I have felt uncomfortable with the approach for a long time, and a recent conversation with some students validated my concerns.
I’m referring to an approach that many well-intentioned Christians have come to believe is the best way to live out the Great Commission. The approach involves taking the time to “develop trusting friendships” with others before explicitly identifying oneself as a Christian and talking about the personal salience of that identity. The assumption is that others will be receptive to hearing about one’s Christian identity, to invitations to attend Christian events (e.g., campus ministry group meetings) and to hearing the Gospel only after a period of time has elapsed in which trust has been established in the friendship.
Despite the good intentions behind it (i.e., introducing others to the One who saved and transformed our lives), such an approach can result in some negative perceptions that can cause more harm than good – and that might actually turn people away from Jesus.
Several international students have shared with me their perceptions that some Christians are only befriending them for the purpose of trying to “recruit” them to Christianity. Similarly, they fear that if they don’t at least pretend to be interested in Christianity, the Christians who have pursued them in friendship will turn their backs on them.
Unfortunately, international students are not the only ones who hold these perceptions. For several years, I have heard similar sentiments expressed by a number of domestic students who are living in residence halls and/or who are involved in fraternity and sorority life.
We need to be aware that a number of students have felt deceived and hurt by the approach used by some Christians to share the Gospel with them.
As students have shared these perceptions and feelings with me, I have been deeply troubled by the ache in their voices and the corresponding pain on their faces.
Perceptions are powerful. Though we cannot control others’ perceptions, we should pay attention to them. And, we can strive to share the Gospel in a way that does not lead to such negative perceptions. To that end, I would like to offer some thoughts for consideration.
- We should only make the effort to develop friendships with other people if we truly desire to be their friend – regardless of what they believe or will eventually believe about Christianity.
Otherwise, we may give the impression that we are only interested in others as long as their friendship has the potential to provide us with something (i.e., the opportunity to talk to them about Jesus).
We are called to love others simply because God loves us. We are not to expect anything in return.
Love is authentic. And, people can sense when others are not being genuine. If we make the effort to develop a friendship with someone, let’s be sure it is authentic.
- It’s the Holy Spirit’s job – not ours – to prepare people’s hearts to respond to the message of the good news of Jesus.
I have not seen any indication in the Scriptures that we have a role to play in that process. In other words, it’s not up to us to create a condition of receptivity. The Bible does not reflect the idea that we need to first build a friendship with others and then wait until they trust us before we invite them to explore the Christian faith. Jesus did not do that. Neither did Peter or Paul.
For instance, Jesus did not wait and build a “trusting relationship” with the Samaritan woman before He shared His message with her (see John 4).
We do hear about spiritual receptivity in the parable of the sower (see Matthew 13). In that parable, Jesus shared insights as to how the seed would or would not grow, given the type of ground on which it fell. But, He did not say that the sower was responsible for preparing the soil.
Implied in this parable is that the role of the sower is simply to scatter the seed.
- Rather than waiting to reveal our faith in Christ until after a friendship has progressed to a certain level, we should be open and honest about our faith from the very beginning.
If being a Christian is really the most important aspect of our lives, and if we really want others to hear the good news of Jesus, there is no reason why others should not know those things very early on in the development of our friendships.
Such a forthright approach aligns with what we are told to do in the Scriptures. Right after Paul reminded the church in Corinth of the glorious nature of the message of Christ, he stated:
“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception (emphasis is mine), nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly (emphasis is mine) we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6 – NIV).
This same passage in the English Standard Version of the Bible contains different but equally powerful language: We are to renounce “disgraceful, underhanded ways,” and we are to “refuse to practice cunning.” Rather, our approach should be characterized by “open statement of the truth.”
While we know that many will be offended by the message of the Gospel, the approach we use to share the message should not be the cause of offense.
We should not do anything that leads others to believe that we are being deceptive or hurtful.
Instead, let’s spend our time truly loving others and being open and honest about our faith in Christ while doing so.
Let’s set forth the truth plainly, pray for others, and leave the rest to God.