Maybe you are like me in having attended dozens of evangelism training sessions over the years. I have both learned and taught the Four Spiritual Laws, The Bridge, Steps to Peace With God, Evangelism Explosion and a number of other methods and approaches. Each of these tools may have its merits, especially in focusing the content of the gospel on Jesus and a person’s response of faith in him. At least in the circles I travel in, there has been a substantial amount of talk about what we say to people. My concern lately, however, has been with the equally important issue of how we meet and relate to the people we desire to share this message with.
Along with my pastoral ministry within the church, it has been my privilege to have the opportunity to be involved in many community activities. For many years, I have also taught part-time in a couple of universities and a community college in my area where I have met literally hundreds of students from nearly every walk of life. This experience has resulted in some pretty seasoned views about how to relate to people as a genuine Christian. So, here are some things to keep in mind as you meet people who do not openly profess the Christian faith.
- First don’t assume that, because a person is not actively attending an evangelical church, he or she is automatically an unbeliever. Some Christians have become inactive in their church life or in personal walk due to a variety of circumstances, including: moving to a new city, a change of work schedule, a lapse in personal routine or spiritual discipline, a separation from an important spiritual influence, such as a parent or a much-respected Christian friend, being hurt by other Christians, etc.
Before I go on, let me speak to the issue of church category. Again, simply because a person attends a church which is not similar to yours, it does not necessarily mean that they are involved in a compromised form of Christianity. There are genuine believers in the biblical Jesus in a variety of churches, which may be somewhat different from your own.
- Secondly, when relating to those who do not profess Christian faith, don’t set up an “us and them” situation in your mind. Remember that Jesus spoke with all sorts of people without seeming to categorize them as religious or non-religious. He told some of the most unlikely people that they were very close to the Kingdom of God (Matthew 21:32), while people who were outwardly religious were told they could not even see the Kingdom unless they experienced radical inward change (John 3:3). People are generally offended by being classified and they are usually pretty quick to sense that, from your perspective, they are “outsiders”. The truth from God’s perspective is that some people we might not ever suspect are only a step or two from eternal life.
- Learn to genuinely appreciate and enjoy people for what they are. Notice I didn’t say you must accept everything about them or even befriend every person you meet. Obviously some people will be more likeable to you than others. The point is, that the first step in receiving a fair hearing as you share your faith in Jesus (as well as in expressing other values and commitments which are very dear to you), is to treat a variety of people with a common level of appreciation and respect. If you are willing to like people you meet, that usually comes across clearly to most reasonable folks. People like to be liked.
- Not everyone is reasonable. A certain percentage of people don’t have either the personality, emotional stability, mental clarity or maturity of character to give you a fair hearing. (By the way, this includes committed Christians.) There are people who are generally angry and take it out on those around them. Others may have met someone in their past whom they came to dislike intensely and who seems in their mind to be like you. There are judgmental people; cruel people; argumentative people; mean people; fearful people; manipulative people—I could go on. Just get used to the idea that, willing though you may be to like those you meet, not everyone will return the favor.
- As a professed follower of Jesus, you represent him. No one alive now has ever seen Jesus. We read about him in scripture or are taught in church and get an understanding of who he is in that way. But at the present time, his followers act as his visible body. Like it or not, as the hands and feet of Jesus, people look at you and see him. This truth speaks volumes about how we behave ourselves: how we think and speak and act. In other words, how we live as followers of Jesus is at least as important as the words we say about him or how we say them.
- When someone does show an openness to you and your faith, you may want to extend an invitation to attend a situation in which they can observe believers acting like believers under the influence of God’s word.
o An invitation to a church service is an easy entry-point. In many churches on Sunday morning, visitors are not be singled out or embarrassed, but can sit and simply observe while at the same time being exposed to scripture and the gospel.
o Perhaps a special event will be of particular interest to them. Care groups, programs for their children, women’s and men’s groups and activities, as well as youth events are all options which may meet a certain need in their life.
o Maybe the best option is to offer a chance to spend time together with you. Something as simple as a cup of coffee and some conversation for a few minutes can develop into a friendship, which can lead to a deep sharing of the Christian faith. It goes without saying that it is usually best for men to befriend men and women to befriend other women. Don’t forget that the gospel is all about transformation of life from the Kingdom of Darkness into the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:13-14). As a friend, your own story will be of great interest to them and perhaps of deep influence on them.
