by David Bernard
Is an evangelistic church in a diverse society, we seek to minister effectively to people of all backgrounds and walks of life. To accomplish this purpose, we must foster an atmosphere that is spiritually sensitive and that welcomes people of every race, ethnicity, culture, age, social location, and political persuasion.
Our worship and church life shouldn’t merely reflect our personal preferences and comfort. We need to consider people who are not like us, including those who don’t share our cultural or spiritual heritage. We should be sensitive to the situations and needs of others. We shouldn’t assume that our traditional methods are the always the best or the only authentic ways to be Apostolic. While we should always follow scriptural teachings and practices, in our styles of worship and modes of operation we should consider what is most effective in our community.
Cultivating sensitivity must be intentional. Sensitivity first comes through prayer. As we pray and develop a burden for souls, we will become more sensitive to others. Sensitivity also comes through love for people as we become more aware of their needs and desires. Instead of focusing on what we think and feel, we cultivate an awareness of the thoughts and experiences of others. What do they understand and perceive? How are they responding? Finally, we need to submit to the leading of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit will guide us so that we are effective in touching minds and hearts.
Here are six hindrances to ministering with sensitivity.
1. Self-Absorption: focusing on ourselves, what we like and think, what pleases us.
2. Lack of Burden: lack of care for others; focusing on family, friends, and our comfort zone.
3. Traditions, Programs, and Rituals: believing that our way of doing things is the best or only way; resisting new ideas and methods; insisting on doing everything according to our plans; relying more on programs than the work of the Holy Spirit. We have a wonderful Apostolic heritage from the twentieth century, including how to conduct worship services and how to respond to the presence of God. Nevertheless, we must remain sensitive to the leading and presence of the Holy Spirit. We must also be willing to evaluate our plans and practices in light of current social conditions and needs. We must distinguish scriptural teachings from cultural and personal preferences, recognizing that there can be various ways of fulfilling biblical principles. While we should plan, practice, and prepare for services, we shouldn’t be bound by a program or a ritual, even if it’s unwritten.
4. Human Expectations. We can limit God’s work by our expectations and assumptions. Sometimes God wants to work in unexpected ways. His thoughts and plans are far above ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). He wants to reach people outside our comfort zone and beyond our expectations. (See Luke 14:16-24.)
5. Human Zeal. While zeal is good, we can become so intent on our efforts that we miss what God wants to do. Human promotion, excitement, and exuberance are not the same as a move of God. Sometimes they can hinder instead of help in creating a spiritual atmosphere and following the Spirit.
6. Lack of Prayer. If we don’t seek God, we may not be sensitive to the needs and opportunities around us. For this reason, we should seek God in prayer for each service.
We need to cultivate an appreciation for diversity, not to be politically correct but because people are diverse. God created people in their diversity, and God loves people. Therefore, it’s good to celebrate the diversity that exists in our communities and churches and recognize the diversity that can result as we reach out to our community. Just as people have different personalities so groups have different cultures, ways of thinking, and modes of expression. These differences are not necessarily better or worse, just different. We naturally tend to prefer what is familiar and comfortable while rejecting what is different. Although it’s fine to have preferences, we should open ourselves to new ideas and experiences and learn to accept people and cultures as they are. The main point isn’t to judge them but simply to understand and relate to them on their own terms: In this way we learn to communicate effectively in spite of differences. We learn to appreciate different personalities and cultures.
The same is true of ministries and church services. Just as we may have very different meals that together form a healthy diet, so we learn to appreciate the different ministries in the church and the different ways God works in the life of the church. Some people think every service must have the same level of exuberant, demonstrative worship, but God doesn’t always work the same way. Instead of trying to create a certain type of service or imposing our expectations, we should come to each service with expectancy to see what God will do.