The Key to Sharing Your Faith in a Post-Christian Culture
Excerpted from “Mud and the Masterpiece: Seeing Yourself and Others Through the Eyes of Jesus” (Baker Books, 2013)”
It is not enough for one Christian to befriend and share her faith with another person. That worked in a culture that was mostly Christian, where most people grew up with a background knowledge of and respect for the Bible, mainly needing the central theme of grace clarified to decide whether to follow Christ. However, in today’s post-Christian context, people often need the intersection of three elements in order to find faith and become the church:
1. A friendship with someone who truly acts like Jesus—listening, caring, serving, and talking openly about faith in a non-pressuring way. (We talked about this in part 1.)
2. Relationship with a “tribe” of four to five other Christians whom they enjoy hanging out with and who make them feel like they truly belong (the focus of this chapter).
3. A “come as you are” learning environment where they can learn, usually for six to eighteen months, about the Way of Jesus. (We will discuss this in chapter 13.)
When all three of these elements intersect the lives of those far from God, it’s amazing how many people find the love and grace of God and bring their network of friends and family along with them. You will begin to see more and more people, once far from God, now following Christ and leading others to do the same. But first we must build relational momentum.
Europe, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and much of the United States and even South America face post-Christian barriers to people finding faith. It requires relationship and learning to overcome these barriers. In a post-Christian context, most people do not really know much about the Bible or the life-giving Way of Jesus, but there still exists an awareness of Christianity (usually this awareness comes only from negative media or bias about Christians). Honestly, it would be easier in some respects to reach a culture with zero awareness of Christianity than have to overcome negative stereotypes left in the wake of dying churches, but post-Christian is where much of the world lives.
In order for people of post-Christian cultures to become followers of Jesus, they must get to know multiple Christians willing to be open about their own struggles while also demonstrating the hope and fruit of the Spirit-filled life. When non-Christians encounter Christians who act like they never struggle, have all the answers, and suggest quick fixes for every problem, they quickly see through the pharisaical pretense and want nothing to do with that kind of faith.
But seeing people who try to love but struggle, who face real setbacks and need encouragement, who get tempted but ask for prayer and support, and who are learning to stay connected to God’s Spirit alongside a loving spiritual community—that’s what the whole world longs for, and that relational momentum draws people to Jesus. But how does a fledgling core group of Christians build relational momentum?
Build Relationships Where You Live
Jesus’ Great Commission tells us to “make disciples” (learners and followers of Jesus) by first helping them identify with the Father, Son, and Spirit through faith and baptism, then helping them “observe” (not just know) all Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:19–20 NLT). But the context is “as you go.” God has you where you are for a reason. Maybe you hate your job, or struggle with the city you’re in, but maybe that would change if you started to ask, “Who are you drawing to faith around me, and how can I love and serve them as I go?”
Most of us have at least four, some as many as ten, people we interact with regularly who are either not following Christ or are disconnected from his church. Start noticing as you go. As a co-missioned core group, make a list of the people God has already put in your life, and simply begin to pray for them. Steve said, “Joanne and I live with an ‘adopt our block’ mindset. Our goal is to actually get to know our neighbors, pray for them, care for them, live life with them, and then when the opportunity comes up, share Jesus with them.”
Matt in San Diego read about an important sociological principle in a book called Refrigerator Rights. All people long for the kind of friendships and belonging where you feel so comfortable that you could go over to a neighbor’s house, open the refrigerator and get a drink, and never feel weird about it, and they could do the same at your house. Interestingly, if you never invite your neighbors into your kitchen, or go into theirs, the relationship will stay at a friendly surface level for years. So inviting neighbors into your kitchen opens the door for a kind of belonging that everyone longs to experience.
Jay and Jen, along with a Network of people from Matt’s church in San Diego, threw a “meet your neighbors” party at their condominium pool. There was a great turnout, and as a result of the party, the next week Jay ran into Emily and Mark, stopped and talked, and invited them over for dinner. Mark was agnostic and really hostile toward Christianity. Mark later reflects, “If you had invited me to anything ‘church,’ or if I had even known the party was church, we would have been gone.”
But Jay and Jen had them over for dinner, and friendship grew as Jay introduced Mark and Emily to other Christ-followers in their circle of friends. Emily was a believer, but had shelved her fledgling faith ever since dating and marrying Mark. Jay and Jen had opened their home and built trust enough that Mark agreed to check out Jay’s small group and attend church with Emily because he liked the people. Relational momentum was building.
