Whom you would change, you must first love.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the interesting discoveries of the Apollo space program was that somewhere between earth and the moon, the spaceship reaches a point where the moon's gravitational effect is greater than the earth's. The spacecraft is literally falling away from earth. The only way it will ever return to earth is to fire its engine to escape the moon's gravitational pull.
People, like spaceships, will also sometimes drift past the point of natural return. "You can almost feel it," said one counselor. "I would say more than half the people who come for counseling have already passed that point."
There seems to be a point where the person begins to act as if I'm going to do it my way no matter what anyone says. If you get right down to it, I'm going to do what I want even if God disapproves. I don't care.
What are some of the engine bursts needed to break the outward drift and propel people homeward? At this point, atmosphere alone is insufficient. Some kind of confrontation is needed — either direct or indirect. Since the indirect approach is easier on the adrenal glands, let's start there.
The Necessary Foundation
The first step is to develop a relationship with the person that he or she values. Without a relational base, prompting change proves difficult.
Often pastors pick up rumblings of problems from a third party who doesn't know if the claim is true or not. What to do? Become a detective? Ignore it until the person himself eventually decides to see you?
Most pastors begin by trying to establish or strengthen their personal relationship with the individual in question.
"I don't go around checking the validity of the story. But I do let the person know I care about him or her, and in the process, often the situation comes tumbling out. It happened just last month," said a Baptist pastor in the South.
"I'd heard that a man in our church had violent outbursts with his wife. At times she feared for her life. He's a dentist, so I just showed up unannounced and sat on a stool in his office until he finished with a patient. He came in and said, 'What are you doing here?'
"I said, 'I just want to pray with you, Fred. I try to visit everyone periodically. I know you're facing some struggles, and I care for you. Just let me have two minutes to pray with you.'
"'OK,' he said. He had patients waiting, but he paused, we prayed, and I kept it to two minutes. He didn't say much other than that he appreciated me stopping by. But three days later, he was in my office saying, 'OK, now let me tell you what's happening.' I didn't have to ask him."
A relationship functions as the prime mover in producing change. Preaching and congregational services can help create an atmosphere conducive to change and instill a desire for something better, but the work of actual change usually demands more than a conducive atmosphere.
"I've found people don't change attitudes or patterns of behavior on Sunday morning," said the pastor of a community church. "Change happens when they see how it works in somebody else's life. They can't just hear about it; they have to see it. That's what makes our small-group ministries so important. Talking about 'How I handled a problem in my job this week' shows others how the Christian life is lived."
The function of a preaching service is primarily to display, almost like an advertisement, that "A better way is available." But for more information, people want to see it fleshed out. Making significant life changes demands a relationship of trust.
Most of us don't trust people who have an obvious agenda for us. We feel we are being manipulated for some ulterior motive. For pastors, part of this means letting the individual know you can be trusted not to reveal his problems to other people. "I try to let them see that I care about them and have their best interests in mind, not my own," said one rural minister. In most cases, the key is to find or develop common interests. This is especially true of people who have little involvement in the church.
In such cases, "I've learned not to talk about my agenda but about their agenda," said an Ohio pastor. He began meeting with two unchurched friends for pizza on Sunday evenings after the church service. "For over a year we talked about nothing but the price of cattle, cultivation techniques, and life around the farm. But as a result, we began to find other common interests — fishing and backpacking. Eventually they began attending church and made commitments to Christ."
Others Who Can Get Through
Now most pastors admit they can't find common ground with everyone. Perhaps this is one way of selecting people to try to help personally. When no common ground appears, perhaps other Christians who speak the same language can be brought in.
We normally think of doing this with literal languages. One pastor met a medical doctor from Pakistan who had become a Christian. The pastor introduced the doctor to a missionary friend who had served in Pakistan, and the doctor was very impressed that the missionary was able to speak such fluent Pakistani. As a result, he invited many of his non-Christian friends to his home for a dinner party and also invited the missionary to come and present his testimony in Pakistani. The dinner and gospel presentation were very well received. The pastor initiated that contact because he saw the importance of putting people together who speak the same language.
But this pastor has also done the same thing with people who speak the language of motorcycles.
