Sometimes missionaries struggle with the reach of our influence. In their efforts to start a church planting movement, they see it as a good thing to interact with as many people as possible. This is the basic mentality behind most of the “broad seed sowing” activities our people do. Tracts, door-to-door visits, and drama in the park are all efforts toward sharing the message of Christ with as many people as possible.
But how does this play into a strategy that doesn’t include distribution or public events? If a person can only have so many real friends, and my ministry is intentionally limited to personal relationships, how can I “reach” a wide audience?
I’ve been asked these questions several times by different people. In fact, this seems the be the one issue that most people have with our “strictly relational” approach to church planting. It just isn’t a good use of our time, they reason, to spend it with people who are closed, indifferent, or hostile to our message. Strategists have come up with all kinds of solutions to overcome the limits of our relational reach. The IMB trains us in the use of programmed “filters.” These are built-in means by which we can find those people who are spiritually searching, and screen out the people that are less open to accepting the gospel.
One example is a change in the traditional use of the “Jesus Film.” Rather than passing it out indiscriminately, our strategists now recommend sending out invitations to receive the movie. This, they say, saves lots of time, effort, and money, by focusing on those people who are already interested enough that they would put forth the effort to answer an invitation and request a film. Having identified the people that are spiritually “good soil,” the missionary doesn’t have to waste time on people who may never respond to the good news.
On more than one occasion, I’ve had colleagues express concern over our short-reaching influence. And each time, their advice included the Front Burner/Back Burner analogy. Their take is that sure, it’s ok to be relational, but that we need to be discerning in how much we invest into those relationship. Those relationships that seem to be “going somewhere” (the person is showing interest in coming to Christ after we share the gospel with them) are the ones we need to put on the “front burner;” those are the ones we need to pour our lives into. But if we have a relationship with someone who, after repeated contact still do not show signs of interest, we need to put them on the “back burner.” They wouldn’t say that we should ignore these uninterested people, but we would recognize that our time might be better spent elsewhere.
After a lot of thought, I’ve decided that I really don’t like the “Front Burner/Back Burner” strategy. It’s basically a “filtering” technique, applied to relational ministry, and I think it misses the point.
Look for part two in my next post.