Emily started growing in faith and Mark started openly exploring faith, because, as they put it, “We had never had friends like this before, people who actually cared, listened, built you up rather than tearing you down—people we trusted!” Refrigerator rights spread as Emily began to interact with Alex and Karen across the street. The pool party sparked relationships among many isolated neighbors. Alex and Karen’s families lived in New Zealand and Puerto Rico, so they longed for close friendship as well.
Because Emily and Mark were experiencing a level of loving relationship among these church people, it felt natural to invite Alex and Karen to attend some of the church gatherings with them, even though they did not “do church” or follow Christ. The day Alex and Karen came to church, Matt spoke on refrigerator rights. That evening, Alex and Karen went over to Emily and Mark’s house, told them how much that message moved them, and opened up about struggles they were having and how that’s what they were longing for—refrigerator rights.
As your core group begins to simply build trusting, caring friendships “as you go,” thinking about how to give refrigerator rights to people far from God, you will see relational momentum begin to build. Refrigerator rights go deeper than access to your food. It’s about a willingness to invite someone into your personal space, your real life, even your struggles—to let them see where you really live.
Not everyone will find faith. Alex and Karen did end up coming to church and connecting in a small group, but underlying marriage struggles caused an ugly divorce before they ever found faith, and both moved away. And this is an important sidenote: Building relational momentum only happens as you allow the weeds and wheat to all grow up together, knowing God will sort it all out in the end (Matthew 13:24–30).
Jesus created relational momentum as he invited people to come and see where he was staying. It says after spending the day with Jesus, Andrew brought his brother, Simon, to meet Jesus. Jesus invited Philip to come with him to Galilee; Philip immediately invited his friend, Nathanael, who was skeptical. Philip’s invitation to Nathanael mirrored the words of Jesus, “Come and see” (John 1:35–46).
Stuff You Enjoy
A great way to build friendships with people far from God is simply doing stuff you enjoy with people outside your church. I love soccer. I’ve played my whole life, and so when I started thinking about how to serve people around me and build relationships, I decided to coach my son’s soccer team with my wife’s help. One of our neighbor’s kids joined our team, and we got to be friends with Cindy and Jeff and their family. This led to a lot more time together on and off the field and around the neighborhood. After months of relationship building, Cindy and Jeff and their family started attending our church, then got in a small group, then found faith.
Cindy enthusiastically shared with the other parents at practices about our church, especially encouraging Kathy to come. Kathy started listening to messages on the Internet because she struggled with alcohol and impatience and wanted help. Over the next few years, Kathy and Alejandro and their whole family found faith. Cindy also introduced us to Sandra and Grey down the street. Having grown up in England, they wanted their son to play soccer, so he too joined our team. As we became friends, both Sandra and Grey had resistance at first to the message of Jesus, but when they hit some struggles the next year, they reached out to us for help. As a result, Sandra came to faith, and Grey and I had some great talks about Jesus before they moved back overseas.
David and Trina were the parents of Ryan, a boy I ended up coaching from age eight to twelve. David was easy to get to know. He loved to joke around and was a life-of-the-party kind of guy, crude and rude but totally funny, and super successful managing a global high-tech sales force. Kathy and Alejandro, Cindy and Jeff, and another couple who started coming to our church all got to be friends with David and Trina.
One day I asked David, “What’s your spiritual background?” He gladly told me about his horrible experiences with organized religion from a young age as he grew up in Europe. David felt it horribly wrong that beggars could go hungry right across the street from a huge, ornate cathedral, and decided it was all hypocrisy. I agreed with him that God cares about the plight of the poor and wants all people to love him by serving others.
Because several of the parents on the soccer team had already come to faith and had told him what our church service was like, David and his family started attending. This led to much more sideline chatting about messages, and jokes about God and religion, but also increasingly real conversation among this group of soccer moms and dads. David was learning about the way of Jesus with his family, and his eyes were opening to God’s goodness.
When David and Trina hosted the team at their house for one end-of-the-year soccer party, I noticed a tap coming out of the refrigerator. David let me know unashamedly that he liked his beer … a lot! It was his one vice.
I asked David, “So where are you at with God?” He said, “I think I believe in God now, I’m just not sure about Jesus.” I asked if he’d be up for a breakfast conversation about it, and he said, “Sure.” At breakfast, I asked what it was about Jesus that tripped him up. He just didn’t understand why you had to believe Jesus was more than just a good teacher. I told David that God created him to do life in loving relationship with God and others, and I explained why Jesus not only showed God’s character in a form we could comprehend, but also paid to make a way for anyone to turn back to God and be forgiven. I challenged David to read Scripture and begin to openly pray for God to reveal himself, but on God’s terms.
