During a mid-week Bible Study we were reading through one of the Gospels (eye-witness accounts) in attempt to discover the real Jesus. After reading a passage, I asked the participants an open-ended question about what we’d just read. I wanted to know their opinion about what Jesus meant by a controversial statement.
Timo* was the first to weigh in on the subject. He had recently started attending our church to learn more about Jesus and Christianity. And although he wasn’t a believer, he was definitely interested in spiritual things. Because he had no biblical background, his answer missed the point of what Jesus was getting at. It wasn’t malicious, by any means. But it wasn’t biblically correct either.
Daniel*, a Bible School student, was a guest at that Bible study. He disagreed with Timo, but did so in a forceful way that made Timo look and feel stupid. Daniel wasn’t being intentionally rude, he just wanted to set the record straight.
After that exchange, Timo didn’t answer any more questions, even though I tried to do some damage control. As a matter of fact, we never saw Timo again. He quit answering his phone and didn’t respond to emails.
A Welcoming Culture
In our church in Freiburg, Germany, we focused on building a culture that was intentionally welcoming to outsiders. As one of our four core values (“A SAFE PLACE to process what it means to follow Jesus”), we guarded and fought for this aspect of our culture. Our team modeled for volunteers and church regulars what it means to truly accept people as they are. We welcomed people with questions. We freely admitted that we are all in process, just like the messy people God was sending us. As a result, we attracted people from all walks of life – families, singles, students, professionals, asylum seekers, Muslims, agnostics, etc. We had earned the right to serve as guides into a life of following Jesus.
How Well-Meaning Christians Get In God’s Way
Although we had carefully and intentionally focused on building a welcoming culture, Christians that visited our church didn’t always understand what we were trying to accomplish, even though we repeatedly reinforced it. Most Christians (especially Bible School students) have been taught to carefully guard our doctrine and traditions, forcefully confronting people that make wrong statements about God and Bible – even at the expense of driving away people for whom Christ died. When we attack people for their wrong beliefs about Jesus, we drive them farther from Him. Unfortunately, well-meaning Christians do this all the time.
Click To Tweet: When we attack people for their wrongs beliefs about Jesus, we drive them farther from Him.
What these Christians forget is that Jesus invited people into a conversation (Nicodemus in John 3, the Samaritan woman in John 4, the crippled beggar in John 5, etc). As a matter of fact, He often asked questions to stimulate the discussion. The only people He openly confronted were those that thought they were better than others (Mark 12, Luke 11).
I’m not saying we should ignore correct doctrine. We should, by all means, guard the truth! But we need to learn how to gently and patiently challenge faulty assumptions people have that lead them to wrong conclusions. This is where apologetics comes in.
Rather than argue my point, I’ve learned to ask probing questions (read: apologetic questions) that might cause people to question their own assumptions. Timing and tact are HUGE at this point. If the person chooses to simply argue, I switch gears and focus on the relationship, praying that I will have an open door at some point to share Jesus’ grace and love with him/her.
What Can We Learn From Jesus’ Example?
If we are Jesus-followers, we need to strive to be like Him. This includes interacting with people as He did. What did He do that was so effective in inviting people into conversation?
He was authentic – Jesus was always genuine and honest. He never tried to make Himself look better than those around Him. He often didn’t even defend Himself when accused.
When we pretend to be someone we’re not, they can see right through us. The only people we’re fooling are ourselves. At one point we may have had an open door, but this effectively slams it shut. When we let down our defenses, others are more likely to let theirs down as well.
He was open – We don’t read of Jesus cutting people off mid-sentence in order to make His point. He truly listened to and engaged them.
When we really listen to people instead of formulating our rebuttal, we can begin to read the other person’s body language and maybe even catch whispers from the Holy Spirit that give us insight into his/her story, motivation or pain. Asking questions can often get past a person’s defenses to help you see their heart. Jesus excelled at this (note his interaction with a Samaritan woman in John 4).
He was approachable – Jesus was willing to be interrupted (multiple examples in Matthew 9). He wasn’t too busy to engage with people.
Our problem is that our schedules are so full that we are preoccupied and couldn’t take advantage of an opportunity, even if we actually recognized it. We need to build some margin into our schedules, giving ourselves some breathing room for those opportunities God will bring to us.
He intentionally connected with people very different from Himself – He was routinely criticized for being “a friend of sinners.” He seemed to prefer the company of the riff-raff – prostitutes, sell-out tax collectors and other disreputable characters.
In my church I was taught to avoid “them.” I was told that “they” would lead me astray. But when I read the eyewitness accounts of His life, I find Jesus actively connecting with people that were religious and societal outcasts. That means I should be willing to engage the strange man/woman in the grocery store, the homeless man on the street, or the person at school or the office that is just plain “different.”
He was full of grace and truth – Jesus spoke with both grace and truth.
Truth without grace is harsh and judgmental. Grace without truth is anemic and lifeless. We need to use both as we engage people that are far from God.
If we can learn to deal with people as Jesus did, we’ll notice a greater number of opportunities to share God’s grace and love with people. And perhaps we’ll even get to be the person that leads someone to step across the line of faith in Jesus.
To learn more about how to connect with an increasingly unchurched culture, check out my book, The Coming Post-Christian Tsunami.
* Names have been changed to protect identities.