"I saw a group of young men who were drifting away from church life," he said. "I noticed they all rode motorcycles. Since several of our solid young men were bikers, too, I encouraged them to get together. Before long we'd started a group of motorcycle buffs called the Retreads. I specifically invited people from the church who had an interest in motorbikes to get together, and out of this common ground, relationships were built with these fringe people."
Other pastors have used such interests as hunting, fishing, backpacking, woodworking, or photography to build relationships with those who won't acknowledge their need.
Another way to help people who need help but won't ask for it is to point out that there are others like them in the church.
"One man came to me, very embarrassed, and confessed that his teenage son had a drinking problem," said a minister in the Church of the Brethren. "I realized the problem was probably as much the father's as it was the son's, but the father wouldn't admit it. He told me, 'Please keep this confidential because the church wouldn't understand.'"
The minister said, "I'm wondering, would you be interested in meeting with some other people in the church who are in this exact same situation? If I got their permission, would you talk with them? I think it would be helpful for all of you."
The man refused — at first. "I've found there's reluctance initially," observed the minister, "because they doubt whether it's really so. There's a certain amount of pride that comes from thinking My problem is so bad, nobody else has had it as bad as I've got it. It's a sick self-concept, but it's real. These people seem to think, I make the pastor worry about me because he's never seen anyone like me before. And, you know, God owes me something because he's given me these special problems. No one's ever endured my unique situation."
Eventually, however, the father did meet with others and gradually began owning up to his own struggle with alcohol.
"When I give the name of the person they should talk to, invariably the initial reaction is 'Jack Edwards? He seems so together! I didn't know he'd been through anything like this!' But when they get together, there's a tremendous empathy that develops. It's one of the most effective ways of getting through."
Other churches do this with anyone remarrying after?? divorce. Many times, people marrying for the second time d?? not want help. They feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are looked down on, persecuted. They are rarely open to counsel or caution about entering a new marriage. Several churches have tackled the problem by using other people from the church who have had similar experiences.
In one congregation, as part of the conditions to have the ceremony in the church, the couple agrees to a series of counseling sessions, and two or three of those sessions are with other people who have "blended families." The group acts as a barometer for the couple, helping them determine if they really are ready for marriage. If the wedding does take place, the group also provides a natural source of friends afterwards.
"They look for characteristics that indicate readiness to remarry," says the pastor. "Such things as a healthy admission of guilt for the failure of the previous marriage and a realistic acknowledgement of future problems. When these people say, 'You're just rebounding,' it communicates a lot stronger than if a pastor says it, because people who are divorced assume pastors will discourage remarriage."
It gets through because it comes from people who speak the same language.
If the first "rocket burst" necessary to turn a life around is a relationship, either with you or others, the second might be a carefully worded comment offered in passing. Of the many ways to draw attention to a problem area, a sincere compliment is one of the most effective.
When you observe a couple getting stale with each other, the head-on approach — "I'm concerned about your relationship and I think you need to do something about it" — might not be well received.
Instead, one Christian counselor will say something like, "I love seeing the two of you together. You're really good for each other."
She's feeding that relationship, and at times, that's all it needs to perk up. Other times, it's a nonthreatening way to draw attention to a problem area.
"After I said that one time," the counselor reports, "the wife came up to me later and said, 'Things aren't as good as they seem.' It had opened up the issue."
The well-placed compliment lets them know you're observing their relationship but does so in a positive way.
Curiosity as an Ally
Yet another rocket engine is curiosity. Most people are curious, especially about themselves and their relationships. They generally are willing to consider Maybe there's something I'm missing. What else is going on? If pastors can provide glimpses of dynamics they don't see, people are often intrigued.
One pastor plays on curiosity by injecting questions that make people wonder whether or not they've seen the whole situation in its larger frame.
With one man so consumed by his career that his family was being neglected, his pastor invited him to lunch and asked, "John, if we asked your wife how cherished she feels, what do you think she would say?"
"What are you getting at?"
"Could you look me in the eye with a clean conscience and say, 'I know that I am making my wife feel absolutely loved and adored.'"
"No, but what's that got to do with it?"
The pastor considers that conversation the beginning of John's working on an area he'd never before considered a problem.
