How to Make People Feel “Seen” Rather than “Watched”

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

May 30, 2023

As the tributes to Tim Keller continue to pour in, I was struck by a comment my wife Melissa made recently in a podcast with Collin Hansen. As they discussed Tim’s ministry, she made the observation that Tim had the ability to make a person feel ‘seen’ rather than ‘watched’ (starting at 19:33).

I thought that insight was so profound, and so critical for ministry, that I wanted to offer my own reflections on it. In fact, I think the “see” vs. “watch” framework can be a shorthand way to capture two very different approaches to ministry. So, here are a few diagnostic questions for Christian leaders (myself included) to makes sure we are on a healthy path.

In the Room Where It Happens

Here’s the first diagnostic question I would ask: What kind of people do you typically pay attention to? If you are at a Christian gathering of some sort, who are you most interested in talking to?

As I have observed Christian leadership spaces over the last number of years, I have been struck by how many people seem intent on finding the most influential people in the room and making a bee line to them for a conversation. Usually, this happens under the heading of “networking,” but it is remarkable how that always involves talking with people more accomplished or more famous.

I suppose at one level we all want to be among the power players. We want to be with the influencers. We want to be “In the Room Where It Happens.”

Consequently, if we are not careful, Christian ministry can start feeling a lot like politics. It’s all about position, power, and who you know. And that is not only exhausting, but incredibly disheartening.

But, there’s another way—a better way. The mark of a “see” ministry instead of a “watch” ministry is that we begin to notice the people who are not able to do anything for us. Rather than noticing the people who can help us, we begin to notice the people we can help, encourage, or lift up.

Jesus embodied this “see” ethos. He noticed the people that other people didn’t notice. A man with a withered hand. The woman at the well. The blind man sitting by the road to Jericho. Zacchaeus, a tax collector, up in a tree.

In short, a “see” ministry looks for ways to give, not ways to get.

So That They Might Accuse

Here’s a second diagnostic question: When you do see people, what do you notice about them? What do you tend to look for?

A “watch” ministry is defined by a leader who is frequently on the lookout for people’s shortcomings, weaknesses, and mistakes. They lead through fault-finding.

There may be a number of reasons a pastor might adopt such an approach. Maybe he has a misguided understanding of grace and thinks that pointing out people’s problems is the way you help them appreciate the gospel more. Other leaders may just be narcissistic and they criticize others just to make themselves feel better.

Regardless of the reason, a ministry of fault-finding can do serious damage to the flock. People feel spied upon, anxious, walking on egg shells, fearful that any misstep might cause their leader to set up another “confrontation” meeting.  If this person calls, you’re pretty sure you’ve done something wrong.

A ministry of fault-finding can also do damage to the one doing the fault-finding. Pointing out other people’s sins all the time can lead to a prideful and condescending spirit.

In the Gospels, it is clear that the Pharisees embody a “watch” approach to ministry. Mark 3:2 tells us, “They watched Jesus to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” And they watched the disciples when they picked heads of grain: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:24).

While there will certainly be times when a pastor has to correct the flock, a “see” ministry looks for the best in others: “Love…hopes all things” (1 Cor 13:7). Or as the puritan Thomas Watson says, “A humble Christian studies his own infirmities, and another’s excellencies.”

Going Nuclear

Here’s a final diagnostic question: How do you treat people who disagree with you theologically? How do you respond if someone does not accept a favored doctrine?

As Christian leaders we have been taught, and rightly so, that theology matters. A healthy Christian ministry needs a healthy and robust theological foundation. Paul tells Titus: “Teach what accords with sound doctrine” (2:1).

But, if we are honest, sometimes our well-intended enthusiasm for our doctrinal positions can lead to some unfortunate side effects. In particular, our enthusiasm can keep us from “seeing” the person who standing right in front of us—a real human being with their own struggles and challenges, and reasons for their theological perspective.

Instead of a person, we simply see a pile of ideas and concepts that need urgent correction. We never take the time to listen, hear their story, and find out why they believe what they believe.

Perhaps even more troubling, is that we might be tempted to view the person as an enemy—a threat to be neutralized so their influence doesn’t spread to others. Now they are a person that must be “watched” to make sure they don’t have any more doctrinal errors.  Indeed, some ministries are in perpetual combat mode where everyone outside their camp is viewed with suspicion.

To be clear, there are some doctrinal errors that are so foundational that they require vigorous correction. But, at the same time, we must be careful not to think that every disagreement requires DEFCON 1. Not every error is heresy. Not every doctrinal difference needs to be escalated to nuclear war.

From the various tributes shared the past week, it’s evident that Keller embodied more of a “see” approach than a “watch” approach. He patiently listened to those with different theological perspectives—not because he agreed, but because they were fellow image bearers. He was curious about why they believed what they did. And by listening, he believed he could better understand them, and thus better persuade them of the truth.

In sum, a “watch” ministry is one that typically overlooks the little guy, leads through fault-finding, and tends to be suspicious of anyone who disagrees. A “see” ministry is one that notices those who provide no advantage, celebrates the grace at work in people’s lives, and patiently listens to those who disagree.

And, thankfully, we serve a God who sees us. We can take comfort from the words of Hagar, “She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me’” (Gen 16:13).

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