Friday, January 26, 2018

Becoming a Contagious Christian: Words of Faith Encouragement

We have spent this first month of the year thinking about how we can be more missional in our faith in 2018.  To help spur our thoughts, we’ve used the book Becoming a Contagious Christian, which I
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believe presents a good vision of how Christians should reach out to others in a more genuine, natural way than is often taught.

If you have read the book or read our first two articles on this topic, you remember that the book has a formula built around Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:13-16 that His followers should be salt and light:

HP (High Potency) + CP (Close Proximity) + CC (Clear Communication) = MI (Maximum Impact)

We first explored the idea of being “High Potency” Christians – we must truly be salt, people who are different from the rest of the world, with a commitment and love for Christ that will be obvious to anyone who is around us for any length of time. 

Last week we considered being “Close Proximity” Christians – the salt must make contact in order to make a difference, and too often Christians don’t form the friendships with unbelievers like Jesus did (Luke 15:1-2, etc).  We called this “The Ministry of Friendship,” the idea that we should extend kindness, encouragement, and some measure of friendship to those God brings into our lives.  Whether they eventually become Christians or not, we can be like Jesus by showing people we genuinely care about them and trying to be a blessing to their lives by being a part of their lives.

The last part of the book’s equation for Maximum Impact is “Clear Communication.”  Here they point to Jesus’ image of light (Matthew 5:14), reminding us that light shows the way, and encouraging Christians to speak the words that show the way to others.

The Intimidating Part, We Think

This is the part of outreach that tends to scare us: actually speaking words to people about faith.  Faith conversations may scare us because some people present outreach as if Christians are giving a salesman routine in order to trick people into becoming Christians.  That’s not what biblical evangelism is.  We are not trying to manipulate people into becoming Christians – people are not combination locks that will magically open if you just turn the right numbers and say the perfect words.  Sharing the gospel with others is much more genuine than manipulation or salesmanship.

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But it is true that words are necessary to encourage people closer to God!  Remember Romans 10:14-17 – faith comes from hearing, hearing from the word of God, and people can’t hear unless someone shares the words with them.  No one has ever become a Christian without hearing gospel words – words about what Jesus did and what we must do in response.  A Christian example is still powerful – it may cause the words they have heard previously to finally “click” and cause them to act on those words (1 Peter 3:1-2) – but people must actually hear the message of Christ and the cross to be able to make a decision on it.  And that’s where faith conversations come in.

It may be helpful just to hear it put in those terms: faith “conversations.”  Not giving people sermons or guilt trips or shock-and-awe approaches, but simply talking with them about faith.  Finding out where they are, trying to encourage them to take another step of faith.

So how can we better have genuine faith conversations that encourage people toward Christ?  The types of conversations someone had with you and me at some point, words that helped us think about Christ and make our own decision about Him.  Hopefully we will see something here that fits our personality, and help us grow in speaking words of encouragement (not manipulation, but encouragement) to others to take their own steps toward following Christ.

Faith Conversations

In almost every relationship we have, religion will come up at some point.  From something in the news about a church or religious figure, or from just sharing what we plan to do next weekend.  When those open doors arise, let’s commit ourselves to look for genuine ways to discuss faith, such as…

1)      Ask a sincere question – “Do you go to church anywhere?” “Have you ever been to a worship service with a church of Christ?”   “What’s your religious background?” “I know you’ve been going through a lot recently, how are you doing faith-wise?”   “Have you been baptized? Have you ever thought about it or studied it?”  Questions are powerful.  When you ask someone a question, you show genuine interest in their life.  Questions also show that you want this to be a conversation, not just one person trying to cram religious information down the other’s throat.  Questions also help us think, and they lead to further conversation.  Jesus often asked questions to help people think about their relationship with God.

