Over the last 25 years I’ve walked thousands of miles. Once I found seventy dollars laying in the grass. Once. Another time I think I found a twenty. A man could starve if he depended on this sort of treasure hunting. The opposite sort of situation is occurring with many Christians today. We are the ones carrying the world’s greatest treasure – the good news of eternal salvation through Jesus. We want to give it to others, to spend eternity with them. But many leave this treasure sitting in our outstretched hand. Most churches in America are shrinking, largely because it’s seldom that a new person gets saved. Is there anything we can do about it? Well, we ourselves can’t make anyone take the priceless gift of salvation. But we can help them learn about it and become more willing. How? As mentioned last week, our primary mode of reaching people for Christ has become friendship evangelism. We must go to where non-Christians are and build relationships with them which open the door to relaxed spiritual dialogue. Last week’s discussion talked about why this is challenging to do today. This week I want to offer suggestions about what we can do to help.
How can I build eternity-changing friendships?
1. I build eternity-changing friendships by really loving others
This is the starting place. Without it we make little progress. By “really loving”, I mean caring about their lives in a deep, practical way. Does the welfare of others occupy much emotional or practical space in our lives? Does what happen to them affect us significantly? Or is that space and energy absorbed by our own never-ending needs and challenges? Are others only of passing interest to us?
2. I build eternity-changing friendships by first building significant friendships
Significant friendship is the bridge that opens the path for sharing important personal and spiritual information. By “significant” friendship, I don’t mean that we can be best buddies with everyone, but that we’ve gotten past the superficial acquaintance stage and begun to share deeper facts about our lives and views. They know that, Christian or not, we care about them and they begin to trust us more. How does this happen? This leads to the next point.
3. I build eternity-changing friendships by consciously seeking to do so
These stronger friendships don’t usually happen by accident. Usually, we have to take initiative to reach out to others and engage them in meaningful ways. If we wait for them to take the lead, many potential opportunities will never occur. How do we initiate?
4. I build eternity-changing friendships by taking an active interest in others
For a lot of us, this requires a paradigm shift. The natural human tendency is to be mostly caught up in ourselves, our family, and prior friends. To walk into a room and notice who’s around us, to approach people with a desire to get to know more about them, to focus our attention more on them than on ourselves requires a mind-set driven by Christ’s love.
5. I build eternity-changing friendships by learning to listen well
A good listener is rare to find. Good listening requires a willingness to let them do most of the talking, to ask meaningful, appropriate questions, to reflect back what we’re hearing, and, oddly enough, the ability to endure silence. A few seconds of silence, used skillfully, will often allow the other person a moment to reflect on what they’ve said and add some more. Good listening is also sensitive to when the other person is ready to stop talking (maybe they’ve got something to do or are uncomfortable going further).
6. I build eternity-changing friendships by not being judgmental
We don’t have to agree with everything they say or approve of everything they’ve done. We probably won’t. But they need to feel safe with us; to know that even if we sometimes disagree, we still care about them and accept them. I have to warn you that not everyone will accept this distinction. Some will reject our love and friendship if we disagree on certain things. That’s unavoidable if we’re to share God’s truth. At least it gets them thinking.
7. I build eternity-changing friendships when I create a schedule which allows time for significant friendship
This is at the heart of the matter and is often difficult. We live in a culture which gobbles up our free time and others share the same dilemma. If there’s no empty space in my schedule, then it’s unlikely that I’ll build many eternity-changing relationships. We can certainly plant spiritual seed wherever we go, in spurts of interaction involving minutes or even seconds. But the deeper conversations take time. It takes quantity to get quality. In order for this to happen, something else in our schedule will probably have to go. We’ll have to be willing to risk “wasting time”.
8. I build eternity-changing friendships when I am patient in my pacing
Spiritual change, in God’s direction, usually moves slowly, in fits and spurts. Sometimes they’re ready to talk deeper and longer. At other times, “a dab will do ya” – just a quick comment. Often, others are hesitant to engage a Christian, fearing rejection, lectures, argumentation, and so on. Give them space and time. Don’t feel that you have to automatically answer or correct their misconceptions. Maybe it’s best to just listen at first or to challenge gently by asking questions. Remember, we’re seeking a paradigm shift in the unbeliever, and that’s a huge movement to make, almost always done very slowly, if at all.
9. I build eternity-changing friendships by living out my faith
The validity of our message is confirmed or disproved by the quality of our lives. Are we Spirit-filled; loving, kind, patient, unselfish, honest, and so on? Or is our spiritual life compartmentalized from how we actually live in the “real world”? An old chorus I grew up with said, “What you are speaks so loud that the world can’t hear what you say. They’re looking at your walk, not listening to your talk. They’re judging by your actions every day.”
10. I build eternity-changing friendships by taking reasonable risks
While we should seek to be sensitive and diplomatic, there are unavoidable risks that we face when we’re actively seeking to share the gospel. We will offend some people. We’ll lose some friends. We’ll be misunderstood. Or we’ll just be ignored. Remember, Jesus said that the world “hated” him and would “hate” his disciples (John 15:18). The good news of Jesus is bad news to those whose hearts are resistant. So, expect some negative reactions. The people we’re seeking to reach are worth it. And remember that often a seed of God’s truth is planted, which may grow later on when the person is more ready. Perhaps we will sow and others will reap.
11. I build eternity changing friendships by engaging in serious prayer
Prayer is a critical part of this whole process. It keeps us filled with God’s Spirit. It keeps us remembering the other person we’re trying to reach. It softens our hearts toward our unbelieving friends and deepens our love. It helps push back against the Devil’s schemes for their life. And somehow, I’m not sure how, this works, prayer seems to affect God’s role in the process.