Soul-Care as Mission?
Do they feel cared for?
I have a few friends that I meet with regularly that are not (currently) believers in Jesus. We grab coffee and talk about life, the world, and God. When we meet, I ask them about what’s going on in their life (the good and the bad). I genuinely want to know! I was meeting with a Hindu friend (a single guy, full of ambition). I talked with him about his parents and how he was struggling with their approval and support. He said, “Wow, I didn’t realize our meeting was going to turn into a therapy session.” I initially thought this was a negative thing and promptly apologized. “I’m sorry! I just wanted to know how you are doing.” He replied joyfully, “No! I love it. I don’t ever get the chance to talk about this stuff. When I meet with you, I feel cared for.”
This statement carried with me. Very few people in this world know what it's like to have a friend who genuinely cares about them and wants to know who they are: pains, struggles, joys, and dreams. As a pastor, I am learning (hopefully) to care for the soul of a person. We can’t see people as means to an end. We should want them to thrive and follow Jesus with their whole hearts, to be energized by him, cared for by him, led by him, and loved by him. This requires relational depth and genuine love. It should be natural for us to want this for our brothers and sisters in Christ but it made me wonder if our unbelieving friends feel this way from us.
Are evangelism and care opposed to each other?
Often we live as if proclaiming Jesus and picturing Jesus in a lost world are at odds with each other. Many churches seek to “love” people and it looks like providing a meal or some clothes or a social service. But Jesus is never proclaimed. Other churches are so focused on public proclamation that relationships never form, intentions are often misunderstood, and people don’t feel genuinely cared for. We need both. We need a proclamation of Jesus paired with a picturing of his heart. We don’t need to create such false alternatives. But also, we need to understand what “caring for people” really means. While ruminating on this, I was reading a book by Harold Senkbeil where he made a similar observation.
There is no division between the care of souls and mission… When souls come to faith by the working of the Holy Spirit through the gospel and then brought into the communion of his church, they should be tended and nurtured with the same Spirit by means of the gospel. Mission and ministry, outreach and in-reach, evangelism and care of souls are all linked by God’s own design. Harold Senkbeil
What if we didn’t segment word ministry from deed ministry? Is there a way to combine them and so fruitfully love people with Jesus, that they are compelled to step further towards him?
Soul-care requires genuine listening
Sometimes, we listen to our unbelieving friends without any intention of bringing Jesus into the mix. Other times, we listen just so we can segway into a gospel presentation. Neither are caring for people. Both can be more focused on what we feel comfortable with and what we want to say, rather than loving our neighbor and glorifying Jesus.
All people are made in God’s image. All people are embodied souls in desperate need of Jesus. So, when we meet with a person (Christian or not), we should genuinely desire to know them. We need to know them. They are a unique person, divinely created to display God’s glory. We should want to know what they love and hate, how they hurt and dream, what struggles they face and what delights they enjoy. We sit, we ask questions, and we listen. We listen truly and curiously. The person in front of us is a unique person, with unique needs, and craves to be known. If we intend to show them Jesus, we need to know what places their souls are longing for healing and joy, and then bring Jesus to those places.
Soul-care is much more than listening
Paul says it well in Colossians 4:5-6: 5 Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. According to Paul, one way we use our time the best is by knowing our unbelieving friends so well, we can craft our speech in a gracious way, seasoned to their palette, and provide them with the answer they uniquely need to hear.
Yes, we care for people by listening to them and genuinely wanting to know them. But truly caring for someone’s soul will require bringing Jesus to them. It’s listening for the heartaches that only Jesus can mend, the paths that may lead someone towards destruction, the joys that only Jesus can satisfy. It’s showing them how God is the Father that won’t leave them or abuse them, like their earthly father has. It’s asking them how the death of their loved one is making them wrestle with what they are living for. It’s showing them that their anger at their boss who shamed them or bitterness toward their friend who betrayed them will only lead to misery. And that Christ knows what it’s like to be shamed and betrayed. He endured suffering and death to save his enemies.
To care for someone’s soul requires that we hear what is flowing from their heart, grieve and rejoice with them, and then speak from our Jesus-filled hearts in ways we know that the gospel answers their greatest needs and desires. Soul-care is bringing Jesus to people, where they’re at. We cannot save or change (or even care for) someone in the ways their soul needs… but we can bring them to the One who can and then invite them to surrender to him.
A “new” evangelism strategy?
In the last century, there has been no shortage of “church growth” and “multiplication” methods and strategies. But with all the billions of dollars and lifetimes of energy devoted to winning souls to Christ, we find ourselves in a place where statistically the number of committed Christians continues to decline. As a pastor once said, “Despite all the effort given towards winning souls, little has been invested in keeping them.” I truly wonder if people would more fruitfully be drawn to Jesus if they got a taste of the love of Jesus displayed through everyday Christians caring for their souls with the gospel. The wonderful thing is that we can be doing the same for our Christian brothers and sisters and so be given ample opportunities to grow in the art and skill of soul-care.
A strategy like this isn’t really new at all. I believe it is simply an overflow of the heart of Jesus being worked in normal, everyday Christians. It doesn’t require special training outside of basking in Jesus’ presence, filling our hearts with his Word, lifting up our souls to him in prayer, and fellowshipping constantly with his people. Then, we go to our neighbors, with a heart full of genuine love, and a readiness to bring them to the caring heart of Jesus. Perhaps in this, we will start to fade and he will become more visible, as we bring his hands and feet to people who desperately need his healing touch.