Scratch the Itch in the Name of Jesus: How to Find Spiritually Interested People in an American Setting

One of the key things we as everyday missionaries can learn from the ministry of Jesus is that he modeled for us a holistic approach to evangelism. As he traveled, he seemed to always tie together the proclamation of the Good News with the demonstration of love and compassion. 

Matthew 9:35-38 paints this picture for his in a pretty compelling way: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Right before he sends out his disciples to proclaim the Gospel and look for households of peace, he models for them a ministry of compassion and healing. To practically love others in the name of Jesus has historically opened up doors for the spoken message of Jesus. In the world of missions, we call this “access ministry.”

Access Ministries

Imagine you’re a missionary going to another country hoping to make new disciples and see new churches emerge. How do you engage with the people there and begin to make relational inroads? In short, how do you gain access?

Access ministries is often the name given to the practical ways missionaries serve and love others in order to have a reason to exist in that community.  Or as a movement trainer once described to me, “It’s a scratch-the-itch-in-the-name-of-Jesus strategy.” When we are able to meet a practical need and help be an answer to a real prayer of the community, then further doors fly open for the Good News of Jesus to be proclaimed and for people in the community to discover Jesus together.

Finding Persons of Peace

Globally, access ministries are deeply connected with finding persons of peace. Persons of peace are generally defined as those who are both spiritually interested and act as relationship gateways to new networks of people (Luke 10:5-7). Generally, persons of peace are identified through some sort of tangible expression of God’s love and compassion, which in turn opens the door for new groups of people to discover and respond to the Good News of Jesus. 

Access Ministry and Person of Peace In American Settings

On one hand, access ministries in America looks the same as it does in any other part of the world. The principles of tangible compassion and verbal proclamation of the Gospel being intimately connected remains the same from culture to culture. People in the US who are attempting to plant the Gospel in networks of relationships must clothe themselves in compassion and service to others if they expect to identify spiritually interested people. This has and will always open up doors through which the Good News of Jesus can enter.

Likewise, the concept of the Person of Peace is similar here in the States. If we want to make disciples who make disciples, the practical strategy of finding the one who can reach the many remains the same. Just like in any culture throughout the last 2,000 years, the Good News of Jesus is spread from person to person and group to group. Finding certain people who can have influence over more and more people yields results in any culture. 

On the other hand, there are significant differences in regards to understanding these concepts that exist in a complicated, individualistic culture like America. The term “Access Ministries,” is probably not even helpful, and may even seem manipulative, when we’re talking about our own networks of relationships. Somehow “Person of Peace” seems different here too, particularly when trying to figure out what spiritual hunger looks like in a Post Christian culture. Below are six things to consider when thinking through the concepts of access ministries and how to find Persons of Peace in an American context:

1. The Complexity of an Urbanized Culture and a Lack of Natural Networking

The Gospel has, and will always, move through natural, relational networks. Relational gatekeepers are necessary in order to break through into new networks (this a key characteristic of a Person of Peace). The relational capital of these types of leaders is often significant enough to influence entire villages, tribes, etc, creating a ripe new environment in which to plant the Gospel.

As you can see from the image below, in urbanized cultures like America, networks are increasingly more complicated, individualized, and scattered, resulting in a severed relational network system. In a single city, one could argue that hundreds, if not thousands, of different affinities exist. Consequently, finding persons of peace that can act as those gatekeepers become far more complicated as well (very rarely do we meet people with the amount of social capital needed to exercise personal, relational influence over dozens of individuals). A thousand different affinities may necessitate discovering a thousand different Persons of Peace. 

2. An Affinity-First Society

American people tend to “live above place.” Within urbanized cultures in particular, residents tend to group themselves with others to whom they have a natural connection (common interests, needs, causes, etc). We call these “affinities.” This differs from rural cultures where people tend to identify with those primarily in their geographic or familial circles. This is important for people to understand in terms of understanding their mission field. More often than not, you will be called on mission to a network of people that transcends proximity of space, and has more to do with common interests than geographical space.