With these reminders clearly before us, sharing Christian faith in the postmodern culture of the Twenty-first Century does not have to be intimidating. In fact, it can be a hugely rewarding experience and a stimulus to growth in areas we may have yet to experience.
As a pastor, I frequently meet people who once had some connection with Jesus and his Church, but who for some reason have been out of touch for some time. In some circles these people are called backsliders. Other groups refer to people in this situation as “out of fellowship” or “lapsed”. In my experience there are a surprising number of such folks.
I suppose that people drop out of Christian faith, or at least the practice of it, for a variety of reasons. It is common these days for many people to have to work during the times when churches normally hold their services. When there are few opportunities for Christian fellowship, it is easy to see how people become sidelined. Other reasons for a cooling off of Christian practice could include personal difficulty, hurt feelings caused by other believers, a change of priorities, or just plain disillusionment and apathy.
Folks who find themselves adrift from their faith often experience guilt, embarrassment and despair. Some have been away from Christ for so long that they have given up hope of ever returning. Is there hope for such people? Certainly. Here are some ways to get back in step with Christ:
First, admit where you are. Face the fact that you have dropped out and need to return to the source of your true life. In Bible terminology this is called repentance. It doesn’t mean you have to promise never to stray again or to become a model Christian. Just tell God that you have been wrong and that you want to come back. But the first step is to face where you truly are without excuses.
Ask God for help. Prayer does make a difference. If it is a time issue, tell God about work schedule. Ask him to work on changing it or to provide opportunities for fellowship and growth in other ways. If broken relationships are behind the estrangement, appeal to God to smooth hurt feelings, forgive those who have wronged you, rearrange your priorities or give perspective. If you have found yourself in new and unfamiliar surroundings, ask him to direct you to a church or fellowship in which you can be nurtured and in which you can serve others effectively.
Make yourself accountable. Find another Christian who has personal integrity you can trust and who will have both courage and compassion to ask hard questions and expect straight answers. You may fool yourself with creative justifications of your attitudes and behavior, but it is more difficult to fool someone wise who knows you and cares about you.
Let bygones be gone! If dropping out resulted from someone’s wrongdoing, work through it and move on. Why should the past ruin your present joy? Why should someone’s sin hinder you from doing right? Do you think God is impressed with excuses which put blame on others for your own choice to abandon the God who has demonstrated his love for you by sending his Son to die on your behalf?
Serve. There is no better medicine for recovery and progress in spiritual growth than consistent Christian service in an area which you find fulfilling. Try some things until you find something that is regular, fits your talents and gifting and results in the kinds of goals you are energized by. Make sure that what you are doing benefits people and honors the Lord Christ, whom you serve.
Yes, there is indeed hope for those who have dropped out of active Christian faith. Reasons need not matter. Years don’t have to hold you back. Prodigals can come home. The point is, are you willing? An old Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Take that first homeward step and before long, the prodigal will see the Father’s welcoming smile.
(Finding Real Life in the Nick of Time)
Time flies. Steadily, unrelentingly time has an unfailing way of passing us by. If you don’t believe me, just remember the last time you thoroughly enjoyed yourself. The day or evening or weekend was over all too quickly and you were faced with the same routine once again.
As I write this, I am sitting in a room where a clock is ticking off the seconds. Perhaps a hundred ticks have sounded in the short time it has taken to type these opening words. One hundred seconds have come and gone, never to return. In those seconds, people have been born and others have died. Unique events have occurred which can never happen again.
Most of us live under the illusion that we have plenty of time. It is only when some sobering event happens that we are shaken out of our false security. We wake up to find that we have graduated, or we have turned thirty, that our marriage has dissolved, that our children are grown, that we are gravely ill–and we realize that those ticking seconds have come and gone in their hundreds of thousands.
