A few months ago, our church hosted a community outreach event which provides shoes and socks to children in our community. Our planned strategy for this event involved one volunteer team connecting with children for sizing and selecting new shoes, while another volunteer team connected with the parents while they waited for their kids.
I say this was our “planned strategy” because as you know, nothing ever goes according to plan. The waiting area for these parents had a handful of folding chairs on the sideline of our elementary school basketball court. We failed to plan for the considerable boost of energy children receive when they get brand new shoes, then are released onto the wide-open space of the hardwood. The air was filled with excited yelling, race car noises and more “Mom-mom-mom-look-how-fast-I-can-run’s” than I can count.
This was the setting where I met Hope. One of our volunteers had connected with her and she had questions about our church and whether she would be welcomed in our church. Over the noise and chaos, I assured her that she would be welcomed and encouraged her to join us for worship. To my surprise, the following Sunday, Hope walked in the front door of our church. She was quiet, timid, and clearly out of her comfort zone. My wife and I greeted her as well as several volunteers who had seen her at our event. After church, I followed up with Hope to hear her story. As she shared her journey, one comment she made stood out: “I am not a person who likes to be seen. I prefer to hide in the shadows.”
In following weeks, our family sought out Hope and invited her into our home for a meal to begin building a relationship. Hope has since surrendered her life to Jesus Christ and was baptized on a sunny Sunday morning in front of our congregation.
I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about what Hope said about preferring to hide in the shadows. Jesus often had a noisy, bustling crowd around him, but He always seemed to find the person who was hiding in the shadows around him. Whether it was a leper, a lame man, a sinful woman, or a short guy in a tree; Jesus always looked to see who was hiding in the shadows.
Jesus’ heart for making disciples always amazes me. He knew the value of every person and the importance of finding those lost sheep. In the RDN, we learn about how to connect the unconnected for the purpose of discipleship. Three practices from Jesus’ ministry that we must emulate are to recognize the shadows, seek out those in the shadows, and engage them in relationship.
First, I must recognize there are shadows around me. It is easy to get caught up in the circle of people and activity that surround me on a Sunday morning. I love to see and celebrate the life and connection that occurs in our church. However, there are shadows around me. These shadows hide people who desperately need relationship. Story after story in the Gospels, I see Jesus recognizing these shadows. Shadows exist in my church, in my ministry, in my neighborhood, and sometimes, even in my family.
Second, I must seek out the people hiding in the shadows. It is simple to see who attends church on Sunday. It is easy to see who signed up for a small group. I love reading through the list of people who have stepped out to seek a relational environment. However, I can allow my attention to become so consumed with those I see that I forget those who are unseen, hiding in the shadows. I have to intentionally ask, “Who isn’t at church today?”, “Who didn’t sign up for a small group?” “Who is slipping into the shadows?” Jesus’ eyes often drifted to the shadows to find the hurting and the needy and he left the crowd to seek them out. I must seek these people if I wish to make disciples just like Jesus.
Third, I must engage those in the shadows and listen to their story. On the embarrassingly few times I identify someone who is hiding in the shadows, I tend to engage with an equally embarrassingly poor level of tact and empathy. I usually seek them out and say something like, “We need to get you into a small group. Can I help you find one?” Then when they don’t connect, I whine to our leaders about how people don’t value relationship then blame our non-relational, social media driven, consumeristic, self-centered culture.
When Jesus spoke to those hiding in the shadows, he would begin by asking questions and listening to their heart.
There is a reason people hide in the shadows. Maybe priorities are out of balance. Maybe they don’t know they need relationship. Or maybe the reason to hide is deeper. Perhaps, they hide in the shadows from shame, guilt, or fear. Shame, guilt, and fear are ruthless masters that shield the heart from relationship with others, especially with Jesus. Their reason for hiding can only be discovered when they are approached with empathy and intentional listening.
It takes time, effort, and patience to truly connect the disconnected. It is a difficult and time-consuming quest to wander into the shadows. In fact, I could likely continue leading just as I am, taking the easy road to avoid the shadows. But this is not how Jesus made disciples. Jesus sought out those in the shadows, engaged the disconnected, listened to their fear, and became the relationship they needed. He did it for the woman at the well, for the blind man, for people like Hope, and He wants to do it for the next person we find in the shadows.
Jared Horton – Senior Pastor
Real Life Ministries Newport