It was a brisk, spring morning with the sun beginning its path across the mountain town I was driving through. The post office was bustling with people inside and out. At the local breakfast spot, people sat in chairs outside chatting. Kids ran in the lawns of the houses along the little two-lane road going through this scenic view.
Then it hit me. I couldn't remember when I last "saw" people. I felt like I had just been reinserted into a real world. I suddenly saw people greeting each other, laughing with one another, telling stories, stopping to talk along the way about the day's journey just beginning to unfold. I slowed down until I was barely moving, then gazing, staring in disbelief of these people I had just rediscovered.
I laughed one of those curious what's-going-on kind of laughs. I even looked into the mirror to see what expression I had on my face. It was a look that said I'd like to stop and be part of this; to have a neighbor to talk with, laugh with, cry with, to tell real stories about real lives. The strangest part was that I even wanted to listen to their stories. I longed to re-enter the real world of real people living real lives.
Later that day I arrived at my destination to meet with a dear and wise friend who was helping me along the journey of discovering agape. I was still overwhelmed with what I had experienced that morning. "I've never seen anything like it," I told him. He responded with a liberating truth. "You've broken through. You've spent all these years seeing souls, but today you saw people becoming what God intended. You are seeing people, not souls."
My gift of evangelism was, and still is, amazingly strong. I always wanted to be an evangelist. Thirty years ago I read a book about the life of George Whitefield and it changed my life. He became my hero and I wanted to be like him. So the journey to "win souls" was on.
But over time the gift began to possess me. Everything became about winning souls and not much about the people themselves. Had I met you in those years you might have noticed that I didn't much care about your story. Didn't have much time to stay around and listen. I had to go save more souls for heaven. My value and identity became attached with the answer to "How many souls did you win today?" And the answer would have been about a number, not a name or someone's life story.
Numbers or names?
Now don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with winning souls. The Book says that he who wins souls is wise. But something's not right when life becomes about souls to win for heaven, and not about people wanting to be known now on earth; when numbers become more important than names.
Just last week another man showed up unannounced at our Sunday morning "Waffles and Grace" home gathering. I found out later he had been trying to reconnect with Blood n Fire for several years. When he stepped on to the porch and saw me after all those years, his very first words were "Pastor, do you remember me?" It's the same question I hear every time I meet someone who came through the Warehouse doors when we were housing hundreds of homeless each night in downtown Atlanta.
Before I could even answer, he thanked me and Blood n Fire for giving him back his life. He told how he had quit smoking and drinking, gave up the women and drugs. But then he asked that question again, the real one burning in his heart. "Pastor, do you remember me?
I used to lie when people asked me that, saying I did but, sorry, I just couldn't remember the name. Giving great grace, they would never let on to the disappointment of not being remembered. The homeless probably understood better than most that if I didn't remember their name, I probably didn't care about or remember their story.
See, I learned early on how to meet and greet and move on. Next, please. Don't have too much time. Too many souls to win, causes to promote, visions to walk out. Don't need to learn names. That's why we have name tags. At least with a name stuck on the front of a shirt we can give the impression that we know one another without actually having to.
Today I think it is easier to confess that I don't remember their names and explain that it had nothing to do with them. My gift, my calling, my cause drove me so hard that I was too busy to deeply care about anybody apart from how it served me and my seemingly good ministry agenda. But now, this thing of agape, of supernatural love, overrides all and compels me to offer my time--not just my gift--and truly meet them, know them and their story.
I am finding that everyone I meet has time to tell their story, but they have found so few who want to listen. I'm talking about listening without an agenda of winning a soul, or selling a product, or enlisting in a cause. Yet, how can any of us say we know someone if we don't know his or her story?
It may take time for our neighbors to trust us enough to tell the real story of their journey and see how we will respond to it. Will we treat them as another soul to win for heaven or a number to add to our church growth program?
I believe something different is starting to happen. Something that happens supernaturally. It's about a love, a caring for a neighbor who is so unlike who we are. It's about a heart change, a transformation so that we have no purpose or motivation other than wanting to do our neighbor good. And it ends up doing us both good: our neighbor finds voice and we become instruments of His agape love, the only thing, I believe, that still shocks the world.
Without the real story no one will ever know the real God, the One who is always faithful. Always, no matter what! Without telling our failures, the dark nights, the joys of the new morning, how we misused our success, and how we betrayed and were betrayed, we will never know how much God loves. We will miss His heart of compassion and graciousness, His being slow to anger, and His mercy, truth and forgiveness.
I believe for me my days of soul winning are over. They were good years for my ministry and me personally, but I am left with a lot of numbers and few real people living real life. I have spent over sixty years learning about the journey with God. Now I want to learn about journeying with people, my neighbors and experience life with them.
Yeah, it's hard. The old keeps calling, "David, there's a soul to be won." But change is inevitable, and He is changing me from a soul winner to a man who loves his God and loves his neighbor.
David VanCronkhite David.VanCronkhite@gmail.com