CONNECTING WITH UNBELIEVERS
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1962)
My family and I had just moved
back to the
These were some of my first clues
Another way to illustrate this is with a quote by the syndicated columnist, William Raspberry. This quote makes some people angry, but it is valuable, because it helps us see how we are perceived by many of our contemporaries.
ADVICE TO THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT
“These earnest men and women care deeply about the old virtues, about life that has meaning beyond economic growth. But they express that caring with a doctrinal and ideological particularity that either shuts the rest of us out or frightens us into opposition. My unsolicited advice is not that they should change their beliefs, only that they might connect with the rest of the anxious middle class if they sought points of connection rather than points of difference. America, I believe, is hungry for the spirituality we used to take for granted. The religious right wants to feed that hunger, but it insists in a self-righteous theocracy that knows the truth and would impose it on us – for our own good.”
Even though this statement may
make many believers angry or sad, there is cause for encouragement. One thing that Raspberry is saying is that he
is interested in the substance of our
faith, but that the form in which we
present it turns him off. For example,
he talks about “life that has meaning beyond economic growth” and about “the
spirituality we used to take for granted”.
Furthermore, he says that he believes that
But, he says, we tend to “express that caring with a doctrinal and ideological particularity that either shuts the rest of us out or frightens us into opposition”. In addition, we “insist in a self-righteous theocracy that knows the truth and would impose it on them – for their own good.” In other words, he is saying that he, and many others, like our substance, but are turned off by our form. That means that we are faced with a no-brainer. We need to change our form but keep our substance. Specifically, we need to take his “unsolicited advice”:
“My unsolicited advice is not that they should change their beliefs, only that they might connect with the rest of the anxious middle class if they sought points of connection rather than points of difference.”
There is much to indicate that
Raspberry is right when he suggests that Americans are hungry for meaning. For one thing, these signals are coming out
Furthermore, it is noteworthy
that evangelical Christianity has become so highly visible in American
society. Even Homer Simpson has an
evangelical neighbor, Ned Flanders, who made the cover of Christianity Today a couple of years ago. I was stunned to learn that Promise Keepers
could get close to a million men to come to the Mall in
The bad news is that much of the publicity evangelicals are getting is negative. For example, a recent film with the provocative title Saved skewers evangelical Christians as self-righteous, mean-spirited bigots. Many of the bumper stickers cited above do the same. The punch line is that there has been a serious breakdown in communication between believers and unbelievers.
Furthermore, it is not all
“their” fault. Raspberry suggests that
unbelievers are turned off by us, but that is often because we are turned off
by them. Another author, John Fischer,
(author of Fearless Faith) says that
there is a significant evangelical subculture in
In the book Too Christian, Too Pagan, Dick Staub notes that many Christians have no unbelieving friends because they spend all their social time with other believers. In fact, some have observed that the average believer has no unbelieving friends after he has been a believer for two years. Because of the large evangelical subculture that John Fischer has identified, most believers are already in “relational overload” with just their believing friends. As a result, they have no time, energy or relational capacity for unbelievers. Besides, why would any believer want to hang out with unbelievers?
It seems clear that we need to relearn how to connect with unbelievers. Probably the best place to start would be to examine the example of Jesus, who was often roundly criticized for being a “friend of sinners”.
“Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’." (Luke 15:1-2)
Jesus responded to this broadside from the Pharisees by telling three stories to show the value of “lost” people in the eyes of God; the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) and the lost (prodigal) son (Luke 15:11-32). In each story, something of great value was lost and in each case there was a great celebration when it was found.
The Pharisees and teachers of the (Jewish) law were shocked and offended that Jesus would hang out with “riff-raff”. Their strategy was to avoid all contact with “unclean” people, although the only difference between them and the “unclean” was in external appearances, as Jesus pointed out in Matthew 23:25-28
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
They covered up their greed and self-indulgence with a thin veneer of piety. They appeared to people as righteous, but insider they were full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Jesus, on the other hand, was the opposite. Inwardly, He was very different from both the “tax collectors and sinners” and the Pharisees, but outwardly, He was very much at ease with them. The Pharisees big question was: “Why does He hang out with those people?”, but there is another important question: “Why would those people hang out with Him?”
“Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners'?’ Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’" (Luke 5:29-32)
So living as an insider involves connecting with unbelievers. Another way of saying this is to talk about “finding common ground” with unbelievers. This is the title of one of the best books I have read on this subject: Finding Common Ground by Tim Downs.