Yet another way of playing on curiosity is by sharing the stories of other people who have been in similar situations.
"One of the benefits of a long pastorate is that you develop a file of letters from past counselees," says David Seamands. "Some are from people whose stories did not end happily: Against your advice, I married the man I told you about. In the beginning he said he would let me continue my involvement with the church, but gradually he got more and more jealous of the time I spent with my Christian friends. Now life with him is continual conflict. If other people come to see you contemplating remarriage to a nonbeliever, don't be afraid to be cruel. I wish you had convinced me I was making a mistake.
"On the other hand, I have letters such as: I broke up with the man I wanted to marry. Despite many tears at the time, I knew I had a duty to do what was right. In the years since, God has honored my obedience, and I met a fine Christian man who is a great father to my two boys.
"I use these letters in my sermons and in my counseling to let people see that there is hope, that God can provide better solutions for their lives than they can themselves."
This kind of testimony can arouse curiosity in resistant individuals about how God might work in their situations.
Willingness to Be Used at Times
One pastor was counseling a bulemic who continually phoned him to confess that she had failed; once again she'd eaten too much and then forced herself to vomit.
"I felt I was being used," said the pastor. "She wasn't improving. She just wanted someone to hear her confession so she'd feel better. Normally I would have confronted her with my suspicion and refused to let the situation continue. But with this particular problem, I felt patience was the best approach because one of the key issues for bulemics is self-esteem. It would have been worse to reject her than it was to continue to offer the encouragement — even at the risk of being used."
That approach paid dividends later when the girl phoned to ask for help with another situation. She had been going to a secular counselor, who had instructed her to take off her clothes so he could caress her. He claimed she needed a parent figure — a role he was ready to provide.
"But he makes me uncomfortable," she told her pastor. "What should I do?" The pastor told her the counselor was wrong and that she should not go back to him. She did not. And saying no to the counselor greatly improved her self-respect.
"At that point," said the pastor, "I felt that all those hours on the phone listening to her confessions had been worthwhile. She felt she could trust me."
At times, of course, this means that we sometimes feel foolish, demeaned. But the long-term effects make the sacrifice worthwhile when the window of opportunity opens.
Jacques Maritain's book, St. Thomas Aquinas, recounts this attitude in the life of the Catholic scholar and saint: "One day a friar in a jovial mood cries out: 'Friar Thomas, come see the flying ox!' Friar Thomas goes over to the window. The other laughs. 'It is better,' the Saint says to him 'to believe that an ox can fly than to think that the religious can lie.'"
Friar Thomas — and we — may feel foolish in situations where people take advantage of us, but how much better to be used and eventually change a life than to be overly concerned about our need for independence, our mastery of situations.
Affirming the Importance of Life
Surprisingly, people tend to underestimate the value of their own lives. One of the duties of a pastor, especially when dealing with those destroying themselves but refusing help, is to remind people of the importance of life — their own included.
Remember the story of Samuel confronting Saul after Israel had defeated King Agag? Saul won a military victory but had violated God's commandment by allowing Agag and the best of his livestock to survive (1 Sam. 15). God's ways had been repudiated because Saul thought he knew better. The will of God was no longer the standard; Saul's will was. But Saul took charge without a sense of the spiritual powers at work.
When Samuel approached him, Saul said, "The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord's instructions."
"What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears?" Samuel responded.
When Samuel reviewed God's command, Saul insisted, "But I did obey the Lord.… I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder … in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God."
It was a rationalization, which Harry Stack Sullivan once defined as "an exceedingly plausible but highly irrelevant" reason for one's behavior. At any rate, Samuel wasn't swallowing it.
His speech offers an interesting insight. "Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And the Lord sent you on a mission.…"
Interestingly, he points out that Saul's sin was not thinking too highly of himself, but not thinking highly enough. He was unaware of the import of his actions. He underestimated the significance of the responsibility God had entrusted to him.
When it comes to helping those who don't want help, sometimes they, too, need to realize their own significance. God himself is interested in their decisions.
At times this can be done with indirect confrontation; at other times, however, it requires direct intervention.
Copyright ©1986 by Christianity Today