If Jesus Spent Lots of Time with Unbelievers, Why Do Most of Us Hang Out Only with Christians?

Surfing Vitamin Z’s excellent blog, I came across a thoughtful post on evangelism by Joe Carter this morning that prompted some thinking on my part. Entitled rather provocatively “How Do You Love a Porn Star?”, the piece tackles the following simple but tough question: why don’t many Christians regularly interact with the lost people who make up 99% of the surrounding populace?

In asking this question, Carter offers a story of a Marine friend who was nice, fatherly, and happened to be involved in pornography. The piece chronicles Carter’s struggle to handle his friendship with a man for whom he felt both revulsion and love. This section nicely encapsulates the central theme and problem of the post:

“Because of his peculiar vocation, Dave Connors may seem like an unrepresentative example. But we all have people like him in our lives–acquaintances, coworkers, family members–who have no intention of giving up their sinful ways. How do we make a friend of someone who chooses to remain an enemy of God?

Normally this would be the point in the post where I would insert a homiletic bromide that would point the way toward a resolution. On this one, though, I not only don’t have an answer; I don’t have a clue. Somehow I’ve managed to spend thirty years as a Christian without learning something so basic as how to truly love an impenitent sinner.”

I first Joe Carter for his candor. The simplicity and honesty of that last sentence blew over me like a spring breeze when I first read it. I’ve been a Christian for three decades, Carter says, and have heard countless sermons about Christ’s love for fallen mankind. Reading between the lines, he’s telling fellow Christians that, like them, he has heard Sunday School lessons, read Christian books, and attended countless church gatherings that have instructed him (theoretically) in approaching lost people with the gospel. Yet with all of this teaching, he struggles mightily to take even the shortest gospel step: to get to know lost people and befriend them for the sake of Christian love and witness.

I don’t have anything particularly profound to add to this comment. It seems to me to encapsulate the central struggle of many–most, maybe–Christians regarding evangelism. The new man inside of us loves the things of God, and detests naturally the things that are not of God. This is a biblical disposition and reality–see Colossians 3:9-11, for example. Yet though this is a God-given disposition, we acquire a simultaneous impulse when regenerated and renewed by the Spirit. We acquire the impulse to spread and share the gospel with fellow sinners (Rom 10:9-17). So revulsion with sin sits alongside love for sinners as expressed in evangelism. We have these twin instincts, then. Knowing this, we note a third key biblical teaching. This one is a teaching handed down by way of example. Christ, who had no sin nature, did have the gospel imperative within Him, and He went to the lost–five incredibly important words–and hung out with them for the purpose of love-driven gospel witness. Here’s what Mark 2:15-17 tells us about Christ and His example:

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Christ’s example is to be emulated by His disciples, a number that includes all born-again believers today. The above instance was not a strange evangelistic strategy, a guerilla campaign carried out by the spiritual Rambo in the enemy’s lair. It was fundamentally what Christians are to do in carrying out the Great Commission.

Sometimes we get into evangelical catfights about tracts, door-knocking, and gospel proclamation. Paul taught that wherever the gospel was proclaimed, he rejoiced: “In every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (Phil. 1:17) While we may find wisdom in pursuing certain evangelistic strategies over others, we should not–definitively–debase preaching of the gospel, no matter how much it conflicts with our cultural sensibilities. We may not adopt a certain method, but the preaching of the gospel is a strange and mysterious thing, and God uses all kinds of methods to bring people to Himself. With this all said, one model of evangelism that we can clearly derive from Scripture is that we are to go to unbelievers, befriend them, spend time with them, and witness to them. We are not only to go to them and witness to them. Jesus spent time with them. He got to know them. He talked with them. We should do the same. The Scripture is clear.