I like the elegant way in which Psalm 90 expresses this bitter-sweet passing of time (verse 10), “The days of our years are three-score and ten (70); and if by reason of strength, fourscore (80), yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away.” Ah yes. The King James Version is unbeatable for poetic expression. It simply says that the maximum most of us can expect is to live is seventy or eighty years, and that when we reach the end, it seems like such a short time. Then we die and cannot return to any of the days we once had. But although this quotation is indeed poetic, it certainly is no exaggeration —as people in their retirement years will testify.
But the Psalm goes on the give some reassurance that though life goes by with startling speed, there is a very definite consolation. Verse 12 counsels, “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Apply our hearts to wisdom? Yes, on at least two levels:
First, we must ask God to show us how to live each day fully. This means that we should make a practice of asking God’s guidance each day. “How shall I walk with you in the hours and seconds allotted to me today, Lord?” For all of us, there is a blessed urgency to each day because the opportunity to accomplish something, to enjoy someone or something, or to finish that particular day with a clear conscience will never come again.
Secondly, in all of our activities we must hold onto an eternal perspective. What is the purpose of life in general? What is my particular life’s purpose? How have I been gifted, trained and provided with opportunities to make a significant contribution in the world? Money, fame, prestige and power–the things so many people spend their lives pursuing–are all sadly temporary and ultimately unfulfiling. As enjoyable as many things can be, real life is found in Christ. Listen to his words in John 17:3, “…this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (New International Version).
Let me be very clear. Jesus isn’t saying that eternal life is in church. Neither is he saying that eternal life is in Christian activities and programs. They are, at best, channels through which we may find God and Christ. Jesus is promising that we will find life in its fullest sense (the Greek of the Gospel of John describes it using the term “zoe”–the highest form of life) only in knowing God through himself.
There is so much to this that a few brief paragraphs can’t begin to do it justice. The enjoyment of the blessings God makes available, as good as they are, cannot give us life. That’s why so many people who have so much are so empty. Things simply can’t give life because it isn’t in them. Life comes from its source: God. God has made that available through his Son who has become one of us precisely to make it accessible. Until we draw our lives from God through Christ, and stop trying to draw it from other people and things, we will remain unfulfilled.
Just one more thing: don’t put this off. Those seconds continue to tick away, stopping for no one.
For those who have just completed an educational milestone, the future can be both exciting and a bit frightening. The whirl of graduation events, job applications, moves for further education, marriage and just generally thinking about the future can leave a person feeling slightly dizzy. So much is changing in such a short time!
In the midst of this flurry of events, the adult world insists on giving advice. Graduation speakers, relatives, friends and teachers are usually quite conscientious about sharing what wisdom they have with those they care about. At the risk of being lumped in as just one more voice, let me try to give some biblical counsel for those beginning such a new phase.
In chapter 12 of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes it says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come…” (verse 1). It is a very wise thing to remember God while you are still young, before serious mistakes have been made.
Picture a sailboat ready to depart–its decks decorated; its lines trim and bright. On board is a happy crowd of friends with plenty of provisions, but their destination is indefinite. Their only plan is to set sail, catch the breeze and enjoy, hoping eventually to find a harbor somewhere down the coast. Well-wishers on the dock shout things like, “Watch for storms!” or “Post a lookout.”. Others recommend, “Get along.” or “Work together.” At the very last moment before they edge away from the dock, someone says, “Wait. You will need this.”, tossing one of the group a compass as the boat slips away.
To embark on a significant stage of life’s journey with no clear direction is pure foolishness. The Bible is God’s compass, given to us to keep our bearings on our journey. Use it to set your direction and make whatever corrections may be necessary throughout your life. The earlier you use this guide, the more certain you will be to reach the particular destination God has charted for you. Don’t wait for the inevitable storms to use the compass. By then, you may be seriously off course. Most of all, look to the North Star as the sure focal point–trust your life to God through Jesus Christ.
I thank God that someone handed me a compass early in life. I have made my share of mistakes, but by God’s incredible grace, God’s word has always brought me back on course. For me, it has made all the difference!
Many people use the word faith. People claim to have faith or not to have faith in lots of things from baseball teams to governments, marriage and religion. When someone uses the word faith, a variety of things come to mind.
