To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to thier playmates, “We played the flute for you and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.”
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say “He has a demon.” The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” -Matthew 11:16-19
In Matthew 11 we encounter Jesus speaking to a crowd about John the Baptist. Here Jesus draws attention to a reality. John came neither eating or drinking. Jesus came doing both. Both were sent from God. Both were rejected. Why? Like children making music for each other, Jesus says, “It’s not about the kind of music that’s being played or sung, this generation just does not like who’s performing.”
From this I think a couple of things can be pointed out. One is that Gospel witness will always be received with mixed results. If both Jesus and John’s message was rejected, we shouldn’t be surprised if and when our message about Jesus is as well. Our presentation may be both peerlessly articulate and effectually impotent. That is a possibility.
But secondly, and this is where this post is going, there is no single strategy for engaging others with the Gospel, but rather there are strategies for sharing the Gospel. A few years ago, I encountered a witnessing team who attempted to convince me that the only “biblical” method of evangelism was door to door, like Jesus’ disciples. That’s just not a very informed view. Yes, Jesus’ disciples went house to house, but Paul preached city to city, from synagogue to city square; John the Baptizer was a burning lamp withdrawn in the wilderness; and Jesus taught crowds, taught in synagogues, made disciples, and as the verses quoted above imply, engaged intimately with “sinners”. The church was not left with one method of sharing the gospel. And this last aspect of engagement, friendship with “sinners,” is what I’d like to bring attention to.
Jesus’ engagement was so indiscriminate it was a scandal. Imagine your reputation being discredited for the ways you spend time with those outside of the “religious community”. But this is just what happened with Jesus. He was willing to be associated with them. He went to dinner parties, sharing table and cup with the so-called dregs of society.
My wife and I do not consider ourselves great evangelists or disciple makers. Far from that actually. But we’ve been challenged by Jesus’s example in this, that we would engage with our neighbors more for the sake of the Gospel, and enter into their worlds where they would allow us. After-all, we’re all called to make disciples. And by God’s grace we’ve seen some small success in making friends with our neighbors and others outside of the religious community, for the sake of the Gospel. This has been part of our strategy.
We walk around the neighborhood with the kids from time to time. As we do, we pray for the people who live in the homes we pass. We pray for marriages. for parents, for children. We pray the Spirit would be at work in hearts of the people in our neighborhood. We’re praying that other Christians would be good neighbors who love and serve here as well. We pray for peace and safety in the neighborhood. We pray that we would have actual friendships with the people we live with. In doing this, we’re teaching our children to see their neighborhood, is not just where they live, but as a mission field as well.
We get out, but try to stay local. There is a key to making friendships: repeated unplanned interactions. Not surprisingly, this only happens when you’re where everyone else is. (On a side note, the linked article above has some very help tips for making new friendships.)
So we plan to accidentally bump into people by frequenting the same spots over and over: getting groceries at the closest grocery store, getting the oil changed at the same shop, frequenting the same restaurant, taking the kids to the same park. We’ve made friends with cashiers and hair stylists. I’ve made friends with guys up and down the street by doing lots of yardwork. If bumping into the same people over and over is the goal, staying local is the key.
Related to proximity, we try making sure wherever we are, we’re present. This just means being situationally aware. When we’re doing yardwork or at the supermarket, we’re welcoming to interruptions and interactions. When someone moves in the neighborhood, we’re offering to help them move in. We make ourselves available to talk, to help, to participate, and to be involved. We want to know and be known. It’s usually at this point that friendship begins.
But there is one thing we must overcome–fear. The reason we don’t walk over to our neighbor across the street and find out their name is fear. The reason we don’t do more than acknowledge that “we’ve found everything” we were looking for at the grocery store is fear. We must deal with fear one way or another, and it’s a topic that deserves its own post. But it must be dealt with, because it is always what keeps us from making this first step. Many times it keeps us from making this last step as well.
If presence is about being situationally aware, proclamation is about being spiritually aware. We’re looking for gospel openings.
I can’t say how the Holy Spirit may be leading you to share the gospel with your neighbors, but in the context of many interactions with them, you will encounter times where the Gospel will be particularly relevant. We must be willing to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead whenever the opportunity comes, even if it appears fruitless at the time. But when we do, usually we find something special happening: people will hear you out.
In taking the time for prayer, proximity, and presence, there is a foundation for proclamation. People will know you and you will know them. This foundation enables the relationship to carry the weight of truth. As Proverbs says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (27:6). Friends know they can say things that challenge, because they ultimately know there is a person who cares behind what is being said.
What successes or failures have you experienced in being “friends of sinners”? There are many times where we’ve moved too fast with these relationships, pushing them beyond what they can handle. I’m always wondering when and what to share. And afterward whether it’s even been helpful. What other challenges do you find in being Gospel witnesses in this way?