I’ve been thinking about examples in my life. Specifically, I have been thinking about my grand father and my father and how and why they built relationships with people. I see a pattern in their lives and I think I know the origins of that pattern.
Let’s start with my grandfather. My grandfather was Jack Smith. We called him Jackie… we always called him Jackie. I don’t really know why. The grandkids named him that, the name stuck and eventually, many of his friends and family also called him that. Jackie didn’t know any strangers. If you had any dealings with him, or if you got anywhere near him for any length of time, if chance brought you together with him, even under the most peculiar or unlikely circumstances, chances are you became his friend, possibly a confidant, probably a good friend, and in many cases, your life was altered forever after for the better. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but believe me it’s not. Let me tell you a story as an example of this phenomenon. Jackie was a highway patrolman, among many other endeavors. In fact, he was one of the original fourteen Arizona highway patrolmen. They worked alone much of the time, since there was only one assigned to each county. They patrolled the state highways, providing law enforcement and assistance to the public. One day, as Jackie sat in his patrol car along side a highway, along came a motorist in a big shiny convertible. The driver was alone in the car and he was speeding. He wasn’t just speeding a little; he was driving dangerously fast, like the proverbial bat outa hell! Jackie pulled out behind him and accelerated and in a mile or two he turned on his lights, signaling the motorist to pull over. Well, the immediate reaction from the guy was to push the pedal to the floor and go even faster. Now my grandfather was a cool head. He had as cool a head as anybody that I have ever known. He stayed with the runaway, pacing him and after a car chase lasting for some miles, Jackie found a straight stretch of road and maneuvered his police cruiser in front of the rogue motorist and managed to head him to the side of the road. He approached the driver on foot, and when he got a few feet away, he just stood there and stared the man down with a very disgusted look on his face. You would have had to have known my grandfather, and have been the recipient of the gaze of those steely, pale blue eyes to really appreciate the effect. After a few moments, he walked around to the passenger side, opened the door and got in, and began to lecture the driver on traffic laws and the need for abiding by said laws for his own safety, as well as the safety of others with whom he shared the highway. After a while, the lecture ended, but the talk continued and they talked about their lives and many other things. He spent two hours sitting in his car, first lecturing and then counselling this man. When the time ended, Jackie got in his patrol car and he drove away. He didn’t take the rogue driver into custody; he didn’t even write him a traffic ticket. He just left the man sitting there by the side of the road, pondering the events. How do I know all of this? Because that man spent the rest of his life telling that story to people, including my own family members. The man’s name was Frank Bentley. Ironically, he owned an insurance agency, and sold home, life and auto insurance. Not only did he become my grandfather’s insurance agent, he became his life long friend. His life was certainly changed that day. Not only did he not die from a car wreck on that highway, as a result of his agitated emotional state, neither did he become a convicted felon for public endangerment, resisting arrest, or worse yet manslaughter, had he killed someone else on that road. Instead, he received much needed counsel and advice from a man who would become his mentor for the rest of his life. That was quite a turn of events for him. How would you have handled that situation? How would I? Probably not the way that Jackie did. But then, we’re not Jackie. There was only one Jackie.
My grandfather had just one child, my father, Joe Carson Smith. So is it surprising that he studied this gift of relationship and friendship building that his father displayed in his life? I know he did. He talked about it frequently, and he used these stories to teach his own children life lessons about relationships and friendship.
