Have you ever been treated as only a portion of yourself?
I was once asked to be part of a group simply because I was a young woman. The other members expected me to represent all young women and help them pave a path that made them more appealing to a younger demographic.
I was offended when I found out. I am, in fact, a young woman, but I'm also much more. I have unique roles, passions, interests, goals, and talents. Instead of being recognized for my whole self, I was simply filling a quota.
When we're seen for only one role we play or as having only one talent, it can hurt. Maybe you've been the token woman on a committee, or you were invited to serve on the church board to represent all young moms. Or perhaps you've always wanted to be involved in the discipleship team, but instead you're only known for the excellent dinner rolls you bring to the potluck dinners—so you're stuck helping in the kitchen. Or maybe you're the happy Sunday school teacher, and no one has ever bothered to ask how you're doing—because they assume you're always happy.
It's far too easy to do this to one another in our culture. What disturbs me is that we also typecast people in the church. We base our understandings of others on one small piece of their identities or lives. Although this worries me, what worries me even more is how often we do this to unbelievers and the unchurched.
Many approach evangelism believing the most important piece is preaching the gospel, telling people about Jesus, and helping people begin a relationship with him. While these components are key, taking this view means we are seeing the unchurched and unbelievers as one-dimensional people—people who simply need Jesus in their lives. We neglect their uniqueness, their past, their desires, and their needs—physical, emotional, mental, or financial.
I've come to believe that, as Christians, we are called to bring about shalom, what John Driver describes as an all-encompassing wholeness and health resulting "from authentically whole (healed) relationships among people as well as between person and God." We're called to restore the whole person—not just meet their spiritual needs. When we approach evangelism with the sole purpose of restoring people spiritually, we're missing our calling.
Bringing shalom requires so much more. It requires that we are people who preach and live the gospel. This matches our account of Jesus in the Bible—we have both his words and his actions. And I have to believe they're both important if they're both included.
So when we seek to meet others' needs—to restore them, to bring about shalom—we need to approach them as whole, unique people, completely loved by God. We must listen to them before jumping to assumptions and be genuinely interested in learning about their passions, desires, and needs.
We must pray about the best ways to restore these people to wholeness, asking God to guide us. We must serve them in ways that are helpful to them—not just what we assume will help. And we must tell them our story—the story of what Christ is doing in our lives, the reason we seek to meet their needs.
In The Cost of Community, Jamie Arpin-Ricci writes that the ways we help those in need "are not reflections of some noble gestures of holiness and self-sacrifice, but rather declarations of our satisfaction with Christ's kingdom as it breaks forth into our lives and the lives of those around us." If we are happy with the shalom that we experience as a result of our restored relationship with Christ, we will be compelled to bring shalom to the lives of others—and that requires total restoration.
I'm learning this lesson over and over as my small group helps under-resourced people in our community. We have to throw our assumptions about the nearly homeless, malnourished family we're assisting out the window. We have to get to know what the 70-year-old recovering alcoholic man loves, desires, and lives for before we can assume we know what he needs.
It's only when we get to know whole people that we can work alongside God, bringing about shalom everywhere we go.
How has helping others helped you dig deeper into your relationship with God? For more resources on outreach and evangelism, explore TCW's "Deeper Faith: Outreach" collection, and read these two articles from ChristianBibleStudies.com: "What is True Evangelism?," and "No More 'One Size Fits All' Outreach."
Amy Jackson is associate editor of SmallGroups.com. Follow her on Twitter @amykjackson.