When you think of people who are bold in sharing their faith, what qualities do you think of?
Perhaps you bring to mind people who manage to explain the gospel to someone they sit beside every time they board a plane, train or bus. Or maybe you know someone who enters every social situation intent upon telling someone else about Jesus — whether the person wants to hear it or not.
In a previous life I worked with university students. I trained and encouraged them to tell their friends about the invitation they had accepted from Jesus. Together we saw some people accept that invitation and heard many say “No thanks” or “Maybe later in my life.”
But during those years I also met a particular kind of Christian more than once. I’m going to refer to them as the “hit ‘n’ run evangelists.”
Every week I gathered some students for a short time of exploring what the Bible says about sharing our faith. After that we spent an hour on campus initiating conversations with whomever would talk to us that day. We were understandably nervous about starting spiritual conversations with strangers.
The risk of running into someone we knew personally only added to that sense of tension.
But we always had one or two individuals who were twitchy to get out and do some good old-fashioned “telling.”
They were like walking, talking USB sticks looking for an unsuspecting person they could plug into before downloading their gospel presentation. Then they would unplug and scramble before things got too relational.
While I admired their boldness in facing the strong possibility of rejection, I felt there was something lacking in this approach. It seemed like an impersonal way to share a message that could not possibly be more personal.
It’s like re-imagining the Great Commission as a scene in a “Mission Impossible” movie. Tom Cruise dangles upside down — the clock’s ticking — get out of there, Tom!
Sometimes we only get one opportunity to tell someone about Jesus. I know that. That’s not really what we’re addressing in this post. Instead we’re talking about the people you live, work and play alongside in your everyday life. Your neighbors.
How do we know when to speak up about our faith — and when to wait — with our neighbors?
With those people we cannot treat evangelism like a game of cat and mouse, or share the gospel like it’s a smash-and-grab operation. At least that’s not the MissionHub way.
Instead, we do the hard work of being patient. We learn to communicate what we believe in a way that’s consistent with how people see us demonstrating the gospel daily.
So how do we that? In these two posts we’re going to make a few suggestions.
Seek to understand before you seek to be understood
Recently I was at a party with some of my neighbors from the street my family moved to this year. These are people I’ve seen at the school gate. They’ve invited me in to see the work they recently did on their houses, as my family plans similar work. We’ve even sung some Christmas carols together.
Reading “The Art of Neighboring” by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon gave me added focus. It offered me a toolkit for being intentional to take steps of faith with my literal neighbors.
And then the moment arrived.
During the party I ended up in a conversation with a guy I found particularly interesting. We seemed to have a lot in common so I wanted to find out more about him. I had no specific plan to share the gospel with him that night. Up until then our most substantial conversation had been about rebuilding the top floor of his house.
But as we talked, I asked him a question about his background, then another and another. Before long I saw an opportunity.
He started talking about his spiritual beliefs. He had a Christian background but described himself now as an agnostic with a leaning toward Buddhist ideas. This is common where I live, as more and more people explore meditation, yoga and mindfulness.
At one point he suggested, “I think basically it’s all about just loving your neighbor. That’s what Jesus said, right?”
I paused. What he’d said was technically true, but in my opinion it was only half of what Jesus meant.
“Yes, that’s true. But I think you have to understand those words in the context of his command to love God with everything we’ve got,” I replied.
He asked me what I meant and I started trying to explain the gospel to him using my own story of coming to know Jesus.
His facial expression tightened. The eye contact between us broke. Instantly I sensed he was looking for a way out of the conversation.
I now had a choice. Do I press on and tell him what I think he needs to hear, or do I take a step back and wait?
I sensed anger rising in him as I talked about the difference between what Christians believe and other worldviews. He was leaving the conversation mentally, if not yet physically.
So I chose to give him some breathing space. I figuratively took a step back, asked him another question, and tried to re-establish the connection I thought we’d been building.
Did I back down too soon and miss my one chance to share the gospel with this neighbor? Or did I hear the Holy Spirit guiding me to pause and focus on establishing a deeper relationship?
Either way, the moment passed, and eventually we moved on to other conversations with other people.
Ask yourself if they’re ready to listen
In that moment with my neighbor I had to ask myself if he was ready to listen. Fortunately, I’ve been in enough conversations like this to believe I’ve developed a decent Spidey-sense — also known as empathy.
In this conversation, as in many others, I could tell whether the person I spoke to was listening and tracking with whatever I was saying. I’ve also learned to identify when the person chooses to step off that train. When that happens, it’s important that we try to understand why the person chose to disengage.
Are we hitting a nerve on a topic that is sensitive for the other person? Did he or she stop hearing what we’re really saying because of the way we’re saying it?
Remember, you may not be the first Christian your neighbors have encountered. Their past experiences may have been negative ones. So they arrive at your conversation with preconceptions.
If they associate Christians with prejudice, they expect you to be the same or similar.
Look at how Jesus went about difficult conversations. With the woman at the well (John 4) Jesus asked questions to communicate to her that he understood her situation. He connected with her reality in such a deep way that she felt known by him — and so she was ready to receive what was coming.
People want to be known on a deep level. Even those who are highly cautious of others really want to be known, they just have reasons why they feel unsafe.
By seeking to understand others first, we challenge a preconception many people have about Christians. I think many people are waiting for us to spring our “download” on them.
Our neighbors are not accustomed to being asked a series of questions that show you’re authentically interested in truly knowing them. They do not expect it because, sadly, it’s uncommon in our culture.
So let’s be known as people who listen well. And the opportunities to speak are likely to follow.
Neighboring relies on the drip-drip effect
Loving your neighbors — what some now refer to as “neighboring” — is normally a long-term project. It’s made up of a multitude of little moments and a few bigger ones.
You cannot microwave relationships. But you can burn them.
So we focus on demonstrating the gospel in the way we live. And we communicate the gospel and our love for Jesus as we talk about our everyday life.
“How was your weekend?”
Colleagues ask me this question every Monday morning. I usually talk about taking my kid to soccer and organizing my house.
But I’m also trying to talk about going to church, and about something I heard there that impacted me. Or I talk about something meaningful that a friend from church did to encourage me over the weekend.
Is that explaining the gospel? No. Is it taking a step of faith? Yes.
It’s a moment that lays the groundwork for the moments when they’ll ask you about your faith or when you’ll ask if you can tell them something you think will encourage them.
If you’re following Jesus, your weekend and your daily life are different in significant ways from the weekends and daily lives of others. Do not hide that. They’ll become curious, even if they do not immediately ask you what you believe and why.
Being bold sometimes means explaining the gospel to someone. But often there are steps that need to lead up to that. Some of those steps include making sure Jesus and our Christian community feature strongly in how we describe our normal life.
MissionHub can provide you with simple steps of faith to take with your neighbors. You can also use it to keep track of how a relationship develops, and to challenge yourself to be bolder.
Read Part 2 of this post to learn how to prepare for those one-time conversations, and to discover what it takes for someone to trust a Christian.