Visiting any Christian bookstore in America, you will find a section of books with lists of helpful strategies or ideas for various topics, such as 7 keys to grow your church, 10 steps toward being smarter with your money, or 5 ways to win in life. While these strategy books may be helpful to some, I am the kind of guy that does not particularly enjoy these kinds of books. Sure, they may be helpful, but I would much rather learn by getting my hands dirty.
So, you may be thinking, and rightfully so, why in the world am I writing an article with a list of things to do and not to do, to say and not to say to veterans in your church—if I’m not a fan of lists? My answer is quite simple: If there were an abundance of resources out there on how churches can reach veterans, this article would be unnecessary. There isn’t. I’m writing these articles not to give the definitive answers or to give the perfect list but to plant seeds, with the hope that you’ll dig deeper into the soil of learning by doing.
One of the big tasks in basic training, the entry-level training for the United States Army, is the land navigation course. It goes like this: teams ranging anywhere from two-to-four people are given a map, a compass, and a list of points. Each team must plot the points and find them along the course in a timed exercise. Each piece is critical, but I found the most important to be the map. Without this, there is no way for you to plot the points or know where you are attempting to go.
“I’m writing these articles not to give the definitive answers or to give the perfect list but to plant seeds, with the hope that you’ll dig deeper into the soil of learning by doing.”
My hope is that this article, as well as the previous two I have written for Renew.org (Part 1 and Part 2), will be something of a map in your quest to serve veterans within your church. Let me preface this article by noting that these are my own opinions and may not reflect the veteran community as a whole, although I have tried to be as helpful as I can based on my interactions with fellow veterans. As you interact with veterans in your respective communities, you will find that some of these do’s and don’ts are more relevant than others. Use what works and take the rest out behind the barn. But the important thing is that you are consistently trying to reach a forgotten people group.
Please Don’t Do This
When preparing for this article, I wrestled with the very idea of writing about this, because it caused me to go into deep reflection about my feelings. This is something veterans tend to do poorly, in large part because the military has taught them to compartmentalize feelings. This means that the emotions are often buried deep, with the result that the veteran may never actually process things they have seen and done. This underscores how hard we may have to work if we want to earn trust and gain access into a veteran’s life.
1. Don’t Make Assumptions
If we are honest with ourselves, we make assumptions about people daily, and sometimes they are untrue and unfair. We assume something about the man holding a sign on the street corner, about the middle-aged person working behind the counter at the local service station, or even about the new person that walks into our church on Sunday morning. We all do this no matter if we know the truth or not.
As military veterans walk into our churches, we must work hard not to make assumptions about what they have seen and done. If we make it our goal to love people as we love ourselves (see Mark 12:30-31), we will recognize that their experiences do not define them. Rather, what gives us our fullest identity is who we are (or who we could be) in Christ. We should view them through that lens recognizing that they are or could one day be God’s children, adopted into his family. This recognition in turn allows us to get to know them for who God created them to be. Try to replace your default assumptions with what God says about people.
“Try to replace your default assumptions with what God says about people.”
2. Be Hesitant to Ask About Experiences
Good and bad experiences shape us into the person we are, in one way or another. For example, my college experience at Ozark Christian College taught me the significance of Christian community as I pursue God and work in vocational ministry. My years at Ozark were good experiences for me, and I love to share about them. Yet, I personally find it is much easier for me to share the good experiences than it is to share the bad ones. We are quick to tell people about our successes but oftentimes do not want to talk about tragedies or failures.
This framework provides the foundation for what I am about to say: Please be very hesitant to ask veterans about their experiences. Those experiences are often traumatic and not things that we openly share with those around us. We tend to hold them within as we try to seem normal in a world that sees us as everything else but normal. As I talked with a friend and fellow veteran this week, he voiced this request, and yes, it’s fairly blunt: “Do not ask me about my experiences because unless you have served you have no right to do so.” He also added that he may be inclined to share after building a relationship, but if somebody were to ask him when first meeting what the war was like, that person is not going to be in his life.
“Those experiences are often traumatic and not things that we openly share with those around us.”
