Our church after school program for kids had a problem.
Kids exploded into the gym with unbounded energy and exited the doors as fast as they entered to roam the prohibited hallways with the ever-ready excuse, “I need to go to the bathroom.” One afternoon, a trail of children careened past me. “WALK!” I ordered. They glared at me. Great. How could I connect with kids who saw me more as a prison matron than the kindly wife of the senior minister?
“I’ve had it,” the church custodian grumbled to me after one particularly frenzied session. “Those kids leave the bathroom trashed every Tuesday. From now on, the soap dispenser is permanently out of the women’s bathroom. Two weeks in a row, someone has thrown a nearly full bottle in the wastebasket.”
My eyes brightened. My job at the children’s program was as a roving helper. Maybe I could reinvent my position and become a bathroom monitor. If I was going to do that, however, I was going to have to drop the drill sergeant façade. I would become a bathroom evangelist. My presence would curtail the vandalism and I would have a chance to get personally acquainted with the girls and win them to Jesus! It sounded like a win-win-win.
Connection Week One
I headed to the church early, knitting bag and electronic device in hand. I dragged a chair into the bathroom and strategically placed it in a corner just inside the door. As I waited, I prayed. I prayed that God would help me see beyond the rowdy behavior to the hearts of the elementary school age girls that would come through the door.
I didn’t have to wait long. The door burst open. I looked up from my knitting. “Hi,” I said, a smile stretched from ear to ear.
The looks on their faces were priceless. Deer in headlights. Caught. Surprise mixed with a flush of fear.
I sat, unphased. “How was school today?”
No answer. Still staring at me, each girl backed into a stall and clicked the lock quietly. Dead silence except for the usual sounds. When they reached the sink, I tried again. Mumbled responses combined with efficient scrubbing and decisive disposal of towels in the proper receptacle. Their mothers would have been proud. I was dismayed. My strategy had not worked. Oh well. Rome wasn’t built in a day and attitudes don’t change quickly either. I may have not saved souls, but I saved the soap dispenser.
The second week, the girls came in a little more subdued. As they reached the sink, one girl muttered, “What’s she doing here?” Did they think I was deaf?
“She’s watching us,” the other replied.
Well, true, but . . . The Master Accuser, alias the devil, questioned my motives. Why are you here?
“I really do want to get to know you,” I said. “How was your day? Tell me your names again?”
Their responses were a little more distinct, but they still beat a hasty retreat. Efforts at discipline, score one. Efforts to win their hearts, zero.
Third time’s a charm!
By the third week, the girls did what good little girls ought to do. After the sink routine, two girls paused in front of me, giving furtive glances at the needles in my hands. “What are you making?” They lingered, talking about their day, talking about their grandmas who knit, and wishing they knew how to knit.
That was three years ago. Some of those same girls have moved up to our youth group. I don’t have much contact with them, but they smile at me when they see me. And they’re still here.
Was it worth it?
I think I learned a few things about building relationship as a conduit to change in my four-week sojourn as a bathroom evangelist. Reaching people with the gospel message is a life-changer that demands modification in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. If we’re going to win people to Christ, we need to find connection with them first so we earn the right to be heard. As we approach people, whether within family circles, co-workers with different lifestyles, or children in our church programs caught trashing the bathroom, we need to keep relationship building principles in mind:
Transformation doesn’t happen immediately. The girls weren’t going to be my best well-behaved buddies the moment they saw me. Change, any change, takes time and often has an initial reaction of surprise, distrust, and resentment. When you choose to build relationships with the intention of reaching someone with the love of Christ and helping them mature, make the commitment to stay in for the long haul. This isn’t a one-time proposition.
Trust must be built. The girls had to find out that I was more than a screamie-meanie who was out to make their lives miserable. They had no reason to trust me until I gave them one. We build trust by being authentic and consistent, and by showing interest in those we want to reach.
Find common ground. I feared knitting would make me look as old as their grandmas. Wait a minute. I am! Then I remembered that fiber crafts have had a resurgence in recent years. My own daughter held knitting parties in her dorm room. The presence of my tablet was another point of contact. Kids love anything electronic and the presence of a gray-haired woman using a tablet make me more like them.
As you discover information about the other person, make comments that show you share their interests and their life stories, and then move the conversation quickly back to them. Recently I offered to help off load purchases for a man in an electric cart at a discount store. He refused. Then we started talking. He told me he was recovering from surgery for an injury received in the military. I commented that my daughter was in the military, but then swiveled the conversation back to him. Soon, he paused. “You know, I think I will have you put my stuff on the counter for me.” Building common ground with him softened his attitude.
Do lots of listening. With chattery girls, this can be hard. It’s boring. I really wanted to set them straight in their attitudes towards teachers, boys, and other girls. Instead I pinched my lips together, only opening my mouth to ask a question. People will often figure out their own problems if we give them the chance to talk it out.
There will be setbacks. I can’t say the behavior issues completely went away. Girls still used the bathroom as a seemingly plausible place to escape from what they don’t want to do. Sometimes building relationships feels like one step forward and two steps back. Instead of becoming disheartened with the stubborn resistance to change in some areas, focus on and affirm the positive change you do see.
Be ready to have your motives questioned. Yes, it was true. I was there to watch the girls and guard the bathroom property. That wasn’t my only reason for being there, however. I knew my higher purpose, and while, the one girl who questioned my presence may have been partially right about one of my motives, she didn’t know or understand my method – to bring about change through kindness and connection rather than through rules and discipline. Yes, we do reach out to people with the intention of showing them life can be different through Jesus Christ. There is no shame in that. As the Apostle Paul wrote,
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).
We press forward because we know why we are there. We sit in bathroom corners, on coffee shop stools, and dusty couches because we want to please and honor the Lord, and we want to love as He loved. Those we try to reach won’t understand at first why we would come to them. If we hang in there and stay consistent and persistent, they’ll find out how much we are like them and how much more we have to offer them through Jesus Christ.
Who does God want you to connect with this week? On what common ground do you need to meet that person? How can you show kindness, consideration, and love as Jesus has shown you?
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