If you're under the age of 30, you probably remember playing a computer game called "The Oregon Trail." For those who might have never played it, it was essentially a very basic computer simulation of what it was like for the early pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail. You had to navigate different dangers along the way, and hopefully you'd finish the game by arriving safely in Oregon City.
Most of the time, however, I either died of dysentary or drowned. River crossings were the bane of everyone's existence, because they almost always spelled death in some manner. I couldn't help but to think how much easier everything would have been if someone would have taken the initiative to build a few dang bridges on that trail.
Unfortunately, in my experience it seems that Christians treat spiritual conversations like The Oregon Trail. When we reach a river that must be crossed, rather than taking the time to build a bridge, we either balk and turn back, or barge forward without thinking and end up drowning.
This is the third role one can assume while participating in someone's spiritual journey is that of a Bridge Builder. This role, as the diagram below shows, can (and probably will) be assumed at many different points along the way.
Those little circles represent what I like to think of as "roadblocks": issues that, if not dealt with, will keep a person from moving along in their spiritual journey. The size and difficulty of the roadblocks you may encounter will vary, but they will happen with regularity as you walk with someone.
The diagram below represents a person an a spiritual journey. Like every human being, we are an intricate mix of intellect, emotion, and needs/wants. Our spiritual roadblocks will always fall into one of these three categories.
The key is to remember that no matter what category the roadblock falls into, the principle for dealing with them remains the same. Don't worry about having the right answer, or the correct response for each and every roadblock. Rather, remember this one key thing -
An effective bridge begins where the person is at, ends with Jesus and connects the two effectively.
If you have the time, pull out your Bible and read Acts chapter 26. In this portion of Acts, Paul speaks with a large group of Athenians, non of whom are Christians. Being firmly embedded in pagan culture, Paul obviously encounters quite a few roadblocks. However, as you read, take note of what he does. He starts by acknowledging and affirming where they are spiritually, ends by proclaiming Christ and the need for repentance, and connects the two in the middle.
So what happened? Some scoffed and laughed at him. Some were interested and wanted more information. And some believed and repented right then and there. That's the thing about bridges - we can never really be sure of whether this is the first or last bridge on a person's journey to Jesus. But the principle is the same every time - start where they are, end with Jesus, and connect the two in the middle.
A Builder, like the Explorer and the Guide, has two main tools: Prayer, and God's word. Using these two things, you will determine whether the roadblock you've encountered will need to be removed, or simply have a bridge built to go over it.
Prayer, of course, is the main tool. Praying for someone and for your witness to them, is key. If you don't pray, I am convinced that God will probably not use you. Prayer ought to be 90% of our work, and everything else behind that. Why? Because we are not the ones who bring someone to salvation. We are used by God, but we do no accomplish it. It only makes sense to appeal to the One who is actually doing the real work. Pray hard, pray big, and pray often.
God's word is your second tool. The key here though is to use gentle persuasion. Gentleness is strength under control. Persuasion is to urge, or encourage. Together, the image that comes to mind is beckoning or calling someone to join you. You're not trying to win an argument, but influence change. People need us to come alongside them, understand where they are, and help them over or around an issue.
Begin by attempting to understand the issue you've encountered.
Explore and ask questions. It may sound like an intellectual issue (Why does God allow evil?), when in reality it is emotional (Why did this happen to me?) **This is extremely important. Most intellectual issues are actually emotional issues. You will probably need to address both at some point before you will truly be able to move on. I always, always err on the side of caution when someone raises an intellectual issue. If I proceed to give a purely intellectual answer, without addressing the emotional side of things, I risk damaging or offending my friend.
To give an example, a friend once told me about a time when she was talking to a friend of hers. Her friend was spiritually interested, but voiced that she had a really hard time believing that hell was a real place and that God would send people there. My friend, (with good intentions) immediately launched into a detailed explanation, with Bible verses, of why hell was real and why God is just in allowing people to go there for eternity. As my friend blazed through her explanation, she looked up, expecting to find her friend throughly informed, only to realize she was in tears!
As it turns out, no one in her friend's family believed in anything. Her friend was terrified of the idea that the mom, dad, and siblings she loved so much could end up in a place as horrible as hell. The objection that she initially raised was intellectual, but her true roadblock was emotional. By not carefully asking questions and exploring before trying to build a bridge, my friend inadvertently bulldozed where she meant to build.
When dealing with a roadblock, it's important to let them know you understand and appreciate it. Don’t minimize or make light of it. Acknowledge the importance of their problem, and don't expect them to change their mind overnight. If you realize you truly don't know the answer, that's ok! Tell them that. My favorite phrase is, "I don't know, but I can find out!" Offer to do research with them about the issue. Your friend will probably appreciate your honesty and candidness, and it gives you both an opportunity to keep moving together.
End by pointing back to Jesus.
Remember, ultimately this is about Jesus. Don't let yourself become sidetracked talking about peripherals like Christians, churches, etc. Always bring the focus back to Jesus. Tim Keller, one of my favorite authors, makes a great point that ultimately most arguments about Christianity hinge on one thing - whether or not Jesus is who he says he is. If Jesus is who he says he is, than what you believe about anything else doesn't matter - only what Jesus said matters. If he isn't who he said he is, then why bother with Christianity at all? Keep first things first.
Connect the two.
There are many ways to connect the two, and what you choose to use will depend entirely on the situation.
- The Bible: Share a verse and explain its implications to the issue.
- Your Experience: What has helped you related to this issue.
- Questions: Can you help them think differently about the issue?
- Stories: Is there a story they could relate with or an illustration they could understand?
One of my favorite things to do, if the person I'm chatting with doesn't hate reading, is to loan a book. I always choose to loan rather than give away when I can, because loaning contains some expectations. If you loan a book, there is some pressure to read it and give it back. If you give a book away, it will often just get shelved and never looked at again (speaking from experience. My bookshelf is full of unread good intentions.)
Some of my favorite books to loan out are The Reason for God, by Tim Keller, The Case for Faith/The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Turek and Geisler, and Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I also occasionally loan out a copy of the New Testament, with the encouragement to read the book of Luke or John first. I believe that reading God's word, and letting it work in people's hearts, can be one of the most effective things I can do in helping overcome spiritual roadblocks.
Most of the time when loaning a book, I ask permission (there it is again!) to give my friend a book. If they say yes, when I hand it over, I say something like, "I'd love to hear your thoughts about it once you've read it. Let's grab coffee when you're done and we can talk then - my treat!" If you've never read the book either, you could even offer to read it with them and discuss as you read.
Remember, as you build, the key, as with any part of being a CoJourner, is to listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. You may not have the perfect answer, but the Holy Spirit does. Let him work in and through your conversations as you build bridges, and you cannot fail.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on being a Bridge Builder. Have you ever had to be a Bridge Builder for someone? What did you do?
Come back tomorrow for the final part of our series, and the wrap up of how to participate in others' spiritual journeys.