One of our neighbors uses a pickup occasionally to haul junk to the dump or to transport furniture when a new tenant moves into one of his rental units. It’s an old pickup, showing signs of wear and the rust so common in this part of the country where salt is used to battle icy streets in winter. The truck sports a bumper sticker which caught my attention one day as he drove down the alley behind our house. “Save me Jesus” were in large-enough print to read as he passed, but I had to walk over to where it was parked to make out the fine print. “Save me Jesus…,” it said “…from your followers.”
I haven’t had the chance to ask him about the bumper sticker. It’ll be interesting to talk about it, though I must say that I fear hearing some story in which he was treated poorly by someone claiming to be a Christian. It’s entirely possible, on the other hand, that what he’s suffered is an offense against the cross, and that no believer has mistreated him. That’s a possibility, but it troubles me that I doubt it is the case. Worse, I confess that I would find it almost refreshing to discover he has heard and considered the gospel but rejected it because he finds its claims to be offensive. Refreshing, that is, not because it wouldn’t be grievous news—for it is—but refreshing because at least this is an offense that has some integrity.
Given the present state of affairs, what with pluralism and the insistence on tolerance, we may wonder if it is even possible for Christians to be winsome before a watching world. To be attractive, that is, without compromising righteousness or hiding the gospel. Is it possible to live out and speak the truth so that any offense taken is limited to the offense of the cross?
The answer, I believe, is YES. We will make mistakes and blunder, of course. We have clay feet, and the Scriptures do not give us leave to witness to the truth only after achieving some sort of perfection. There will be plenty for which we must seek forgiveness from our unbelieving friends, but amazingly such authenticity and humility can be attractive in its own way. Our foul-ups can even, by God’s grace, at least occasionally be redeemed instead of remaining a hindrance in the relationship.
The primary reason, however, for being confident that it is possible to be winsome and attractive to sinners is the example of Jesus. He was without sin and never compromised the truth, and yet attracted sinners to himself. He even called them to repentance, not a particularly popular message for sinners, and though not all believed, the record of the Gospels is that they followed him around in droves. Our message is the gospel of Christ, and since he is attractive, shouldn’t our proclamation be attractive as well? Since our lives are to reflect his righteousness, shouldn’t our lives be as winsome as his was?
What an irony: Christ attracted multitudes wherever he went, while much that passes for Christian witness today is neither attractive, creative, nor winsome, but aggressive, insensitive, and rote. Imagine what it would be like, a friend recently said, to sit in the chair of an angry dentist. Or one who is offended by your dental habits and decides that you need to be taught a good lesson in dental hygiene. Or one who accosts strangers with the sad state of their mouths, expects them to submit to treatment on the spot, and when they refuse issues dire warnings. Or one who has reduced the rich array of dental medicine into a single therapy that can be accomplished in less than five minutes. Or one that uses the identical technique on every patient, time after time.
Graceful, salty conversation
“Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders,” Paul wrote to the believers in Colosse, “make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (4:5-6). The final Greek phrase translated “everyone,” actually means “to each one.” Each individual, in other words, “is to be treated as an end in himself,” Peter O’Brien notes in his commentary, “and not subjected to a stock harangue.” Which is precisely how we want to be treated, and if we think about it, how we would expect to treat anyone who bears the image of God.
Paul’s notion of our conversations with non-Christians being “seasoned with salt” is intriguing. Pagans in the first century used the expression to mean witty; Jewish rabbis used it to mean wise. Wisdom and wit are related, and both are characteristic of the conversations of Jesus recorded for us in the New Testament. His insight into people and the world was astounding, and his enigmatic answers and probing questions fostered reflection and further questions instead of terminating the discussion. He often turned things on their head in unexpected ways, and his stories usually contained twists, often amusing ones. “Those who are the salt of the earth,” O’Brien says, “might be expected to have some savor about their communication.” Salt makes food zesty and flavorful, and keeps it free of corruption. So our witness must never be insipid or dull, never tactless or argumentative. After all, we are witnessing to the Lord of life and glory.
“Ah, well,” someone might respond. “That’s all fine and good for the likes of Paul and C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton, but I’m just an ordinary person. I barely know how to share my faith and now I have to be creatively attractive, too?” A good question. The answer is that we misunderstand the meaning of creative. We are made in the Creator’s image, and therefore creativity is inescapably part of our very being. We may not have artistic gifts, but that’s not the issue. Creativity is expressed not just in art, but in hospitality, warmth, and community when we open our life and heart and home to another, even at cost. We may not be able to write good fiction, but we can all host neighbors for an evening’s reading. We are attractive and winsome when in Christ’s name we ask questions and truly listen, when we share the suffering of another, and when we risk everything to be authentic. From this perspective, it is the ordinary believer who has the best shot at being winsome in life and conversation. If Paul or Lewis or Chesterton were alive today their fame would likely isolate them, and raise barriers we don’t have to worry about.