2)      Plant a seed for a future conversation – “We’d love to have you come visit with us sometime.”  “In the churches of Christ, we are trying to be the undenominational church of the Bible.”  “I’ll be praying for you.”  “If I understand the Bible right, baptism is pretty important.  I’d love to see you be baptized into Christ – you ought to study it.”  It’s not always the appropriate time to ask people to make a decision or take a step.  So in faith conversations, perhaps right after we’ve listened to their answer to our questions, our simple goal may be seed-planting.  An encouragement from a friend to a friend, to just think more about taking a step closer to Christ.  It’s not trying to nail people down for a decision right then, it’s simply sharing something to think about for the future.

3)      Follow up from previous conversations – “Hey remember when you told me you had never really studied baptism before, here’s a tract that has some Bible verses about it.”  “I’ve been praying about your mom, how’s she doing?”  “The sermon this past Sunday made me think about our conversation – our preacher said…”  Following up (not too often, but occasionally) shows people we care, that we remember what we’ve talked about, and that what they shared was important to us.  It plants another seed of faith encouragement.  It keeps the conversation going.

4)      When it seems like the right time, present an invitation to act – This may come early in a relationship if someone shows real interest, or it may come after years of occasional seed planting.  But when the moment seems right, after trust has been built and people can see that we really care about them, an invitation to act is a great encouragement.  “We have Vacation Bible School next week, why don’t you and the kids come with us?”  “I know we’ve talked about baptism some, I’d love to sit down and look at some verses and see what you think about it.  How about we get together this week?”  “We have ‘Praying for Memphis’ Day coming up this Sunday – why don’t you come with me?  I’ll pick you up.”  This is more than planting a seed for the future.  This is a sincere invitation to take a step, with a yes or no answer.  People can politely decline if they want to, and we will still be their friend.  And of course, we will probably still occasionally ask faith questions, and we will probably still occasionally plant seeds for faith encouragement, and we will keep our eyes open for another invitation to act. 

In our skeptical culture, invitations to act should usually come after we have built a relationship of trust.  The person should know we truly care about them, not just as someone to invite to church, but as someone who is part of our life.  The book talks about “The Barbecue First Principle,” the idea that our first invitations should always be sincere relationship-building stuff (like a barbecue at our house or going to get coffee), and only later, within the context of a genuine friendship, should we offer a faith invitation to act, such as inviting to church or offering to study the Bible together.  I’m sure there are exceptions to that rule, but in our culture I think the Barbecue First Principle is a wise one.  With the terminology we've used in these articles, The Ministry of Friendship comes first, and Words of Faith Encouragement will naturally arise within those genuine relationships.  Most of us make life decisions slowly and cautiously, so we understand that we must show patience in our relationships as we encourage people toward God.  If we pray along the way, we will see God open doors in people’s lives, just as He has in ours.

The Power of Words

God made us social creatures, and we really do think about the words we hear from others.  Our mind recalls the opinion we heard on TV, or the book we read, or the conversation we had at work.  Words roll around in our heads, and they impact us, for better or worse.

At some point someone loved you and me enough to share gospel words with us.  They asked us a question or invited us to church.  We could tell they were genuine, and we could tell they cared about us, and so we thought about what they said.  Their words produced hearing, and our hearing produced faith (Romans 10:14-17), and then we made the decision to act on our faith.  It all started because people were willing to share the words.

Christians are not supposed to be crafty salesmen and they are not supposed to be manipulators.  Evangelism is much deeper and much more real.  As Christians, we care about people, so we build relationships of encouragement with whoever God brings into our life.  And when the opportunity arises, our genuine love for God and people overflows in words of faith encouragement.  Questions.  Seeds planted.  Follow-ups.  Invitations.  All of it sincere.

People will make their own decisions.  We won’t always (ever?) say the perfect thing in the perfect moment.  But if the words are spoken, it will help people think about God, and it will let them know we care about their faith.  And it may lead to something much bigger in their life and their eternity.  So let’s be willing to have the conversations, to share words of faith encouragement, and then prayerfully watch God work.

Let’s be more missional in our faith this year! 

HP (High Potency) + CP (Close Proximity) + CC (Clear Communication) = MI (Maximum Impact)

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