Redemptive Relationships

  • by John Estorge

FRIENDS INFLUENCE FRIENDS

Has a friend ever influenced you in something? Especially in spiritual matters, I believe that people buy into a person before they buy into their faith.

This phrase is overused, but true: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” And college students today are no different; they typically will trust a Christian friend before they trust Christ for their salvation.

Think about it. I’ll bet that if you analyze every evangelistic effort that has ever taken place since the days of Christ, you will see that most of them are the result of relationships; whether six minutes, six weeks, or six years.

There’s Jesus and the woman at the well, the Philippian jailer in Acts, Zacchaeus, and many others in scripture. Even in the case of people coming to faith at large crusades and revival meetings, the person responding to the gospel first trusts in the one who delivers the message.

In his book, Becoming a Contagious Christian, Bill Hybels talks about the “Barbecue-First Principle.” (Now for our friends in North Carolina, when I say “Barbecue,” I don’t mean “pulled pork.” Rather, I mean a cookout of some kind.)

Hybels tells the story of a time he called out to his new neighbor who was next door in the yard and asked if the neighbor wanted to go with him to a church function. The neighbor hesitated and then responded, “No thanks, but if you ever want to Barbecue let me know.”

The neighbor was interested in getting to know him first before he was willing to be influenced by any of his religious ideas. Hence, the “Barbecue-First principle.” Often, we need to invest in friendships and pay our relational rent before people will listen to our spiritual ideas.

For any thriving relationship there must be respect that is communicated through listening and affirming others. There must be an authenticity expressed through real emotions, real convictions, and real confession. There must also be trust that is delivered through doing what you say you will do. Many people are looking for a trusted confidant with whom they can discuss important spiritual matters.

The Apostle Paul felt strongly about becoming “all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). And the gospels are full of these examples in the life of Christ. To become a contagious Christian, Jesus and Paul both understood that you have to get close enough to other people to let them catch the “disease.”

AVOID ISOLATION

Christian isolation works against evangelistic effectiveness. But the problem is that our natural tendency as people is to gravitate to those who are like us and those with whom we feel most comfortable. So our tendency as Christians is toward isolation from non-Christians.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

It’s morning and your alarm goes off to the gentle sounds of contemporary Christian music from the local radio station. You bounce out of bed about the same time as your roommate and you stumble to the coffee maker.

You each grab a mug with your favorite Bible verse, “Rejoice in the Lord Always,” yours says. Your roommate’s says, “This is the Day the Lord has made.” You both smile at each other as you sip your java from your Christian coffee mugs. While getting ready for class you put in your favorite Christian CD because it just makes the day go so much better.

Now you’re ready for class but you’re running late, so you’re a little panicked. You think to yourself, That class is so big. What if there are no seats available next to my Christian friends?

You rush in the door and you breathe a sigh of relief when you see three friends from Bible study waving to you and motioning to the empty seat next to them. After class is over, you walk with one of those friends to your next class. You talk about life, entertainment, the opposite sex and stuff like that.

As you approach the next building you prepare to run the gauntlet. What gauntlet? Well, if you’ve ever seen the movie, “First Knight,” there is a scene where Lancelot runs a mechanized gauntlet of moving spikes and hammers and other things that are meant to strike him. However, your gauntlet is just as dangerous because there is the danger of inhaling “second-hand smoke.”

Several years ago, many states and municipalities passed a smoking ordinance that made it illegal to smoke cigarettes in public buildings. This law effectively put smokers outside of the entrances to public buildings to get their nicotine fixes. Often they are seen lined up and down the sidewalks that lead to the entrances of public buildings.

So to prepare to run the smoking gauntlet, you take in one last breath of fresh air, hold your breath, and speed-walk to the door of the building where you can once again inhale clean air. In that next class you sit with more Christian friends and when the class is over, you excitedly head to lunch at the campus eatery.

Today, you’re meeting with a Christian friend who had a big date the night before and you can’t wait to hear how it went. After lunch you gather with a few Christian friends to pray for the non-Christians on campus before you have to hurry to your afternoon classes.

Your evening is very full with a campus Christian meeting or small group and some social time afterward. And by day’s end you rush back to your off-campus apartment, locking the door behind you and giving thanks to God for your Christian roommate and that you made it through one more day without being tainted by the world.

This is called “Rabbithole Christianity.” Just as the rabbit hops quickly from task to task, he doesn’t interact much with his environment. He does what he needs to do then hops back into his hole where he is protected from the world of predators.

This day is not atypical for Christian college students today. You can go a whole day or even a week without even having to speak to a non-Christian.

There are essentially three different types of Christian college students.

