One of the things that really upset Jesus’ opponents was the fact that he openly spent time with non-religious people. As they put it, he ate with sinners! Jesus noted, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” ’” (Luke 7:34) It sounds funny to our ears to hear “friend of sinners” stated as an accusation, but it wasn’t funny back then. Jesus was doing what holy men didn’t do: spend time with common people. Or in other words, spend time with sinners.
The Pharisees prided themselves on keeping their distance from those less holy than they; Jesus prided himself on taking the good news to those that needed it most. And he expects his church to do the same.
In the first article in this series, I noted that salt in a salt shaker doesn’t flavor anything. There must be contact for there to be impact. In the same way, if Christians don’t interact with non-Christians, they will have a hard time influencing their communities for good. We’ve got to get out of our buildings and into our neighborhoods.
And we’ll have to be intentional about it. Over time, Christians naturally develop more relationships with other Christians and spend a greater percentage of their time with other believers. If we don’t purposefully seek significant times of interaction with non-Christians, those times probably won’t come along.
The apostle Paul talked about becoming all things to all men. (1 Corinthians 9) We don’t sit back and wait for non-Christians to come to us; we have to go to them. And it’s up to us to adapt ourselves to them, not them to us. Jesus gave us the perfect example by coming to earth in the form of a human. He found a way to be human without ceasing to be like God. He maintained his holiness even while seeking to identify with sinful man.
We are called to identify with our culture, but not become identical to it. We befriend non-Christians without adopting their lifestyle.
But we don’t expect non-Christians to live like Christians. As we engage unbelievers, we need to recognize that they aren’t living their lives under the lordship of Jesus. We have to be patient and let God work in their lives. In the meantime, we may have to put up with some things that make us uncomfortable. That’s part of the “all things to all men.” In the beginning, we become like them, rather than insisting they be like us.
So what do we do? We become aware of the people in our lives. We already have relationships with non-believers. They sack our groceries, teach our children, wait on us at restaurants. They live down the block and around the corner. We begin by treating each and every person around us as a human being. We see them. We try to make their day better because they were with us. We pray for them.
From there, we ask questions and listen to the answers. It’s amazing what can happen when you show interest in people. People like to talk about themselves and love it when someone is willing to listen. In the next article, I’ll talk more about what specific things we’re listening for. For now, it’s more than sufficient that we begin to learn about those around us.
Finally, remember your Christian identity. We don’t expect non-Christians to live like Christians, but we do expect that of ourselves. We need to be sure that we are influencing them for the Kingdom more than they are influencing us for the world. Study the lists of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Keep an eye on which your interactions with non-believers are producing.
We don’t create relationships with people because we want them to join our church. We treat people right because it’s right, not because we hope to gain something. As Christians, we must renounce all forms of manipulation. We are sent to serve those around us. We hope that they will join us as fellow believers, but if not, we will still treat them as people created in the image of God.
Jesus spent much time with the rejected and the oppressed. He was with tax collectors and prostitutes, people that religious people considered “sinners.” He went to the people that wouldn’t have darkened the doors of the synagogues.
He expects his followers to do the same. The church must look out to the world outside its building. And the church must go out among non-believers in order to share the Good News with them.
In the next article, we’ll look at the conversion process and what that tells us about evangelism.
Tim has recently published Church Inside Out, a book and workbook that offer a practical primer for the congregation that wants to increase its impact on the community around it. Both book and workbook are available from 21st Century Christian.