We should not do so without carefulness, though. Christians who shrink from contact with unbelievers are getting something right. We are influenced by those we spend time with. If we are to hang out with lost people, then, we’ve got to be very careful. We’ve all seen Christians who hang out with lost people for the purpose of evangelism and end up drifting away from the faith and adopting the lifestyle of those around them. It is not silly or foolish to seek in a studious manner to avoid this result. Nothing less than our souls are at stake, after all! However, with care and principle and accountability and connection to our local church, we must venture forth from the community of faith to the community of unbelief. We’ve got to get to know those around us, and that means joining bowling leagues, hanging out at the local coffee shop, inviting neighbors over for dinner, going to a library reading group, attending neighborhood association meetings, and so on. As we join in these activities, we do so looking to build up friendships, to listen and help others, and above all, to witness to the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection to those who reject this life-saving work.

I do not hold myself as an exemplar of the model of evangelism laid out by Christ in Mark 2. I don’t have it all figured out. I would struggle just like Joe Carter to be a friend and witness to someone who is desperately lost. I have similar feelings to most Christians in my approach to sexual profligates, oft-drunk coeds, loopy hippys, materialistic bankers, narcissistic teens, snobby old people, homeless street-walkers, arrogant athletes, ideological demagogues, and hostile ruralites. Put simply, I don’t really want to be around these people. I don’t want to be in bad places where these type of people congregate. I don’t want to go through the messy work of friendship. I want to be around nice Christian people in nice Christian environments where people encourage me, don’t swear, don’t have premarital sex, and don’t look down on me. This means on a practical, day-to-day level that I spend most of my time around Christians in expressly Christian environments doing explicitly Christian things.

This way of life is so far from Christ’s example that one could almost say that it is an unChristian life. This lifestyle gets right, as mentioned above, the need to pursue holiness, and that is commendable. That’s a big deal in the Bible! But it gets hugely wrong the need to take one’s faith to the lost. The Christians of the Bible do anything but lock their faith in evangelical ghettos–they crash the gates of the secular city. They make themselves unavoidable presences in the lives of unbelievers. They come together for rich, sweet, God-drenched fellowship and then they scatter to the winds to evangelize like crazy anyone they can (I’ll just refer you to the entire book of Acts here). What do many of us do, though? The opposite. We take a look at the world, analyze its thought through rigorous analysis (a great thing to do, and a focus of this blog), identify its proponents and cultural effect, and then run the opposite direction, seeking out Christians as we go to join up with us and avoid the lost around us, save for scattered forays in which we briefly ambush the lost and then scamper away.

Joe Carter’s piece is great, because it calls us to realize that most of us are very far away from the biblical model of evangelism. We love the lost, but only in our prayers; we don’t want to be around lost people, unlike our Savior; we allow a combination of fear and apathy to drive our lives, not a sense of God’s magnificent love and transcendent power. We should change this situation. We should emerge from our ghettos. We should emulate the Savior. We should talk to fellow members of our local churches, strategize about evangelistic friendships, and then go out. We should construct churches by God’s Spirit that are richly biblical and God-glorifying, but that do not make it intensely difficult for good Christian people to free up their calendar to evangelize the lost. We should train our people in biblical evangelism, saturate them in a sense of God’s power, and fill them with love and concern that takes shape not in separation, but in witness–clear, compassionate, gospel-driven, friend-making, witness.

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  • Ryan Hill

    Great post Owen. It was very convicting.

  • Anonymous

    Good,challenging post.

    Would you mind clarifying for me why our souls are at stake if we are true believers who are sealed with the Holy Spirit? I ask this humbly and with serious intent.

  • Evangelism Coach

    Fantastic and balanced thoughts.

    From a TEDS grad, you’re thinking deep thoughts. When you get to the pastorate, this will even be more of a challenge.

    I was in the pastorate for 11 years and fought to keep time for people outside the church. I eventually lost that battle, so I left the pastorate and now have lots of time with unchurched people.

    I want “leave the 99 to find the 1” on my tomb stone.

    Pastor Chris

  • Christian Books is the stuff i like coz i alway read the bible and i am a very religious person “