For example, how did Jesus connect with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4? He had at least three reasons not to connect with her: she was a woman (v. 27), she was a Samaritan (v.9) and she was a woman with a sordid past (vv. 17-18). And yet, Jesus found common ground with her: his humanity (vv. 6-7). He was tired and thirsty, just like anyone else would be after walking X number of miles in the heat of the day. I have learned that unbelievers are far more interested in my humanity than they are in my piety or my theology. That does not mean that piety and theology are not important, but just that they are not as good a point of common ground as our humanity.
II EVANGELISM IS A PROCESS
We will come back to the account of Jesus’ conversation with this woman, but let’s jump ahead to the punch line and read John 4:34-38, which clearly indicates that evangelism is a process, involving both sowing and reaping. Furthermore, sowing is the harder part of this process.
I think that one reason that sowing is harder than reaping is that you don’t see any visible results in sowing like you do in reaping. Jesus said that there was rejoicing in heaven over one sinner that repents. Even the angels get more excited about reaping than sowing!
Anyone who has ever tried to grow a vegetable or flower garden knows that there is much more satisfaction in reaping than there is in sowing and cultivating. Nevertheless, it is patently obvious that you will never reap if you don’t sow. This is obvious in agriculture, but in evangelism, it is easy to overlook the critical importance of cultivating and sowing.
Another way to look at the process of evangelism is to look at what it takes for people to come to faith in Christ: interest, insight and conviction. Many of us have traditionally considered evangelism to be an event, which assumes that people already have interest and insight and focuses on developing conviction through proclamation of the Gospel. That was a valid approach 30-40 years ago, because many people who did not yet understand or believe the Gospel did have enough interest and insight to make proclamation sufficient to develop the conviction to trust Christ. Based on my experience on campus and in the military in the 60’s, I would estimate that as many as 10% had sufficient interest and insight to make it possible to adequately communicate the Gospel in a one-hour conversation. This is no longer the case, however, and my guess would be that it is more like 1% who have enough interest and insight to need only proclamation to come to faith. For the other 99%, we need to incarnate the Gospel to awaken interest and develop trust, and we need to facilitate discovery to help them develop insight. This process is illustrated below.
INTEREST INSIGHT CONVICTION
INCARNATION DISCOVERY PROCLAMATION
III AWAKENING INTEREST
But how does one awaken interest and build trust? Let’s go back to John 4 and see how Jesus went through this process with this woman. We have already seen that Jesus had three reasons not to talk with this woman, which means, of course, that she had plenty of reasons not to talk with him. In other words, she probably lacked interest in what Jesus had to say. Furthermore, it is probable that she did not trust Him, both because He was a Jew and because of her history with men. So how did this process play out in this conversation?
We have already seen how He found common ground with her in His humanity, despite the fact that He had at least three good reasons not to talk with her. How did He develop interest? He asked her for water, and when she tried to put him off, He talked about living water. What was the woman’s response to this? "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water." (John 4:15) Why would she be interested in living water? In addition to the fact that drawing water is hard work, she also came at (the sixth hour) in the heat of the day, most likely to avoid the other women of the village for reasons that we will see.
But there may well have been another reason why she was interested in living water, and Jesus gets to in vv. 16-18. He reveals that He knows that she has had five husbands and that she was living with a sixth to whom she was not married. In that culture it was most likely the five husbands who had initiated the five divorces. Why would she keep coming back for more after experiencing so much rejection? It is likely that she had needs that no husband could satisfy, that is, spiritual needs. I think that Jesus knew that this woman was looking for water in “broken cisterns” in the words of Jeremiah 2:13, and He was suggesting that she come to the living waters of Isaiah 55:1-2.
By revealing what He knew about her past, Jesus certainly impressed her, and probably won her trust. He demonstrated supernatural knowledge, but also understanding of her situation. She realized that Jesus understood how desperately she was searching for meaning and purpose, for something that would satisfy the deep longings of her soul.
Nevertheless, she was also embarrassed by Jesus’ detailed knowledge of her personal life, so she tried to change the subject. What did her question in vv. 19-20 have to do with the conversation? Basically, nothing, but it did reveal a lack of insight. How did Jesus answer her question? He used it as a springboard to deepen her insight on true spirituality (vv. 21-24). In a way, He facilitated discovery by raising questions in her mind. Finally, He directly proclaims His identity in verse 26.