3. Unleashing the Ordinary Missionaries Into The Affinities in which they already exist

In order to see legit Gospel Saturation in a complex city, it will take an army of everyday missionaries living with intentionality and missional focus in the networks to which they already belong.

I was recently talking to a woman who started a discovery group with other young moms in her area. She told me, as she had been living on mission intentionally for a few years, that one day God suddenly told her, “the time is now.”  She realized in that moment that if she didn’t take initiative in reaching these friends and invite them to discover Jesus, then nobody else would. The reality is that if you exist in a network of relationships, then you are more equipped and ready to plant the Gospel there than anyone else. 

4.. You Might be the Person of Peace in your Community

The aspect of persons of peace being relational doorkeepers gets a little tricky when we’re thinking about our own network of relationships. Recently I was coaching a friend who is living into these movement principles in his neighborhood, and he was telling me about the cool spiritual conversations he was having with his neighbors. He  was so excited because he felt like he knew everyone on his block, yet he felt like he was stuck because he couldn’t find the person of peace. I looked at him and said, “Dude, you’re the person of peace in your neighborhood.” 

I have found this story to be true time and time again. Although we are as connected as we’ve ever been as a society, we’re more isolated and alone than ever before. People are longing for real connections, but it’s becoming less and less natural to form those relationships. This may especially be true if you identify your neighborhood as your place of mission.  In a close-the-garage-door-when-you-get-home culture, natural relational connectors in places like suburban neighborhoods are rare. One of the best things an aspiring everyday missionary can do is see themselves as the relational connectors, and begin getting inviting neighbors over for dinner and/or creating space for real connections to form. At that point, you yourself are becoming the networker. In a relationally disconnected society, sometimes we have to create a relational network before the Gospel can spread naturally. 

5. The Short Game vs the Long Game

The first place I saw real multiplication of disciples making disciples was in the local county jail. I began visiting inmates as a “religious volunteer.” I would look for persons of peace, empower them to gather others in a Discovery Bible Study, and then watch the Gospel take off right before my eyes. I would hear stories of inmates leading others to Jesus, Discovery studies being passed under maximum security doors, and groups led by one time drug dealers and murderers becoming the setting for healings, miracles, and signs and wonders. 

Access ministry in that environment was simple: just show up. The fact that I was there visiting people who so often feel neglected was all that was needed to scratch the itch in the name of Jesus.

I call this the SHORT GAME.

But I also live in a neighborhood full of mostly successful, relatively affluent suburbanites. The felt needs of a community like that are not often all that apparent. What does access ministry look like in a setting like this?

Well, it’s the LONG GAME approach.

Within KC Underground, a network of microchurches that have emerged out of purposeful living and new disciple making in the Kansas City area, we as leaders often train our people to live out a set of missionary rhythms using the acronym BLESS. I always like to say that BLESS is the everyday person’s access ministry. 

B. Begin in prayer – take on a posture of consistent missional prayer. Hear from God on behalf of the network to which you’re called, pray for people, and take authority in the Spirit as you declare God’s blessings over them.

L. Listen – Stop speaking so much and learn to listen. The best evangelists are not those who speak well, but rather they are those who excel at listening and asking great questions. Be interested. Look for opportunities to engage in meaningful topics. Create space to be around others so you can slow down and actually hear them.

E. Eat – One of the best and most practical ways to be with people is to spend time eating together. Have people over for dinner. Grab coffee. Take your lunch break together.

S. Serve What practical needs arise in your relationships? How can you practically serve others?

S. Story How are you sharing your story? Are you able to speak about your identity in Jesus in everyday topics of conversation? And when the time is ready, be ready to invite them to discover God’s story for themselves (which is where we gather people for Discovery Bible Studies).

Serving my neighbors is a consistent relational posture. Listening to others, being a good friend, and excelling as a question-asker is the everyday person’s access ministry. Praying for people and being spiritually obvious (not obnoxious) plants seeds for future spiritual conversations. In short, creating space for relationship building is often the suburban missionary’s primary way to scratch the itch in the name of Jesus. Unearthing persons of peace in this setting is not always quick, but with intentional focus and ridiculous amounts of mission-focused prayer, significant fruit can be produced by playing the long game.