In one popular dictionary, there are at least nine shades of meaning in the current English usage of the word faith. For example, it can be defined as a personal opinion, a religious system, a sacred promise, or even as an attitude of perseverance (as in “Keep the faith.”). We English speakers have a genius for taking a word and using it creatively. In many ways, that is what makes our language so rich and adaptable.
However, there are times when we must be very clear about what we mean. For example, when Christians use the word in a gospel sense, much hinges on the correct understanding of the term. The gospel of Jesus Christ promises forgiveness, new birth, peace of mind, life-purpose, eternal life and much more. In essence, the gospel is this: If we will turn from our destructive patterns of doing things (sin) and put our faith in Jesus Christ, we will be saved. But what exactly does it mean to put faith in Jesus Christ? The New Testament idea of faith comes from the Greek word pistis, meaning trust, reliance, conviction–faith. As the New Testament uses the word there are several facets to the meaning of pistis:
First, it is a firm conviction that Jesus is who he claimed to be in the gospel accounts and that his death on the cross paid the penalty for human sin against God. It is an acceptance of what the gospels and the rest of the New Testament say about him. In other words, it is a belief that the information given to us in the Bible is accurate.
Of course, there are many people who simply don’t believe these assertions are true. They deny that Jesus was deity in any sense, or that his death had any significance other than as a tragic example of injustice. Some even deny his existence. Other people do believe in Jesus as he is portrayed in the New Testament. They have come to the conviction that Jesus was unique in his dual nature as human and divine; that his death achieved atonement for sin; that he is lord over all and that to know him in a faith-sense is to be granted eternal life. This is the factual basis for faith. It is the mental response to the gospel message.
But faith moves on from a willing acknowlegement of certain biblical and theological truths to a personal choice to surrender one’s life with its willful independence, destructive behavior and violation of moral principles and to rely on God to remake us from the inside out. In other words, it is entirely possible to know the facts about Jesus and assent to their validity, but to miss eternal life. What is lacking is a profound response to these truths. This works out as a definite choice to receive Jesus’ forgiveness and allow his benevolent ownership of our lives.
This is why a main feature of evangelistic events is to bring truth to bear on the conscience so that people come to a point of decision. Without a definite positive response to Jesus Christ, there can be no salvation. This is salvation-faith. It what God asks of us in response to what he has done in Christ. It is both emotional and volitional. That is, it is a choosing to act on what the mind accepts.
But there is still another aspect to the New Testament usage of the word faith. Faith always results in actions and conduct consistent with the assent of the mind and the response of the will and emotions. The book of James reminds us that faith without works (actions) is dead. This is stating the rather obvious truth that we understand pretty well in other aspects of life. In a romantic relationship, if the feelings, commitments and words don’t show themselves in any sort of tangible action, the beloved would clearly have the right to question the reality of what he or she has been told. To say we believe in Jesus and never act in a way which confirms that claim, rightfully causes people around us to be highly skeptical of the validity of our faith.
In other words, faith in Jesus shows itself in visible ways. Certain things we were in the habit of doing which are offensive to God and other people now bother us. We notice and feel uncomfortable about how we use our mouths, how we treat people, how we regard ourselves and about our attitude of flippancy toward God. There is a new desire to please God along with the beginning steps of tangible actions showing that desire. We are pleased to see the basic shape of faith appear in our lives as we act on what we have come to believe.
OK: enough explanation. Now let’s get practical: does this describe you? Perhaps you don’t know enough yet to have a well-rounded theological faith, but at least you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for you, rising again from the grave. You have moved on from what you know about Jesus to a response of gratitude and a willing reception of what he has done. Your life is now showing the beginnings of real change on a number of levels. This is biblical faith, saving faith. There is nothing on earth like it. I highly recommend it!
Gone are the days when society largely took for granted that the Christian Church was a necessary part of Western Culture. Long gone. This has become such a fact of life that the benefits of an organizational Christian presence in society should be re-examined. Studies of the behavior patterns of North Americans and Europeans in the early Twenty-first Century show that when making important decisions, most people think, not in terms of Christian values, but of personal fulfillment and well-being. This is a significant shift from much of the Twentieth Century, when a Christian decision-making grid was commonly accepted.