That may be reassuring—it should be reassuring—but it still is not an adequate answer for the question we’ve raised. Just what does it look like for a Christian—an ordinary Christian—to be winsome and attractive in our pluralistic world? How might our conversations be graceful and salty as we interact with our non-Christian neighbors and friends? How can we be, in other words, more like Jesus?
Beginning in the beginning
If we wish to reflect on this in the light of Scripture, we will seek an answer in terms of Creation and Redemption—since it is the Fall, the other aspect of the Christian world view which is causing the difficulty. Since we share a common humanity with unbelievers because like them we are made in God’s image, the doctrine of Creation forms a foundation for Christian witness. And since Christ is both our final example and Lord for all of life, his humanity is the ultimate demonstration of the grace of God in redemption.
The Francis Schaeffer Institute (Covenant Seminary), under the direction of Jerram Barrs, has identified eight principles of communication which are central to the vision and work of the Institute. The principles are their attempt to name vital aspects of communication for the Christian in a fallen world. The list can be best understood as an effort to imagine Christian witness in light of the doctrine of Creation as demonstrated by Christ. To ask, in other words, what our conversations with non-Christians would look like if we really believed in our heart of hearts what the Bible teaches about every person being created in the image of God and loved by him even at the high cost of the death of his beloved Son. The FAS Institute’s list is as follows:
Respect for those to whom we communicate.
Building bridges of commonality to the listener.
Understanding what others believe.
Language comprehensible and familiar to the listener.
Reasoned presentation of the message.
Clarity, a careful definition of the message.
Challenge to both the mind and the heart.
Imagination and creativity in presenting the glorious gospel.
A list, it seems to me, worthy of being meditated over and prayed for daily.
Consider a few of the implications that follow if I truly believe my neighbors are created in God’s image. Among other things, I will not be dismissive of them, their ideas, their lifestyle, their choices, or their values. Even if they seem repugnant to me, or irrational, or inconceivable, or entirely lacking in common sense. That might be difficult, of course, especially if they do not return the favor, but such is the cost of following Christ.
This means that I will work hard to never be guilty of misrepresenting what they think, or summarizing it unfairly. I will honestly seek to learn from them, realizing that they live in God’s world just as I do, and so will have learned much that I do not yet know. I will remember how painful it is to face up to being mistaken, so that my probing of their beliefs will be clothed in humility. I will realize that calling them to repentance requires me to demonstrate repentance, since like them I am a sinner in need of grace. Treating those with whom we disagree with the respect worthy of the person created in God’s image is both disarming and heartwarming because such love is in short supply in this broken world. It may not bring all to Christ, of course, but it will mean that we are living out what we claim to believe.
Because I am talking to someone made in God’s image, I will take the conversation seriously instead of seeing it merely as a means to an end. As I ask questions of them appropriate to the moment, we might indeed get to the big issues of life. I will not imagine, however, that only a conversation on that level is significant, for that too would treat them with disdain. And just as I resent being invited to “dessert” only to discover I am at a sales presentation, so I will never ask people to take a “survey” which is merely a cleverly written set of questions designed to manipulate the conversation in a certain direction. I will refuse “bait and switch” tactics, in other words, because they treat people with contempt.
In short, treating people as if I truly believe they are created in God’s image means nothing less than loving them as Jesus loves them. Which means they should truly believe that I would be willing to die for them.
Questions1. How might it be possible to determine the difference between someone taking offense at the gospel and someone taking offence at us? What is our responsibility in this?
2. What was your reaction to the questions about the angry dentist? Is this an unfair metaphor? Why or why not?
3. Where do you see creativity in Jesus? How would you characterize his conversations with unbelievers? To what extent would he have learned this in today’s training in evangelism?
4. Discuss each of the eight principles (from the Francis Schaeffer Institute), unpacking their meaning and implications. Have you known anyone who exemplifies them?
5. What problems or hesitations do you face in conversations with unbelievers? Would you hesitate to ask a neighbor about the bumper sticker on his truck? Why or why not? How would you respond if he told of the actions of an offensive Christian?
6. What is the difference between seeking to share the gospel while talking to a friend, and manipulating the conversation?
7. “Treating people as if I truly believe they are created in God’s image means nothing less than loving them as Jesus loves them. Which means they should truly believe that I would be willing to die for them.” Do you agree? Why or why not? What other implications can you think of that follow from believing that our neighbors bear God’s image?
8. Covenant before the Lord to begin praying daily for a non-Christian friend, by name, expressing willingness to be used of God to bring them to Christ. Would they consider you their friend? How can you deepen that friendship?
SourceWord Bible Commentary: Colossians, Philemon by Peter T. O’Brien (Waco, TX: Word Books; 1982) p.243.
Fullness and Freedom: The Message of Colossians & Philemon by R. C. Lucas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1980) p.175.
“Awakening Christians to Answer the World: An Introduction to the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary” (booklet) available from FSI, 12330 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO 63141.