This all boils down to respecting boundaries and creating a relationship where you as a pastor, elder, or church attendee can slowly gain access to this world.
3. Don’t Reshare Their Stories
In a large part of the world, many workers sign what is called a non-disclosure agreement. This is in essence a form that says that you as an employee of a company will not share things that you have learned from your employment with others outside of the company. This could be as simple as how rubber is made in the factory I worked in after my separation from the military, or as serious as how banks create their software. No matter the application, this sort of information is valuable to the organization and should be protected.
So why, in an article about how we make mistakes when caring for our veterans, am I suggesting an NDA of sorts? Truthfully, we must treat the things veterans choose to share with us with the same level of respect. This means that if a veteran chooses to share with you about his experience in the war, you need to not share this information with others. This of course comes with the caveat that they are not planning to harm themselves or someone else. If you have earned their trust and they are sharing this information with you, respect them, and do the right thing by keeping it to yourself—especially if you want to keep the relationship you have worked hard to build.
“If you have earned their trust and they are sharing this information with you, respect them, and do the right thing by keeping it to yourself.”
4. Don’t Tokenize Them
In a racially charged time such as the last five years or so in the United States, the word “tokenism” has gained popularity. Tokenism is often a matter of highlighting a small portion of a minority as a member of your team to show that you are not a racist or bigot or whatever other word someone may want to throw at you. Treating someone as a token is generally looked at in a negative light and I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment. We should truly love people because they are created in God’s image and of his likeness (see Gen 1:26-28), not use them to make our organization or church or team give a particular impression.
Although many churches have zero intentional connections to veterans, other churches might dedicate a moment or two a year in the service to recognizing veterans (e.g., having them stand and be applauded on Memorial Weekend). While the former type of church needs to step up and see this suffering group in their community, the latter type of church shouldn’t assume that all is well for them, either. They might simply be giving in to the temptation of tokenizing their veterans to give themselves the perception that they are a grateful, patriotic church. But are they actually taking steps to humanize their veterans—building relationships and helping them toward wholeness in Jesus?
Please Do This
Ozark Christians College’s motto is “not to be served but to serve” (see Mark 10:45). If you visit the campus, you may hear professors saying this in a classroom and you will most certainly see this painted on to walls across campus. It certainly is a worthy mission because it reflects the position of Christ who faithfully served those who were brought before him. When approaching veteran ministry, we need to remember that this too is the goal: not to be served (which many veterans have already done for you, even at the risk of their own lives), but to serve them. To plant seeds for how to serve them well, I’ve put together a list of things it would be helpful to do. The aim here is simply to equip you with things to do and say as you navigate this difficult terrain and bring the gospel to a largely forgotten people.
1. Build A Relationship
If you were to go to YouTube right now and type in “a sermon on relationship,” you would find thousands of videos. There are sermons on how to build a healthy relationship with your spouse, your friend, and your family. One thing is certain: we as a people are interested in a relationship. I mean, after all, it was at humanity’s beginning in the Garden of Eden that God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (see Gen. 2:18).
As relationships are the backbone of our modern-day society, we ought to be building them at every opportunity. After all, I am writing to you today because I met and built a relationship with some of the folks at Renew.org at the Exponential Conference in 2023. The question I want us to ask ourselves is this: Why are our churches not building relationships with the military veterans in our churches and communities? Even if they seem to be a different demographic from your typical one, that sort of barrier never stopped Jesus. For example, see John 4 and Jesus connecting with a Samaritan woman at a well. In that story, we get the image of an unlikely but beautiful relationship that ended up changing not just one life but many.
It may be challenging at first to build bridges, but that’s what we followers of Jesus do. This means even if you didn’t agree with the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, you can still love a veteran because they are made in God’s image. If you don’t enjoy a particular veteran’s foul language or loose-cannon lifestyle, you still love them because they are made in God’s image. If you’re a pacifist, you still love them because they are created in God’s image.
“It may be challenging at first to build bridges, but that’s what we followers of Jesus do.”