Believers may bemoan this trend as an abandonment of core Christian values, such as honoring God, obeying his will and serving others but, like it or not, it would appear that this trend will be around for the foreseeable future. So maybe Christianity ought to be evaluated from this new pragmatic perspective. What are the benefits of a significant Christian presence in society? Let me suggest a few of the positive outcomes of vibrant Christianity in a given community.
Better marriages. All things being equal, the presence of churches which teach biblical family values results in more couples staying together. I am not just referring to husbands and wives agreeing to remain married even though they have ceased to have affection for one another. I am talking about couples who discover a deeper and more lasting love for one another because of their relationship to God. It is a known fact among Christian people that a commitment to one’s spouse, a willingness to work though issues and a dependence upon God to cause positive change in both lives has saved many thousands of marriages which otherwise would have ended in divorce court.
Better family life. Along with husbands and wives staying together, there are fewer problems raising children when families are involved in churches. “Parents: don’t exasperate your children, but bring them up in the teaching and discipline of the Lord”, is a hugely valuable principle at a time when families are breaking down in record numbers. Churches which teach the Bible by precept and example tend to have a higher percentage of intact and reasonably healthy families.
Lasting relationships. We are moving so fast in these times that it is difficult to form deep, long-term friendships. Again, churches who teach the Bible’s perspective on relationships tend to produce people who know how to befriend others and work through issues which could otherwise cause separation. Churches also provide venues for meeting people who desire these kinds of friendships. In Christian circles it is a rather routine thing to meet people who have remained friends over many years through some pretty difficult circumstances.
Personalized care. One of the best kept secrets in most communities is the fact that churches regularly provide free counseling, not only to their members, but often to virtually anyone who desires it. Many churches have pastors or staff members who are trained and gifted in the art of listening to people, helping them understand the dynamics behind their situation and offering sound, practical and biblical advice toward a solution. Obviously the more people who receive this care, the healthier a community becomes. This is especially refreshing when people are sometimes seen as figures on a spread sheet rather than as valuable persons.
Character building. While it is not the only voice in society encouraging people to become more than they are, the Christian church performs this role as well. Not only does it encourage people to dream large dreams and achieve great things, but it also builds character in ways that the other voices seem to be neglecting: that of correction. How many places can you go in Twenty-first Century Western Culture and have someone tell you the painful truth about yourself? I understand that this sort of thing seems out of fashion. I also know full-well how abused this type of thing can be, with churches sometimes working people over in the most trivial and narrow-minded of ways. But when a person truly is involved in things which are harmful to others and ultimately self-destructive, isn’t it a good thing that there are places where people can be lovingly confronted and helped to find a new path in life?
Finding God. When people get tired of the materialism and the seemingly endless chasing of personal fulfillment, many crave something more substantial. Christianity promises that if anyone desires to find God, he is willing to be found. In fact the truth is quite a bit better than that. God has made himself very accessible by becoming one of us, living as we live and doing what was necessary for us to have full and abundant relationship with our Creator. Of course I am speaking of Jesus Christ.
I am well aware that some people take this basic Christian assertion to be narrow and exclusive. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Other religions teach that people must attain some ultimate spiritual goal through hidden knowledge, austere self-denial, or the offering of something precious to win the deities’ favor. The Christian gospel is so simple and so attainable that some people have found it almost too good to be true. A person may be welcomed into relationship with God simply by putting their trust in Jesus. This means believing that he is who he claimed to be: the Son of God; accepting his self-sacrifice in payment for your wrongdoing and embracing his offer to join with you in making you new from the inside out.
The irony in this is that in putting faith in Jesus, a person actually finds the personal fulfillment which has eluded them for so long. Far from being narrow, faith in Jesus is something a small child can do. It is something a mentally disabled person can exercise. The basic message of Christianity is truly trans-cultural, finding those in every people group who resonate with its good news. It embraces both men and women. It reaches every strata of society. It changes lives when nothing else can.