THE UNBALANCED IMMERSIONIST

This student has totally immersed himself into the secular culture on campus and is regularly participating in the popular sins of the campus culture. In doing this, he has gained an AUDIENCE of non-Christian friends but has no MESSAGE to share with them because he lacks any kind of radical difference from them. He is ineffective in his witness not to mention disobedient to the Christian call to holiness.

THE UNBALANCED REJECTIONIST

This student has many Christian friendships, is involved in many Christian activities, and is morally pure. In doing this, she has a MESSAGE to share but has no AUDIENCE of non-Christians with which to share because she lacks any sort of radical identification with the culture. She is ineffective in her witness not to mention disobedient to the Christian call to transform society and culture.

THE CONTAGIOUS CHRISTIAN

This student has many Christian friendships but also has many non-Christian friendships. He lives a life that is Good News and he actively shares the Good News. He has radically identified with the culture while at the same time it is obvious that he is radically different from the culture. He walks the tight rope between the kingdom of God and the world just as Jesus did. He is effective in his witness, seeks the Lord in everything, and wins many to Christ.

SOCIALIZE STRATEGICALLY

Luke 5:27-32 – Tells the story of the calling of Levi (a.k.a.—Matthew). Matthew is our model for how to develop friendships of integrity with non-Christians.

After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed 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.” Then Matthew held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. (NIV)

Matthew followed Jesus immediately and because his life had changed, he wanted all of his non-Christian friends to meet Jesus so he threw a party for them and invited Jesus and the disciples along.

He had a Matthew Party. A Matthew Party is a party where you invite both your religious and irreligious friends. Matthew loved his friends, had a grace-filled heart, and a determined spirit. God wants us to value unbelieving friends the way Matthew did!

Parties such as these help us focus on people rather than programs as we engage the culture friend-to-friend, person-to-person, and neighbor-to-neighbor. These unconventional parties that strategically mix the spiritual “haves” and “have-nots” are not merely acceptable, they are essential to effective evangelistic efforts.

As Christian college students, you are always doing fun things. Next time you plan something with your Christian friends, invite some non-Christians to come along. We must remember that people matter to God and they should matter to us.

AVOID EVIL, NOT EVANGELISM

These new relationships with irreligious people may be new to you and they are not without difficulties. There are some true Biblical convictions as we face the tension of being in the world but not of the world. There is also the potential for spiritual danger.

We must regularly ask ourselves and have accountability partners ask us, “Am I the dominant positive influence, or is this pulling me down?” There is also the risk of your reputation. Jesus was accused of “compromising the faith” by the religious community a total of six times in 52 Biblically recorded days of ministry. That’s almost once per week that he was called, “a friend of sinners.”

Personal discomfort is the main difficulty that most Christians face when seeking to befriend non-Christians. In light of these difficulties, it is easy to write off relationships with non-Christians because it’s uncomfortable. But for some a particular scripture verse that we learned as children rings in the back of our mind. Are you familiar with 1 Thessalonians 5:21- 22?

The KJV translates, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil.” According to the old King James, Christians should stay as far as possible from anything that might appear evil to anyone. This was blatantly contradicted in the life of Jesus but lets see how the other popular translations have rendered these verses.

The NASB translates, “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” There’s a big difference between “all appearance of evil” and “every form of evil.” Every form of evil indicates that evil has many forms and we should abstain from all of its forms.

The NIV translates, “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” The NIV is even clearer as we would understand that we should avoid every kind of evil.

Finally, the NKJV translates, “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil”. The translators of NKJV recognized the necessity to change this verse because the new translation is more clear and closer to the actual Greek manuscripts.

The problem is that most people will use either this verse or the idea of “avoiding all appearance of evil” as an excuse for avoiding evangelism. Nevertheless, the Scriptures clearly teach that we are to avoid evil instead of its appearance.”

Christ called His followers to a radical life, which contradicted the expectations and cultural boundaries. One of these expectations was to refrain from associating with certain “undesirable” types of people on the basis of their appearance.

Although Christ refuted this practice with His lifestyle, many today would justify and call for this behavior as part of “avoiding the appearance of evil.” Many cultural patterns are counter-productive and actually work against the evangelistic enterprise -- not to mention the truth of the gospel. I’ll sum it up to say that the greatest barriers to successful evangelism are not theological; they are cultural.

We must admit that first, it is impossible to act in such a way that we will be universally understood and accepted. And second, as we move through life, it is inevitable that we will find ourselves on the wrong side of some man-made fences. Does 1 Thessalonians 5:22 say that we should never do anything that might look like sin to someone else? Did Jesus follow this principle?

Christ avoided evil of every kind, yet He did not always avoid the “appearance of evil.” He wanted to please his father. Christ lived in the tensions and He calls us to do the same.

Some would measure the maturity of a Christian as one who has most successfully separated himself/herself from the secular world where they live. But if we are to follow Christ’s example, the mark of true maturity is not withdrawal from the culture but penetration of the culture.