church if you like! None of them ever did, until that day. When we got to church, all but 3 of the kids that had been playing were standing outside! Trying to hide the shock from my expression, I smiled and said, I sure am glad you all could join us tonight! The ladies will be so excited to see new faces. Inside, I was doing a happy dance. Since then, they have been to every Wednesday night activitywe are still working on Sunday attendance, though.
Phase 2: Using those relationships [with the children], gain access to their families and begin ministering to them in their homes. This phase was harder to get started and more difficult to complete than I had envisioned. First of all, many of the children did not want to share information about their living situations. Some of them were embarrassed about where they lived or didn’t want to explain who they lived with, others did not want me to meet their parents, and some said their parents would not want to meet me. Still, with God’s wind at my back, I pressed on. My first success was actually with my neighbors. Their children are the only ones that have not attended a church service yet, even though they express desire to come with us. While I have not gotten them to allow the kids to come to church, we have been building a better relationship. I am embarrassed to say that until recently, my neighbors really were strangers. I have only spoken with them a few times and usually just small talk. A few weeks into my project, their son came to spend the night at our house. This was his first sleep over, so it gave me the opportunity to speak with his parents on a personal level.
Usually when I speak with someone who does not live a Christian lifestyle, I hear all sorts of excuses and apologies the instant they find out that I am a pastor. My neighbors know that I am a pastor, not just because I have told them, but because I live in the parsonage. Speaking with them also gave me an opportunity to use more words of affirmation. When I first went over, I told them how much we enjoy their kids playing with Nathan and praised her on how well behaved they are (which is very true). She was very grateful and receptive of the encouraging words. Then, when the topic of church came up, as it always does, there were no absurd excuses. She simply said that they used to go to church when her grandmother was living, but after she died, they all just stopped. That was it. Of course, I told her that they would be more than welcome to try out our church, since it is only two blocks away, and I would be honored if they would come as our guests. Most people would think of her response as a defeat, but after living next to them for almost a year, I see it as a victorybecause she did not say no. She did not answer at all, but she did not say no, that means the door is still open. I also mentioned that the boys had expressed interest in attending our Wednesday night event for children and she acknowledged that she knew this was the case and said they weren’t there yet. I am not sure what this means, but it was not a no so I am optimistic.
Another opportunity to reach out to the families of these children came through my wife. She teaches children’s choir on Wednesday nights so she is involved with all these children during that time as well as at our home. The week before Easter, she found out that one of the soloists for Sunday was going to be out of town, unexpectedly. She mentioned that she was going to ask one of the backyard girls if she would commit to being there at 8AM on Sunday morning to sing. I took the opportunity to go over and meet her parents. They live in a single wide trailer and there are six kids in the family. Her mother was not entirely receptive to us being there but was willing to talk with us on her porch. We, once again, told her how well behaved her kids are and how excited we were to have them at church. We also told her that they were welcome any time at our house. She did not appear to be open to talk about church or personal relationships, but she agreed to let her daughter come Sunday morning and not only did she come, but she brought two siblings with her! At a later day, I was able to exercise acts of service with the same family when I brought them some clothes that my boys had outgrown. She was very appreciative and I hope to continue developing that relationship.
Phase 3: Use my experiences to encourage my church members to reach out to other strangers in our community. This phase of the project was much easier than I anticipated and took off in ways I did not see coming. Encouraging the church members came without any effort because when the kids started coming to church, a spark was ignited and without me saying anything they began to plan outreach opportunities amongst themselves. These opportunities are all acts of service as of yet. So far, we have brought breakfast to the Sherriff’s substation and prayed with them, attended a Good Friday service at a local black church (which was a huge deal because race is a big divider in our town) and made arrangements to cooperate in one another’s VBS this summer, hosted a community wide Easter egg hunt, and donated all the unused eggs to the public library for their egg hunt. We have also planned a rotating calendar for families to continue ministering to the Sherriff’s office, Fire Station, City Hall, and Police Department. I am very pleased with this motivated effort and am excited to see what comes from it.
A stranger is defined by Rogers as an individual who is a member of a system but is not strongly attached to that system. The stranger’s interpersonal relationships with others in the system are characterized by social distance So a stranger is anyone around you not closely committed to the same social system that you are. In the book Reforming Mercy Ministry, the author says this of America’s stance on newcomers, Once you’ve risked your life to get here, an increasingly popular bumper sticker will introduce you to our country (not that you’ll necessarily be able to read it): ?Welcome to America: We Speak English. Learn it or Leave.’ This statement is an excellent example of what is wrong with America and the mentality held toward strangers and foreigners. We need to say that Welcome to America: We will speak to you and love that you want to be here. How different would this world be if that was the common perspective? Sadly that is not the case in many instances. Although the book focuses on strangers as immigrants, not all strangers are immigrants. No matter how stranger is defined, Christians are clearly called to serve those in need. It is stated in Matthew 25:35-40,For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you agave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. This parable describes acts of service we can each do every day. They do not depend on our abilities, finances, or intelligence; just our willingness to serve. According to the Life Application Study Bible, We cannot hand over this responsibility to the church or government. Jesus wants and needs us to get personally involved in caring for others and being the feet and hands of Jesus. Furthermore, according to Chris Johnson, We worship God and serve neighbor because through our actions in joint discipleship with Christ, we are more fully restored to unity with God and each other.