A year later, I heard he’d been promoted to national sales manager of a company moving him to New Jersey, so I requested one last lunch. I said, “So, David, we haven’t talked about faith in a while. Where are you at with Jesus?”
His words dropped my jaw. “I’m in” was all he said. “You’re in?”
“Yeah, I’m in, man! You know, after our last meeting I started thinking about what you said, and then I did that Soul Revolution experiment with the church and started realizing that God’s been trying to get my attention for a long time. He’s been giving me all these good gifts, blessings, jobs, a wonderful family, but I just didn’t realize it was God. I wasn’t being thankful, so I started being thankful, and at the same time Trina and I both decided to get in shape and stop drinking, and I guess somewhere along the way enough of my struggles got answered.”
“So you believe Jesus was the Son of God?” “Yep.”
“And you’ve told him you want what he did to count for you—to have his forgiveness and leadership over your life?”
“Yep. I think I want you to baptize me before I move, but I really wanted Trina to do it with me, and I’m not sure she’s ready.”
The next month, I had one of the highlights of my life as I baptized David, Trina, Ryan, and his little sister, too, as followers of Jesus!
Over the ten years we coached, I figured out twenty adults and kids we met through soccer started following Christ as part of our church! Find ways to build relational momentum with neighbors, co-workers, or just with people doing what you love to do—coaching soccer, riding mountain bikes, jogging, golfing, watching football. But then you need to go beyond that to create loving community with Christians, inviting non-Christians to belong and experience life with Jesus.
Aware As You Work
We can join the Father in his work even as we work. After Jesus healed the mat-bound guy at the pool of Bethesda, the Pharisees accused him of breaking the Sabbath. Jesus responded by saying, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working. … The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing” (John 5:17, 19). We too were meant to work with an awareness of what the Father is doing, and join him in his work.
Paul understood this when he pointed out to idol worshipers in Lystra that “[God] has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). In other words, God got there first! God had been there at work, giving good gifts, filling their hearts with joy, drawing all people to himself even though they didn’t acknowledge him yet. As we go about our work, do we see where God is working in order to join him?
Paula came to faith in our church after years of atheism. The wounds from a father whose only attention came when he got her drunk and molested her as a teenager kept her alcohol dependent to numb the pain. She got sober through trusting a Higher Power who forgives, gives us second and third chances, and loves us enough to help us do what we can’t do ourselves as we surrender our will to doing his will only.
Paula joined my small group, and I had a chance to show her that the Higher Power she experienced healing her was the God Jesus revealed—there aren’t other gods who do that! She came to faith and started following Christ.
Paula works doing developmental home therapy with kids. One of Paula’s clients was a four-year-old named Luke, who had nearly died several times in the hospital due to complications at birth. He required ongoing therapy. Luke’s mother, Shelly, had become friends with Paula over the year of therapy, and one day Shelly opened up to Paula about something troubling her.
“I’m concerned about Luke,” Shelly began. “He’s been having strange dreams or imaginative ideas, but I don’t know where they could have come from.”
“What kind of strange dreams?” Paula asked.
“When I tuck him in for bed at night, he keeps telling me he wants to go and play in the fields with Jesus again. I asked him about it, and he insists that when he was in the hospital, Jesus came to get him and they would run and play in these beautiful meadows. As you know, his father’s a doctor, and Andrew thinks it’s a hallucination. I just can’t figure out where he even heard about Jesus. We have never been to church, talked about Jesus, or let him watch anything on TV about Jesus. How did he come up with Jesus?”
Realizing that God might just be at work behind the scenes, drawing this family to himself through the near-death experience of this child, Paula told Shelly what she had been learning about Jesus. God used that conversation to set Shelly and Andrew on a path of exploring faith. They started attending our church, and a year later, after learning about Jesus, they came to believe and follow him.
Where is God already at work in the lives of your co-workers, or those you live near or interact with throughout your day? Pay attention and join God in his work. Then invite people into loving community.
This excerpt is taken from Mud and the Masterpiece: Seeing Yourself and Others Through the Eyes of Jesus by John Burke. © 2013 by John Burke. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from < ahref="http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/mud-and-the-masterpiece/341960" title="Baker Publishing Group">Baker Publishing Group.
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