A little test of character

There is little more repulsive than people looking past you, through you, or over your shoulder looking for somebody more important or significant to speak with. I remember being in church, chatting with the visiting speaker, only for him to be looking around everywhere whilst I spoke with him. He was making no real effort to disguise his looking around, so I asked if he was alright. He told me he was looking around for one of our elders (I was not an elder) because he hadn’t spoken to him yet. At least he didn’t try and hide it, I guess.

Another time, someone else heading into ministry was pretty rude and dismissive. It was quite clear I was not somebody they were particularly interested in. That was, of course, until they found out I was actually in ministry. At which point, the whole demeanour changed. They were suddenly quick to shake my hand and started calling me ‘brother’, which was a bit weird. But basically, I was a nobody to them – not anyone of any use to them – until (in their mind) I suddenly was.

Having grown up in churches all my life, I was always quite taken by the people who would take an interest in me as a child. Why should they be bothered about anything I was doing? I wasn’t anyone special? But they were bothered. Not because I could do anything for them, or they thought I was a vital cog in the church machine, but because I was a person made in God’s image. I was valuable to them because I was valuable to the Lord. Some of those people who were bothered about me back then, amazingly, still seem to be bothered now too. They have kept praying for me, despite my being a nobody worthy of their attention.

And I was reminded of this recently. I was away at a conference and said something to the effect that I would be surprised if the people there paid a great deal of attention to me because who am I? But my friend rightly said, ‘but that’s just a little test of character isn’t it? How they respond to people who aren’t deemed important.’ He was absolutely right. And those we were with did pay attention to people like me, even though I am a nobody. They bothered to learn my name and remembered it, they treated me like an equal rather than a subordinate (or, worse, something they stepped in), they engaged in a way that showed they were interested in people, even if they weren’t obviously important or useful. And (I think), not only me, but others too.

But all of this begs two questions. One for us to ask personally and one to ask more generally. On a personal level, how good are we at showing interest in apparently unimportant people? Thinking of your own ministry, do you gravitate naturally towards “movers and shakers” or do you genuinely show an equal level of care and concern for those people who might be seen as less important by others? Is your ministry characterised by a care for the poor and lowly or is it largely all about those who serve your ministry, your church or your vision? It is easy to overlook those who don’t appear so “useful”, but that should never really be the posture of the church of Jesus Christ. If an image-bearer walks through the door, they are worthy of our time and interest purely on that ground. Any less is a dereliction of pastoral duty.

But more widely, it begs the question why we have so many people like this in ministry? The looking over the shoulder, deep disinterest in anyone who isn’t someone, is not an issue here or there; it is everywhere. So many ministers of the gospel exhibit this trait. How is it that we have pushed so many people like this into ministry? If character matters, one of the clearest ways character shows up in the church is how ministers are with those who can do nothing in particular for the church. Yet that hasn’t stopped many from entering ministry with that firmly implanted in their minds. What is it that means we seem to overlook this trait?

Is it that we generally admire those who get stuff done that we overlook character? That is to say, have we effectively become pragmatic about leadership? Is it that we are too prone to flattery and those of us in a position to influence these things are the one’s being flattered and we do not notice that those on the receiving end are being treated differently? Is it simply desperation, with not enough people going into ministry, so someone is better than no one? I don’t really know the answer.

But I do think how we treat those who cannot obviously serve our ministry is a key test of character. What are we like with those who can apparently do nothing for us? How do we treat the visiting speaker compared to the scruff who walks in off the street? Given that I look like a scruff, and am rarely mistaken for the visiting speaker until I tell people that’s who I am, some of us will inevitably know. Have we ever properly thought about Hebrews 13:2 as far as these things go? And while we’re thinking about that, let’s reacquaint ourselves with James 2. The Bible has plenty to say about this – it would be good if we were sure to listen.