So why are we so hesitant to help strangers in need? In the article by Ariel Knafo, Shalom H. Schwartz, and Robert V. Levine, Helping Strangers Is Lower in Embedded Cultures, a study is described that was conducted in 23 countries. For the sake of this article embedded means cultures that regard the family or extended in-group rather than the autonomous individual as the key social unit, or show preference to relating to family and close friends rather than being an individual. During this study, trained, college-aged, local experimenters pretended to need help in three different situations: dropping a pen without noticing (n = 424), accidentally dropping a pile of magazines while walking with an injured leg (n = 493), and appearing to be a blind person requiring assistance to cross the street (n = 281). Experimenters measured the reactions of pedestrians to these scenarios. The study found that in countries where the culture was not very embedded and the wealth was low, the willingness to help strangers was high. In other words, in America, we are reluctant to help strangers because we are selfish and do not want to look bad in front of our friends. Many times we may be averse to minister to strangers because of different lifestyles. However, according to Girgis, People don’t need to be assimilated to our own culture or way of life to be equal members of the body of Christ. He goes on to explain that Christians must change their approach to ministering to strangers. Instead of focusing on material growth, we must stress ministries that address the whole person and all of their needs. This shift in thinking cannot happen unless the church is willing to have a change of heart and mind as well as a modification of our viewpoint concerning the strangers around us. Strangers are not bad, as a matter of fact, Girgis reminds us that Ruth and Naomi were strangers to each other, and yet they both became a blessing to many others, a full nation, and to the whole world.
When approaching the idea of ministering to strangers, a good place to start is taking advice from Gary Chapman and using some of the Five Love Languages. One of the most important things that can be done when ministering to strangers, is to offer words of affirmation. Location and activity place no limits on the ability to use words of affirmation. This is a very powerful tool in the lives of Christians seeking to reach the lost. Giving verbal compliments is only one way that we use words of affirmation serve the Lord. In the book The Five Love Languages words of affirmation are described as words that encourage and the word encourage means to inspire courage. The next love language that is critical in stranger ministry is quality time. One might say that quality time in stranger ministry seems out of place.
However, without quality time, strangers stay strangers and will never truly be reached. To get to know someone one has to spend time with them. Like words of affirmation, the love language of quality time also has many things connected to it. It is stated in five love languages, One of the most common dialects is that of quality conversation. When was the last time you gave a stranger the opportunity to share what was going on in their life; their needs? You would be surprised what you will learn when you take the time to listen. Quality conversation is very different from words of affirmation. One focuses on what we are saying, the other on what we are hearing. If we would think about this in the concept of serving and ministering to strangers we would be able to reach others on a mighty scale. The final love language that can be used to minister to strangers is Acts of Service. Chapman explains that an act of service drastically effects the emotional climate of people because often small menial tasks are overlooked and seen as unimportant. However, when someone does one of these tasks for another, like take out the trash, it has an emotional affect upon the other person . It is stated in 2 Corinthians 9:13,Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. Believers are asked to be generous because of the example the Lord has given. Generosity shows that the heart is void of selfishness and consumed by Jesus. Do neighbors see generosity in your actions?
One thing that we have to do to reach strangers in our community is by going out and doing the work that God had put out there for us. As I been working on this project, I have been excited what I have learned and hope to continue to practice it long after the course is over. It may be discouraging at times, but we have to know that God has told us that the work that we are doing will not come void. It is stated in Isaiah 55:11, So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it. No matter what you think when you are trying to reach others for Christ, Just do all you can and more and God will bless you with what you thought could not happen. Just like in our communities Jesus did many things that we are to do. He lived among the people, had lunch with tax collectors, rescued harlots, healed those afflicted because of their sin. Jesus even died for strangers. Is the church ready to go out and be the hands and feet of Jesus? Are you ready to give people the affirmation that they need, spend time meeting their needs, and perform acts service to meet those needs?
I was in a post office one day in a big hurry and there was this older man in line in front of me and he was talking incessantly and holding up the line. I was frustrated with him because of my hurriedness and was very thankful that he finally got out of line and left because I was ready to go. After I left the post office I started to think about my time there and the man. I realized that, that may have been the only time he was able to talk to anyone that day and all I wanted him to do is hurry. God was giving me the opportunity to minister to a stranger and I did not take it. I will always believe that that man’s life was and is in my hands. I pray for him and hopefully God will allow him to come into my life once more so that I can talk with him and get to know him and share that love of Jesus with him. My prayer is that next time, I will be more sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit and prepared to minister to a stranger through words of affirmation, quality time, and acts of service.