The woman is so excited by this conversation that she forgets why she came to the well in the first place (i.e., she leaves her water jar) and goes back to tell the people of Sychar about it: “Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?’” (John 4:28-29) What is amazing about this story is that the townspeople took this woman seriously. They went looking for Jesus (v. 30) and they even believed in Jesus (vv. 39-40) Based on what I know about small town life, the chances that the people of the village would take this woman seriously were pretty slim.
I come from a small town similar
to this Samaritan village, a town where everyone knows everyone:
But what was the reaction? .The people took her seriously and came to the well to check it out. Based on my experience of small-town life, this should not have happened. Why did it? The only thing I can conclude is that there was something profoundly different about this woman when she came back to town. Otherwise, I don’t think that the townspeople would have taken her seriously.
An entire village was transformed because Jesus found common ground with someone with whom He had virtually nothing in common other than His humanity. He had three very legitimate reasons for avoiding this woman altogether, yet He found common ground with her and then used that common ground to awaken her interest and build trust, leading to her coming to faith and influencing the entire village.
But there was another factor in the transformation of the village. At the end, they believed not only because of the words of the woman, but even more because of the words of Jesus: “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I ever did." So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, "We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world." (John 4:39-42). This leads us to the second step of the process: developing insight by facilitating discovery.
IV DEVELOPING INSIGHT BY FACILITATING DISCOVERY
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. "How do you read it?’ He answered: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’ But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:25-29)
How often have I wished that someone would ask me this question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” If there is any question I am ready for, this is it! I feel like the guy in an old Bill Cosby routine who learned karate and then would walk down dark alleys with money hanging out of his pockets, just hoping that someone would try to mug him! I have an answer to this question; I just wish that someone would ask it!
But when someone asked Jesus this question and He had the opportunity to give my answer, He didn’t do it! Why not? Didn’t He know the Bridge illustration or the Four Spiritual Laws? Why didn’t Jesus take advantage of this opportunity to preach the Gospel?
Not only does Jesus not give my answer, He doesn’t give any answer at all. Instead, He asks a question: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Furthermore, He commends the lawyer for his answer: “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” Yet, the lawyer is still not satisfied, so he asks a further question to justify himself: “And who is my neighbor?” which Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke -37).
What is going on here? Why doesn’t Jesus come right out and answer the guy’s question with a simple presentation of the Gospel? I believe that it is because Jesus knew that the guy would never accept a straightforward answer, so He asks some thought-provoking questions to facilitate discovery.
First of all, it says that the lawyer asked this question to test Jesus. In other words, he didn’t want to know, he wanted to see if Jesus knew! When a teacher gives a test, it is not to learn the correct answers to the questions; it is to see if the students know the correct answers.
Secondly, the question was based on the false premise that inheriting eternal life is a function of doing something. Jesus knew that this guy was not going to abandon that premise easily, so he granted him his faulty premise and asked him a question to help him discover where it led. Jesus knew that there were two problems with the premise that inheriting eternal life was based on doing something:
1. How can you know when you have done enough?
2. In fact, you never can do enough.
The lawyer’s question “And who is my neighbor?” is another way of asking “How can I know when I have done enough?” The parable of the Good Samaritan puts the bar sufficiently high to help him see that one never can do enough. This is not in the text, but it is not hard to imagine the lawyer muttering under his breath “Nobody could do that!” as he walked away from this encounter with Jesus.
Rather than argue with this expert in the law about the faulty premise of his question, Jesus helped him discover it for himself. We can do the same with people who lack sufficient insight to understand the Gospel by simply reading the Bible with them, either individually or in small groups. Because the “Word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow and is a discerner of the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews ), I don’t have to defend the Bible or convince people that it is the Word of God. I can simply say, “Let’s just read it and see what it says. You can draw your own conclusions about it, as to whether or not you agree with it or whether or not it is true.” In other words, “Let God do the talking.”
The inhabitants of Sychar were impressed by the changed life of the woman, but they were even more impressed by the words of Jesus. If we can get our unbelieving friends to look at the words of Jesus with us, many of them will be similarly impressed. We don’t need to convince anyone that the Bible is authoritative; the Bible can do that for itself. As someone has said, “Defending the Bible is like defending a lion. You don’t need to defend a lion; all you need to do is turn it loose!”
