by Will McRaney
A significant part of evangelism in a postmodern context is building credible relationships with those to whom you are attempting to communicate the message of Christ.
This involves building bridges, befriending lost people, and living a credible life.
Our natural desires are to pursue selfish ambitions and personal comforts. We do not live in a society that places a high value on community concerns. We have elevated individualism to our own detriment. We no longer live in an environment where people walk many of the places they travel. People are on the move most all the time. Trying to connect with people is not an easy thing to do. Maintaining connections is even harder.
Donald McGavran, the father of the modern church growth movement, said that the gospel travels along networks of relationships. Christians will intentionally have to engage those who are presently outside the family of God. We have to go to them, not wait for them to come to us. The Christian message has the church going into the world of lost people from which we also came.
Most of the people my students interview about spiritual matters see absolutely no reason to pursue a relationship with the church. Upon reflecting on his interviews, student Stephen DuVall reported,
Perhaps the lesson learned from this exercise is that the church needs somehow to break down the walls and go outside itself to reach the neighbor next door. None of those selected for this assignment seemed actively opposed to the church, but they did seem bewildered at the message the church is preaching. Perhaps one reason falls on the respondents because they are rarely inside the church proactively listening to the message, and as a result the message is either blurred or simply unheard. However, the more probable reason is the failure of the church to look beyond itself, and into the world, where Christ commanded it to go.
If you are not presently engaged with lost people, you will want to find ways to intertwine your life with people for whom Jesus died. One way is to participate in your recreational activities in a way to engage lost people.
I have tried to capitalize on several of my interests—my girls, sports, and staying involved in the lives of lost people. I developed an affinity for competition through sports as I grew up in the home of a coach, which led to my playing two varsity sports at Mississippi State University. I have three girls, ages seven, ten, and thirteen, which has led to my coaching multiple seasons of their softball and volleyball. Teaching a full load at the seminary and leading a consulting ministry, I do not have time to coach teams, but I can ill afford not to be engaged with my girls and not to be engaged with lost people. If I am going to be faithful to expand the glory of God and teach evangelism to others, I have no choice but to maintain regular contact with people whose lives are often messy and in need of Jesus.
Be a Safe Person with a Dangerous Message
Jesus was a friend of sinners. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions” (Matt. 11:19). Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, has said that “where there is no relationship, there is no influence.” Most highly active church members, including pastors, have few meaningful relationships with lost people.
It is easy to say we love the world; loving an individual is more difficult. For us to be effective in evangelism, we must learn to love people who do things that might offend us. For the sake of the gospel, find an unlovely person and love him anyway.
Part of our role as a witness is to be a safe person, in spite of the fact that our message has dangerous consequences. The consequence of salvation is that people must change loyalties. They must move from loyalty to themselves to loyalty to Christ. We model that by investing in others.
Jesus was clear that to love the lovely and love your friends is not enough. He exhorted His followers to love their enemies and even those who despised them (Matt. 5:43–47).
We have to invest in the lives of the lost. Evangelism does not happen without cost. Richardson reminds us, “As many of us have discovered, it takes a disproportionate commitment for evangelism to reach the level of intensity of other values and priorities.” “Evangelism is not the only thing or even necessarily the most important thing. But it takes a disproportionate investment of time, resources and energy to bring the value of evangelism to equal footing with other values.”
Being a friend of sinners will involve bearing some of the consequences that come from their baggage of failures. This is what friends do. It is what Jesus, Paul, and others modeled.
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:1–4).
The movie Pay It Forward demonstrated an interesting twist to expressing gratitude for a kind deed received, which was to be thankful enough to pay it forward, not to pay back the giver. Instead of doing a good deed for the person who helped you, you were to help someone else. Typically we are taught to pay back, not to return thanks by helping others. As an expression of thanks to God and for the person or persons who brought us the message of hope in Christ, we too can express gratitude by carrying the message of Christ to others (Rom. 10:15–17).
Live a Credible Life
Part of our task is to gain a good hearing for the gospel. Living a credible life before others enhances this. With studies revealing that there are few differences in how Christians and non-Christians live, there is little curiosity about how we are living. How we handle difficulties and stresses, make decisions, rear our children, handle our financial matters and priorities, work, and live in a community of faith will either help us or hinder us in gaining a hearing for the gospel.
If we are living with Jesus and with lost people on our hearts, we will find ourselves validating our message through the small things we do. The other day someone approached my wife Sandy and said, “You are the lady who sings on the worship team.” Sandy replied that she was, and the two of them struck up a conversation. People who know us are often watching even when we do not know they are watching.
As the world becomes more anti-Christian and looks more unlike Christ, it is imperative that Christ followers possess different values and behaviors from those without Christ. There is no room for cultural Christianity. In order to be credible, we must demonstrate that the Christian lifestyle works.
Look for Divine Appointments
As we build relationships and interact with people in single and multiple encounters, we need to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. God can and does provide us with divine appointments to share His great love. We want constantly to be on the lookout for receptive people whom the Holy Spirit is drawing to Himself. This happens as we pursue lost people with our hearts and actions.
Editor’s note: This is an adapted excerpt from The Art of Personal Evangelism by Will McRaney.
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