6. Focus on those who “Lean In”

One of the most encouraging truths when you look at how persons of peace are discovered in the Bible is that God seems to do almost all the heavy lifting. Not understanding this concept (along with my own history with American evangelism strategies) set me back years in my own personal desire to tell people about Jesus.  Somehow in the Western Church we have turned the beautiful joy of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus into a set of scary and socially awkward “pitches.” Our methods fall under the umbrella of what I call “presentational evangelism,” that often puts pressure on the presenter to persuade the hearer from unbelief to belief in a single conversation.

No wonder Christians are so frightened of “evangelism.” That’s terrifying.

But when I look at how people come to know Jesus both in the Bible and in real life throughout the world, it seems that God continually takes the burden of drawing people to himself, not our clever words or tactics. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 2:3-5, “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith would not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.…”  

When you get to a point when you realize God will reveal himself to those whom he has called you, it actually frees you up to live with a new kind of boldness. My job changes from persuasion to participation. I don’t have to say the right things, I just need to partner with what God is up to, ask good questions, only have an agenda for myself, and lean on the Spirit’s power. 

On a practical level, this means that we spend time with those who “lean in.” A stoplight becomes the perfect metaphor when attempting to navigate what relationships to pour into. Just as a stoplight has 3 colors indicating 3 levels of speed (RED, YELLOW, GREEN), the spiritual receptivity of people to whom God has called us on mission also varies.  As you serve people and have meaningful and spiritual conversations with them, spend time with the yellow and greens. If someone simply doesn’t lean in when spiritual statements are made or questions are asked, don’t “run the red light.” They clearly aren’t interested, and if you push it you may do significant damage (remember, it’s not about giving the right pitch, it’s about joining God in his work). 

If you feel like someone may have a sort of medium level of receptivity (yellow), then continue to be present as a friend.  Be intentional in serving them and asking open ended questions. 

However, as you interact with people who seem to really lean in and seem curious when you discuss spiritual things (green), this becomes the perfect opportunity to invite them to discover God together using the Discovery Bible Study process.

7. Making the Supernatural Natural

Sam Metcalf, President of the Missions organization Novo, touches on the various Access Ministries needed to engage with various affinities. “Engaging culture may also call for prophetic engagement with systemic evil and injustice. Good news in deed may be expressed through tangible acts that bring hope to the poor, the widow, the marginalized, and other groups plagued by the fallenness of humankind. It may involve demonstrating the missional heart of the King through actions individually and together. It may require going to battle against the principalities and powers behind entrenched sin.”

Sam eludes to an aspect of finding persons of peace that is common around the world but often neglected here in the States, and that’s the role of the miraculous. I once heard a trainer within a movement missions organization estimate that somewhere between 30%-70% of their new Discovery Bible Studies came about as a direct result of the miraculous. After talking to a friend in Africa, he was adamant that it was far closer to 70%. This means that, according to people on the ground, things like a physical healing, a prophetic word, or a prayer resulting in deliverance acted as the catalyst for nearly ¾ of their DBSs overseas.

We often forget that we have the same God here.

If we are to see the sort of viral discipleship explosion here in the U.S. that we see in hundreds of other places around the world, I believe we must recapture the role of signs and wonders in our evangelism efforts. This means that we must be in tune with the Spirit, that, among other things, leads us pray for people when he prompts us and to step out in faith and expect the miraculous to happen.

Afterall, this is God’s story, not ours.

To summarize: In order to break into new networks of relationships, we need to find Persons of Peace that act as relational gateways to those communities (although you may take on that role within a network). In order to find Persons of Peace, we need to scratch the itch in the name of Jesus, and proclaim the Kingdom in action and deed. In America, the mobilization and multiplication of new disciples/groups/churches/leaders is anything but linear. Each affinity may need a different Access Ministry to break in. Sometimes it’s the short game; sometimes it’s the long game, but regardless, we simply join God in the process. Our job is not to persuade, but it’s to participate. And when it’s ready, the invitation to Discover God using a Discovery Bible Study method is actually very natural and extremely effective in planting the Gospel and starting to make Disciples from the ground-up.