V MY PERSONAL JOURNEY IN CONNECTING WITH UNBELIEVERS
Let me share a little bit of how this process has played out in my life. For the first 15 or so years that I was involved in evangelism, I basically looked for people that had interest and insight, and I tried to help them develop conviction by proclamation of the Gospel. As I said before, in the 60’s and 70’s roughly 10% of the people with whom I came in contact had sufficient interest and insight to be ready for proclamation. For example, I was like that. When I was 19 years old, someone explained the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith to me, and I responded within a few days.
Today, however, I think that the bell curve has shifted to the left, and there are not nearly as many people who have interest and insight, so they are not open to proclamation. I have the impression that this has led to a breakdown in communication between believers and unbelievers in this country, which is Raspberry’s point, I think. Instead of meaningful dialogue, we often end up either ignoring one another or shouting at one another.
Actually, I believe that more often than not, the problem is not a lack of interest, but rather a lack of trust. That is the main point of Raspberry’s advice, it seems to me. I think we can paraphrase his advice: “We are interested, but we have a hard time trusting you.”
In any event, I think that we
don’t have to be stymied by the fact that few, if any people have interest and
insight, or even if they do have interest, they don’t trust us. I personally had a crash course in this when
I went to
We did find, however, that a significant percentage (10-15%) of French university students had enough interest to want to read the Bible with us to engage in a Bible reading group for several months or even years in some cases. The French school system really helped us in our ministry to college students, because they require every high school senior to take courses in philosophy, which gets them thinking about deeper issues like the meaning of life, etc. When they arrived at the University, they had many of these questions still fresh in their minds, which gave them a certain interest in discussing spiritual issues.
About ½ of the students who did this eventually came to faith, so we didn’t have too much trouble recruiting all the students we could handle to this long, slow process. As a result, I adopted the slogan of Cam Townsend, founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators: “Let God do the talking”. We did surveys of religious opinion in the dorms and invited those who were interested to participate in a Bible discussion group in a neutral context, typically a dorm room. Many of these students came to faith through this process.
Among adults, however, we found very few who had the interest or the inclination to want to read the Bible with us. For one thing, they were too busy making a living and raising a family, and for another, they were no longer interested in philosophy like students are. Nevertheless, many of them wanted to be friends with us. One day, I was praying for one couple in particular and asking God, “How are we ever going to get them to study the Bible with us?” The thought crossed my mind, “Maybe we will never get them to study the Bible with us, but they seem to want to be our friends. I need all the friends I can get, so if they want to be friends, we will be friends.” That freed me up to just be friends with unbelievers without an agenda, trusting God to use me to incarnate the Gospel and to use that in their lives.
VI CONCLUSION: BEING AN INSIDER
The “bottom line” of all this is that evangelism has become much more relational than confrontational, and being able to connect with unbelievers is a critical skill. This means that we have to take advantage of the natural opportunities to connect with unbelievers where we live, work and play. As Jim Petersen and Mike Shamy have written in their excellent book, The Insider:
“Every Christian has inside access to a unique set of relationships. They are insiders to families, neighborhoods, workplaces and social networks. You will not find their photos in church mission publications. Neither are they the subject of missionary biographies. Yet they play a vital and indispensable role in the working out of Gods purposes. They are key persons to moving the Gospel into a family context, into a marketplace or into any other social context. But they are so few!”
“In his book The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark says, ‘The primary means of its (Christianity’s) growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing number of Christian believers who invited their friends, relatives and neighbors to share the good news.’ Yet within 300 years of the birth of Christianity, ministry had become the domain of the clergy.”
“Being authentically and meaningfully involved with unbelievers takes time and commitment. It means growing in love and compassion. For some it means developing new understandings that will redefine ministry. It requires skill to know what to do and how to do it. The insider needs support from fellow insiders as well as coaching and reinforcement from credible mentors. Above all, insiders need to keep growing in their own relationship with the Lord.”
Therefore, we need to do everything we can to reverse this unfortunate trend that has relegated insiders to the bleachers. We need to recognize that insiders are strategically placed at the center of a network of people for whom they represent the best opportunity these people will ever have to hear and understand the Gospel. We want to do all we can “to affirm and enable the strategic ministry of the insider. We want to say: “Stay in there. Give your time to your unbelieving friends. We’re with you.”
John Ed Robertson