Building relationships brings challenges, and there will more than likely be many failed attempts, but keep trying. When the person you are trying to reach says no, keep trying. When they start walking with Christ and suddenly slip away, keep trying. Invite them again and again out to do things until you get a yes. Why the persistence? It’s because people’s eternity can depend on it.
2. Be Consistent
Throughout my time in the military, there were many drills or practice events we performed thousands of times to make sure we knew exactly what to do in that specific situation. This could range from different steps in a funeral detail to clearing a room and eventually a building. As we practiced these various drills repeatedly, we were often reminded of the phrase “complacency kills.” This means that in a combat situation, one little slip-up could be the difference between coming home in your boots or coming home in a box with a flag draped over it.
This meant that in the wiring of our brains, we were to measure everything through the lens of consistency. I fully believe that you have the best chance of winning someone to Jesus if you can present the gospel through the lens of the person you are trying to reach. This means that if a veteran measures success through the lens of consistency, we must be consistent in our approaches to reach them. If you are following the logic to this point, you might say something like, “Well I don’t want to be a babysitter for an adult.” I hear you, but that is actually not what I am saying at all.
“If a veteran measures success through the lens of consistency, we must be consistent in our approaches to reach them.”
What I am saying is simply this: Be consistent in your efforts to serve. Make a call once a week to a veteran you are trying to reach and ask how their life is going. Ask them about things they are struggling with, if you have been afforded that opportunity. Ask them about how you can be praying for them and pray. Don’t just know who they are, but make a consistent effort to know them.
3. Find Commonalities
In the first half of the article, I discussed some things that are best left unsaid to or about veterans within your community. What is helpful for you to say as you reach out to veterans? My answer is simple and not very profound, but it is to treat them like any other member of society. True, it’s important to take note of what it’s best not to say (see the first half of the article). But, as you converse, try to find things you have in common. For example, I love fishing and enjoy talking about it to anybody who will listen. As these common things uncover themselves and the relationship deepens, then maybe you will be invited into the deeper stuff, but until then, just treat a veteran like any other person you may encounter daily.
I have had the unique opportunity to interact with veterans from many wars over the past few years in ministry, and the conversation never starts with what you might think. I don’t ask about war experience, or about things they are struggling with. I simply look for common entry points into the conversation.
“I simply look for common entry points into the conversation.”
One dear friend and mentor who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan told me recently that the church tends to act like gatekeepers to the faith. He told me that they have the door open but as soon as they see one of us, they shut it in our face. Not intentionally, but by digging too deep too quickly. And when we veterans don’t respond, we get the cold shoulder and the gate is closed. My challenge to you is to stand proudly with the gate open, welcome them in with a smile, and encourage them through kind words and heartfelt conversation. The truth is that this small intentionality could help make a big difference, as we are losing between 22 or 23 precious veteran lives to suicide on any given day.
4. Lead from the Front
Every one of us as people, Christian or not, has varying approaches to leadership. These approaches have been shaped and refined over time by both good and bad leaders in our lives. LEADERSHIP is an acronym used in the Army to help a soldier recall the Army values (the consonants and final vowel stand for Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal courage.) These values aim to set us apart and help with what military people will refer to as “leading from the front.”
If you have worked any job in your life, you certainly know that there are those in leadership that remain behind a desk and never actually guide the people they oversee. These guys are usually the least popular amongst the workers at a particular workplace because their actions do not match their words. Imagine a heavy object needing to be moved by a group of people to a particular place. Do you think it will move better if the leader is standing in the back and barking orders, or will it be more successful if he is getting his hands dirty with the guys?
The question we must ask ourselves is simply this: If God is calling me to reach out to veterans in my area, then what am I doing to lead from the front in this area of ministry? Am I taking the initiative to find veterans in my community? Am I trying to build a program at my church to help veterans? Am I serving homeless or addicted veterans in my community?
“If God is calling me to reach out to veterans in my area, then what am I doing to lead from the front in this area of ministry?”
How are you loving your veteran neighbors within your community? If you are not yet engaged but feel called to start, please do something. This ministry needs those that will lead from the front.