Have you ever realized that other people were talking about you?
You glance up and see a group of people whispering together with their eyes flicking over to you every now and then. Or a group discussion suddenly falls quiet when you enter the room. Sometimes you get wind of the fact that you’ve been discussed via a third party, or you hear that “your name came up” in a discussion that you weren’t a part of.
It’s a disconcerting feeling. And a strangely dehumanizing one. When we become the subject of a discussion, we’re no longer a part of the discussion: we’re not involved. Whether the conversation about us is good or bad, when we are a topic we cease to be a person. We can’t engage, ask questions, speak up, or otherwise involve ourselves in what is being said.
Jesus dealt with it, too. In John 7, his brothers encourage him to go to the Festival of Tabernacles. Jesus refuses because his time has not yet come, but decides to go in secret after they have departed. The Bible reports that “at the festival, the Jewish leaders were watching for Jesus” and “among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, ‘He is a good man.’ Others replied, ‘No, he deceives the people'” (John 7:11-12).
How strange it must have been! There Jesus stood, his identity hidden, and listened to himself being discussed, listened to people debate his identity and his virtues. The God of the Universe permitted himself to be a topic of gossip. And I can’t help but think, with my memory of elementary-school cafeterias and church meetings where rooms fall silent when the subject of conversation enters, that it must have been a lonely and alienating experience.
Because Jesus liked to talk to people. He loved to answer questions. He was tireless in his willingness to chat.
As Christians, especially in this new age of what I can only call the corporate church, it’s easy to reduce people to demographics. We talk about people as prospects, as “future growth,” as communities, as “the unsaved” or “the lost.” And to the ears of those outside the church – to the ears of those we are trying to reach – I wonder if our approach doesn’t come across as occasionally dehumanizing, as though the church lives in pursuit of numbers and not souls.
What Jesus (and the New Testament church after) taught us is that we reach out by engaging. By discussing people not in meetings and behind closed doors in strategy meetings and ministry classes, but by going out and talking to them. Jesus was open, constantly, to the moment. And so also must we be. Let us forever be wary of coming together in crowds to whisper together about those among us; like Jesus did, let’s reach out, listen, hear, and make relationships.
All it takes is time. And time is what we have.
I’m away on vacation for the next couple of weeks. Please feel free to comment on or respond to the posts; I’ll certainly get back to you when I return!