I have these rules for life. This happens to be the fifteenth on the list. While all the others easily boil down to some simple phrase this one struggles with such simplicity. The rule was originally phrased — meet people where they are and get on their level. Neither short, memorable, or clear.
What this rule intends is an attitude of connection that seeks to interact by adjusting my words, posture, and actions to demonstrate acceptance and foster communication. That’s a mouthful. For instance, I’m technical by nature. I’m fluent in the language of “computer geek” with all those strange acronyms that support our tech connected lives. But, when speaking with a non-technical person I intentionally modify how I say things so that it will make sense to them. In essence, I’m bridging two worlds.
Being a bridge may mean kneeling to speak with a child. It means recognizing where someone is at and modifying my words, attitudes, and non-verbal actions to connect. The idea is to communicate on someone’s level instead of speaking down at them. In this way, I’m being a bridge for them instead of a barrier.
One fear that keeps us from being bridge-like is the fear of losing our own identity. That, by making these kinds of connections with folks different than us, we’ll stop being who we are. But being a bridge also means being anchored to something solid on our side. That anchor could be a bit of knowledge or experience. It could also be a larger purpose and goal. For me, the anchor is often who I am in Jesus. We very well may learn new attitudes and actions by connecting with others but the larger goal of being a bridge is for others to gain from us. That exchange, that willingness to adapt, makes the bridge stronger.
There is also a trap to avoid in making these bridge-like connections. The trap is over-identification to the point of “going native.” That’s what the diplomatic corp calls an ambassador that has adopted the language and culture they were sent to instead of representing the country that sent them. At that point, we are no longer bridges. To put it another way, getting on a child’s level does not mean acting like a child.
Paul put it this way, “Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ…When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ…When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19–23, NLT) Paul knew who he was and had his sights on a larger purpose as he shifted between Jews, Gentiles, and those of weak conscience.
There is a tonal difference in Paul’s attitude that is subtle but important. Paul didn’t shift so that people liked him or included him in their activities or thought of him as a great leader. He wasn’t doing this for the sake of pleasing people or getting a pat on the back. He, instead, shifted his actions so his message could be heard through his acceptance of the folks. Paul was anchored to Christ and built bridges to various cultures, personalities, and people for the purpose of introducing them to God’s Good News. The book of Acts is filled with examples of Paul’s bridge-building.
Being a bridge has one other aspect that makes it difficult. Bridge-building is much more humbling than it is ego building. In fact, if pride is the fruit our efforts will be weak and ineffective. When this is done right in human interactions the bridge itself is hardly noticed. Making these kinds of connections for pride or any kind of personal gain is like building a bridge to nowhere.
“Be a bridge” is a check against the human tendency to create our own kingdoms, tribes, and clans. This rule prevents the disease of in-out-ism which makes those different from us invisible, unworthy, and unlovable. It pops the bubble of our ego and grounds us to something greater than ourselves. Most of all, it is a rule built on acceptance instead of fear and pride.