Serve Blog — November 2023

Intentionally Cultivating Relationships

This month’s Serve is reposted from this last summer’s edition of Advance Magazine, an issue centered on the theme “Turning Strangers to Friends.” Read the entire issue to hear more stories about how missionaries are purposefully developing relationships so that others can hear the gospel.

The snowflakes taped to Toby and Susan's living room wall served as more than decorations. Each snowflake bore the name of a street in Toby and Susan Stevens’ Boston neighborhood. Every night during January, the Stevens family pulled off a snowflake and prayed that the gospel would speed ahead and be honored in the lives of those they knew on that street. Nearly every night, to the amazement of their sons, Curtis and Clayton, Toby and Susan told how God brought opportunities to connect to the very people they had prayed for.
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The importance of a missionary internship
There was a time in Toby and Susan’s lives that neither would have sought nor cultivated relationships so intentionally. During Susan’s years in the workforce, she was intimidated at the thought of developing deeper relationships with coworkers. Even as a pastor in New Hampshire, Toby avoided homeless people because of how they might use the money given to them.

It was an internship in Boston with BMM missionaries Bill and Deb Edmondson that challenged their ideas about relationship-building and evangelism. The Edmondsons emphasized that all people are God’s image bearers. Toby and Susan began seeing unsaved individuals as persons of inestimable value and not primarily as prospects for conversion.

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Seeing all people as image bearers
Seeing people through God’s lens has resulted in far more individuals being open to hear the gospel. But it does take time and care. When Curtis and Clayton were toddlers, Susan began taking them to the library and purposefully greeting the staff members. Both she and Toby make a point to ask people how they are doing and to build connections through common interests like plants, cooking, and dogs.

Recently, a person they met through the library sought out Susan: “I’m so glad; I was hoping one of you would come by.” She explained how her sister had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and asked if the Stevens' church (where Toby is the missionary pastor) would pray for her. Susan was honored to say yes, and the woman replied, “I knew you would pray and care about this.” Toby and Susan say that relationships like this come about through deliberate prayer and compassionate interest in people’s lives.

“Be super intentional about praying regularly. The Lord enjoys when we’re being obedient to Him,” says Toby. “Inevitably something will happen the day that we pray—either we see the person or have a conversation with them. It is exciting to see the Lord help us connect with our neighbors in ways we couldn’t have imagined in response to intentional prayer for them.”

It is beautiful how the relationships turn into two-way streets. In January, Toby had hip replacement surgery. The library staff sent him a get-well card. And a neighbor stopped by to drop off a cake and bag of coffee, giving Susan opportunities to tell him how God was caring for their family. Toby and Susan both cried together and praised God for an opening to talk about the Lord with this not-yet-believing neighbor.

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Authentic relationships
Susan says, “Sometimes it’s surprising that we’ll have someone we’ve talked with for a long time and all of a sudden they’ll open up and the door is wide open. I can’t try to provoke or push too hard because that shuts the door pretty quickly. If I’m getting to know them authentically, the Lord opens those opportunities without us getting stressed about what to say or do.”

During Toby’s recovery from surgery, their neighbor built a platform for their couch, making it easier for Toby to sit down. The neighbor refused payment for his labor, seeing it instead as a returned kindness for the ways the Stevenses have helped him through the years. He has attended several events at church, and he even recommends the church to others in the neighborhood.

Toby and Susan no longer see evangelism as an intimidating, pressure-filled pursuit: “There is a joy that comes from obeying God and intentionally showing His love. That joy is very satisfying, and we want more. It becomes a motivator and inspiration for doing more when you see God working through others’ lives.” Their mentor Bill Edmondson once said, “Can you imagine if everyone felt this way and did something about it?”

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