Love and Respect in San Francisco
In 2013, we moved as far from every member of our family as we could have, without leaving the country. Who does that?
We accepted God’s call to 1) serve as Western District Superintendent and 2) live a missional life in the city of San Francisco. We did so believing that what matters most in the context of time is “people finding Jesus.”
God laid on our hearts to ask Him for respect and love, in that order, for everyone we would meet. So we asked, and guess what? He answered. He gave.
Respect has to come first. If we agree theologically that every person is created in the image of God, then, practically, that will translate into an approach to all people marked first by respect. When we made the choice to look for and embrace the image of God in people who were far from Him, it was incredible how any combative, fearful and disdainful feelings changed into curious, admiring and contagiously interested feelings.
Actually enjoying people, while praying for their greatest need, led irresistibly to loving them, the second part of God’s invitation to us.
As a result, our politically liberal friends feel respected. Our culturally superior friends feel accepted. Our sexually wounded friends feel loved. We have grown as people. Our minds and hearts are expanding as we listen to people whose frame of reference vastly differs from ours. It turns out that the humanness we share is a lot more unifying than we’ve been taught to believe.
At the same time, our appreciation for the gospel and our longing that those around us understand it continues to deepen. We are living with our new friends, immersed in their lives, praying that they might trust us enough to listen and understand for the first time just how good the good news is.
An invitation into community
As we began to express a growing desire for community, we found that some of our friends liked the idea, too, so we entered into an experiment: We invited people who knew us, but not each other, to meet regularly with us for dinner and conversation.
In a thoroughly post-Christian environment, for people to believe they can be friends with conservatives, with Christians, with ministers, with older people, is quite incredible. (They are ages 28-40, and we are in our late 50s.)
We agreed that to really get to know each other, we needed to spend time intentionally talking about what we believe. Not what we like, do, think or work at, but what we believe about life.
Living with people is a long-haul way of life and love that trusts God to save.
The ground rules were simple: no political correctness and no arguing. Our goal was to hear and be fascinated by what we learned about each other. At the end of each evening, the group scheduled the next dinner and drew the next subject out of a hat they had filled with ideas.
What a natural environment in which to share our biblical convictions and learn the values of our new culture. Our friends trust us but are only now beginning to trust that there might be another definition for words like love, Bible, church, Jesus, faith and gospel.
They are wondering, but cautious. So we are living transparently before them, finding as much common ground as we can (and there is a lot, by the way) and falling deeply in love. They not only feel love from us but are also giving it to each other.
And now the city is experiencing a baby boom like nothing since 1940. All of the couples in the original group got pregnant, along with many others in the neighborhood. It felt like perfect timing to transition into a parenting community, which has enticed another six couples to join us. In a career-oriented, commitment-avoiding, unfriendly-to-family culture, having a baby is a massive transition. A wet cement moment, perhaps. For such a time as this we believe that God has us in their lives.
Here’s what we’re learning:
If we will look, first, in the direction of those outside the faith, we’ll live on-mission. When you think of “making a disciple,” whom do you think of first? The pool of potential men and women in your church who already believe, or someone outside the faith, like Jesus did?
Living with people is different from living around them or for them.
By living “in, but not of the world” and “avoiding even the appearance of evil,” we’ve often shrink-wrapped ourselves right out of real friendship. Some have compared Christian evangelistic efforts to that of lowering the drawbridge for brief attacks against the enemy, only to hurry back into the safe confines of the fortress. Even kind actions for people (give, serve, help) have their way of keeping our hearts separated.
Instead, living with people means lots of humility, love, time and regular connections. It means turning away from those dreaded attempts of ours to “turn the conversation to spiritual things.” It’s a long-haul way of life and love that trusts God to save.
People are waiting to hear good news but are pretty sure it doesn’t exist. Our demand for “fruit in keeping with genuine repentance” has confused our message and stripped the gospel of the “good” part of its news. Our political activism and devotion to restoring our “Christian nation” has mis-defined the gospel. While some immoral behaviors are surely worse than others, none are worth withholding respect and love. Here’s the thing: God will get around to their behavior, as He does with ours, after they’ve surrendered their hearts to Him. Are we able to respect and love people who are in-process?
We have to be willing to “pay the price” as we invest time in relationships with the unbelieving. It will be a conscious choice to move from the familiarity of Christian fellowship to the risk of connecting with those yet-to-believe. We can’t let our Christian relationships go; we just have to make them count. Our faith-family will be with us forever, but our yet-to-believe friends are perishing. They are actually perishing.
People are what matter most. When we finally came to believe that what matters most is people finding Jesus, everything changed. We are learning to see every moment of life, and all that happens in it, as crafted by God for the sake of those who are perishing in and around that moment.
We marvel at the way our lives have become a daily piecing together of a mosaic of marvelous people. And though we have yet to see anyone come to Jesus, we live one day at a time, right here where God has us, waiting on the Lord of the Harvest to do the work only He can do, in His timing. We pray and we invest like never before and choose to believe that God is at work, whether it feels like it or not.
We want to be watching from a front-row seat when the miracles unfold. It’s the best reason we have to keep breathing.
Neal and Judy Brower are disciplemakers in their neighborhood in San Francisco, California, where Neal also holds the title of superintendent of the EFCA Western District. Contact Neal if you are interested in joining them on-mission in the city.