Different People, Different Places (2)
Part 2 of the revised text of a presentation for the Abbotsford Canadian Reformed Church in 2008. Part 1 can be found here.
There are few people who will outrightly describe themselves as atheists. There were no atheists, for instance, in Fort Babine. An atheist is a person who considers the existence of God to be unproven. They typically claim to have intellectual problems with God’s existence.
Many atheists are well-read and intelligent people. Yet you might be surprised how many of them have never actually read the Bible. Although some training in apologetics would be helpful (and according to 1 Peter 3:15 is our responsibility), the one thing that all of us can do is to challenge the atheist on the reading of the Bible. Has he or she read it? The Word of God is powerful all on its own and many an unbeliever has been converted just by picking up and reading the Bible.
These are those who have some conviction of their sin and guilt before God. They recognize that they have a problem and their ears are open and attentive to the good news. Perhaps God has already been after them for some time. With these our calling is simply to tell them the good news of what Christ has done.
In the Bible we also see examples of most of all those sorts of people. Psalm 14 and 53 tell us about the fool who says there is no God. After the Pentecost preaching of Peter, Jews who were formerly indifferent or hostile became seekers. Ananias and Sapphira were false Christians, as was Simon the Sorcerer. We need look no further than the Pharisees to find the self-righteous. And we could add another category as well: the non-Christian religious. We see these people in Acts 17 in Athens or in Iconium in Acts 14. These people needed to be turned from idols to the living and true God. Such people live in your city as well.
Now among all those groups, many of us know people with whom we have relationships of various sorts. Let’s now survey those relationships and reflect on how those relationships will determine our approach.
These are people such as family and close friends. We usually don’t have any difficulting speaking with people in this group. If there are unbelievers in this circle, we should be able to speak with them directly about spiritual things. However, it should be recognized that speaking directly does not mean being offensive and rude. As in every situation, it has to be clear — many times it has to be said out loud — that we say what we say because we care deeply about that person. People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.
These may include more distant relatives, neighbours, co-workers, fellow students, etc. These are people whom we’ve known for a long time and they know the basics about who we are. Certainly we hope they know we’re Christians – there would be nothing worse than having a person with whom you’ve worked for ten years say something like, “Hey, I didn’t know you were a Christian!” With these folks, we would be less direct, depending on whether or not we’ve talked about spiritual things with them in the past.
We have a unique responsibility to all those with whom we are in long-term relationships, whether intimate or not. These people see us regularly and they know the witness of our lives, even if they have not heard the witness of our lips.
These are the people who come and go in our lives. They’re in our lives for ten minutes or two months, or something like that. We have few opportunities to get into anything indepth with these folks. Our relationship with them is stays at a superficial level.
With these sorts of relationships, we should look for open doors in which to speak about spiritual things at some level. But when those doors open, we have to be careful about not being too aggressive. In our society, people are greatly annoyed by aggressive strangers no matter what the motives are, religious or not. Canadians just don’t track with that sort of behaviour. My observation is that many Americans don’t see that as odd, but in Canadian society people are not like that. Canadians see themselves as kinder and gentler.
Being unaggressive doesn’t mean we’re uncaring or unconcerned. It means that we’re sensitive to the culture in which we live. It also means that we recognize that we’re not the ones who save the lost. God is. We pray for open doors and when God gives them, we’ll be willing to go through them and take them. But ultimately the salvation of our neighbours doesn’t depend on us and our efforts.
God will use all of us with all our natural gifts and personalities and even our weaknesses. Some of us are more open and extroverted than others. Some have no problem striking up a conversation that leads to talking about spiritual things in a natural, friendly way with strangers. Let’s not stop them or discourage them! But others of us are shy and it takes a long time before we get to the point where we personally share our faith and tell about the gospel. I count myself in the last group and I don’t have to feel guilty about that and neither does anybody else. That’s the way God created us and he’ll use us however he wills. At the same time, we can never use our shyness as an excuse never to speak about spiritual things.
You may have a situation where a neighbour comes by and all you do for fifteen minutes is talk about the weather or whatever else. Maybe at the end of the conversation you give him a tract or an Evangel magazine or something like that. That’s fine. But in that sort of situation, make a mental note to pray for that neighbour. Not only to pray for him that day, but to pray for him regularly if he isn’t a Christian or you’re not sure. My experience as a missionary taught me that prayer is one of the most powerful things we have at our disposal in our outreach. I would pray for people’s salvation and for opportunities to speak the gospel to individuals. God would give the open doors to do those very things. It happened to me over and over again. I can’t say that God saved dozens of people through me, but he did allow the opportunity for the Word to get out and the gospel to be heard. I’m convinced he’ll do the same for you.
In connection with that, James 5:16 is a well-known Bible passage: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” That applies as much to outreach as it does to anything else in life. Don’t get hung up on methods and techniques – the best outreach is simply being yourself, loving your neighbour and praying earnestly for him or her. There is no one magic technique that will work for everybody – the gospel by its nature simply doesn’t lend itself to that kind of manipulation.
I do hope that God will bless your efforts. May he use you to call those who are in darkness into his marvelous light, for the glory of his name.