My father applied this model in his own relationship building, as a part of his ministry and life, which were really a single integrated entity. His ministry was his life and his life was ministry. No compartments… another tough act to follow, at least for me. Most people know of my father as a biblical scholar, or a preacher and teacher of some note, or maybe just as a name within the brotherhood, usually synonymous with rabble-rouser or some other pejorative term. What many don’t know about my father is how much of his time was spent in relationships with people, all kinds of people. To say that his office door was always open is not a cliché, but is the actual truth and the norm. He literally never closed his door, unless he was counseling someone. If he was in his office, his door was open. If someone wandered in, whoever that someone might be, my father stopped whatever he was doing and focused his full and complete attention on that person. I can’t tell you how many people have told me stories about my dad spending time with them in his office, discussing whatever was on their mind, for as long as they wished to stay and talk to him. This applied as much to the janitor as to a church member, or even to me, his youngest son, who wandered in and sat down and wanted to talk to his dad about something. He was never too busy for people. He recognized the importance of listening to and building trust with the people with whom God brought him into contact. He understood the priority of relationships and friendships with his flock, and as far as my dad was concerned, pretty much everybody was a member of his flock. He was, first and foremost, a shepherd. Don’t get me wrong. He was a notable theologian and was by many accounts an excellent college professor and I know he was a good teacher, because I learned much under his tutelage and instruction. He was also an excellent preacher. But if you spent some time with him and closely observed his day to day work in ministry, you would realize that what he did first and foremost was shepherd his people and encourage them and counsel them and be a friend to them. That’s what he considered the highest priority in his ministry. He didn’t just sit around in his office and wait for people to walk in though. He was out in the highways and hedges constantly, visiting people in hospitals, nursing homes, jails, you name it, stopping by their homes to check on shut-ins, taking communion to many, many countless saints who couldn’t come to the table on the Lord’s Day. I followed him around often, first just as a preacher’s kid, then as a deacon. When I became an elder and began the work of a shepherd myself, I would go to see folks, and wherever I went, I would hear the same thing. “Oh Mike, good to see you, your dad was here earlier”. As hard as I tried, I could never get ahead of him when it came to calling on his people, until the day that he retired. Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Well he was getting paid to call on people after all. It was just part of his job as a paid minister”. Well that’s true. He was getting paid, at least most of the time. Unless the church was having trouble meeting the weekly budget, then his paycheck was the first budget item to get deferred. He didn’t do it for the money. He did it because he loved God and His people. He would still have done it, even if he had taken all of his education and gone to some university and made a whole lot more money amidst the ivory towers of academia.
We hear the word, “intentional” a lot these days, within the context of evangelism and discipleship, along with being “missional”. Sometimes those terms bother me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for seeking and reaching the lost. I’m also dedicated to making disciples of Christ. The Lord has commanded us to do both things, after all (Matt. 28). What bothers me is the motive behind these terms (intentional & missional). I mean, insurance salesmen are “intentional” when they contact you to buy life insurance, but their motive is profit, not friendship. I got news for you; call girls are not looking for relationships. They are completely focused on their mission, which is your money. They are purely missional! Maybe purely is a poor choice of words. If our intent is to win people to Christ, then we must first begin by loving them, no strings, no motives, just love. That should be the intent. That should be the mission.
We need to build relationships with people and be friends to them because if we are there along side them, not as salesmen, but as friends, who just happen to be in Christ, then people will see Christ in us and we will then make them His disciples too. I think maybe, that’s what Christ meant about loving our neighbor. I think that’s what my grandfather and my father figured out. They followed the pattern of Jesus Christ, in his long walks with his disciples down those dusty roads of Galilee and Judea, person to person. The way to impact the world for Christ is one at a time, person to person, through hours and days and months and years of relationship building and friendship giving, until everybody that we know comes to Christ, because they see Him in us. It’s a lot more time consuming than going out and “doing evangelism”. It’s a lot less efficient, in terms of numbers, than utilizing emerging technologies and methodologies in missiology. It requires a high degree of personal investment and sometimes it gets messy, because people’s lives are messy. Sheep are stinky, so if you can’t stand the smell then don’t be a shepherd.
The world is full of people. There is no shortage. Most of them don’t have any relationship with Christ. Many of them don’t have any relationship with anyone who knows Christ. Some of them don’t have any friends or family. Let’s not pretend that there are no opportunities for us to make an impact, to make a difference in people’s lives. It doesn’t take any training. You don’t need to be an evangelist to bring people to Christ. You just need to be their friend. That’s how Jack Smith did it. You don’t need to be a biblical scholar to win people for the Lord. My father was both an evangelist and a biblical scholar, but he won more people for the Lord by friendship than he did any other way. He won them by showing them Christ. That was his intention. That was his mission. Along the way he made a whole lot of friends. That was the earthly reward for his 50+ years in ministry. He was a rich man.