All this and more come with an active Christian presence in society. Those who are concerned with the welfare of their communities would do well to make certain that churches are free to do what they do so well: benefit people and change lives for the better.
“Ladies and gentlemen! The President of the United States!” This is the introduction given by a person at the entrance to the Floor of the House of Representatives just before the President gives his State of the Union Address. This official’s job is to announce clearly that the person the assembled dignitaries have come to hear has arrived and is about to ascend to the podium.
It is possible, though highly improbable, that this person could make their announcement in a drunken state, or in tattered clothes, or that he or she could hog the limelight in such a way that the president might be overshadowed. But one thing is for certain, if that sort of thing happened, the announcer would not hold their job for very long. The announcer’s only function at that point is to introduce the President and let him speak.
From time to time, it seems that there are some “announcers” in Christian circles who have done this very thing. I am talking about men and women in Christian ministry who have grabbed attention for themselves, sought to represent the Kingdom of God and somehow have forgotten that the whole issue is not them at all. In so doing these folks have reflected badly on the one they should have been drawing people’s attention to.
As a preacher and Christian leader myself, I understand how tempting it might be to hog the limelight. Though I have never achieved celebrity status, I can imagine that when such a person finds himself (or herself) with power, popularity and access to wealth, it must be tempting to believe that they are somehow a cut above others and that the attention they are receiving is deserved. If they dwell on that sort of thing long enough, it is not difficult to see how they might begin to feel that they are above the standards that everyone else must keep. Perhaps some of these “announcers” may have begun with the best of intentions; others may never have had pure motives or even really understood the gospel from the beginning. God alone knows.
Be that as it may, I think we need to be reminded of something very important: no matter how shabby or disreputable the announcer may be, it is Jesus Christ that we need to hear. I am not excusing Christian people who bring shame on Christianity. To dishonor Christ’s name is very nearly inexcusable. But even if all those who proclaim Christ were dishonest, Christ would still be as good and true and powerful as ever because he is perfect.
So I am calling us all to remember that it is Jesus who died for sin; who offers forgiveness and new life through faith; who claims lordship of our lives. It is Jesus Christ who will judge the heart of each person. In other words, Christ is the all-important issue.
I for one am glad when a man or woman of God announces Christ clearly and reflects his image brightly. When they do not I mourn, not only because it reflects so poorly on the rest of us announcers, but mainly because it discourages people from seeing Jesus in all his truth and grace and glory.
So I urge us all to remember: announcers have their job to do. If they do it well, be glad; if they do it poorly you may have a right to be disgusted. But either way, don’t focus on them. It is Jesus who is the real attraction. Whatever you do—hear Him!
Please read no further if you don’t want a refreshing change in your life. Stop reading now if you want to escape the rearrangement that joy may bring to your world. If you prefer the status quo; if you would rather muddle through as you are; if you would like things to stay the same as always— this is not an article you will want to waste your time on. Please skip over this and continue with other pursuits, because a decision to trust wholly in Christ will inevitably bring a new and beneficial direction to your life.
So, if you want to avoid joy, a good way to do that is to avoid any commitment to Christ.
If you would rather not experience the peace that results from forgiveness of your sins and wrongdoings, don’t consider this any further.
If you would rather not rub shoulders with some of the most surprising and wonderful people anywhere, by all means don’t attend church.
If you take comfort in labeling all Christians as hypocrites and narrow-minded fools on the thin argument that because some do exist, therefore, all who follow Jesus must be the same, please keep your mind tightly closed to the facts.
If you want to miss the most fascinating and profound reading you will ever encounter, please—under no circumstances read the Bible.
If you desire no straight answers to questions about Christianity’s claims to truth don’t pick up a book or browse the internet seeking such things.
Let me say it again, don’t read this!
If you want no understanding ears to listen to your hurts or insightful suggestion to a practical problem, don’t contact a pastor or Christian friend.
And- especially- don’t ponder the point of this obvious reverse psychology if you would just as soon not be bothered with anything like fulfillment, purpose for living or challenge to become something higher and better.
But if, by chance, there are stirrings of some of these deep yearnings somewhere within you, remember:
I warned you not to read this!