Interacting with non-believers after coming to faith
Mark: So one of the things that happens, maybe it’s happening to you as a new Christian, is you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. You feel transformed. You’re excited about something new going on in your life. But all the same people are still in your life. And maybe, probably if you’re a new Christian, a lot of the people around you are not Christians. And so that can create some unusual and awkward situations. Maybe your spouse isn’t a Christian, maybe your kids aren’t Christians, maybe your friends and associates at work aren’t Christians. And so I think this opens up kind of a whole Pandora’s box of relationship. I’m now a Christian. We’ve talked a lot about all the interaction with other Christians and church. What about folks in my circle that aren’t Christians? How do I deal with that? I know for me personally there’s been some awkwardness around that, initially. It’s all washed out over time. But for example, my dad, I come from a Jewish family, my dad was offended when I announced that I was now a believer and it took time for us to work our way through that. It had nothing to do with me being a Christian for him. He said “Well, you didn’t consult me. How come you didn’t consult me? You know, I’m your mentor. I’m one of your mentors, and you never came to me.” In my case with my dad, I knew where he stood. My dad’s an atheist, and so I knew that my whole life. So when I’m exploring whether I’m going to give my life to Jesus, I’m not going to go to the atheist I know and say, “Hey, is this a good idea?” And my brother was initially really upset. He thought I was influenced by other people I was hanging out with. Specifically, you (Tim). He was like, “I think you’re just under the influence of this guy, Tim Dunn.” And so people see this and I think there’s some rational fear in regards to your relationships. “So are you going to be completely different now? Are you a different person? Are we not going to want to hang out with you?” So, do you guys have experience dealing with this? Both of you over your lives have discipled a lot of people who became Christians. So what advice do you have for somebody who is stepping across that line of faith and is saying, “I’m giving my life to Jesus Christ”?
Your new path vs. the old
Joey: The first thing I would say is that it’s jarring. It’s jarring for you as a new believer to have choose this new path, to have chosen to be committed to it. And I think that you’ve got to allow for the fact that it’s going to be jarring for some people around you. That’s a fair response from the people who are around you. I grew up in a Christian upbringing and have sort of always been a part of it, but I do mentor a lot of young people who make this change and have experienced this difficulty. This isn’t to trivialize it, but we go through these kinds of things a lot. My wife and I have friends that we’ve been very close to. They live across the street from us. We just found out we’re pregnant with twins and they’re like “You’re going to change. Your priorities are going to change. Your heart’s going to change. And what is that going to do to us and to our friendship?” And we’ve had some frank conversations with them saying, “That is such a valid fear. You’re right. But at the same time, I’m not planning to abandon you or leave you or not be me.” In fact, I think this is maybe the most me that I’ve ever been. So, I think I would say start with saying, don’t be defensive. I think it’s easy to be say, “You should be happy for me. You should support me,” and demand that of people and try to control them a little bit. I think I would start with recognizing, “I understand, this is maybe a surprise for me too. And it’s a bit jarring and hard for me to get used to”, and so to give them some space to to feel that way. But at the same time, people appreciate honesty and clarity. So to be able to not waver and say things like, “Well, I’m going to try this for a while”, but but instead saying, “this is the path that I’ve chosen and it may mean that there’s some changes. I may not be out drinking with you as much, but I’m still going to be your friend and be available.” Being clear about what those changes look like and maybe emphasizing the positive truths of what lies ahead on this path for you.
Seek the best for others
Tim: I actually don’t have much experience with this because of the same thing. I grew up in and around the church. I have more experience with the other direction, of people leaving, abandoning the faith and going away from it. Or people coming into the church and the question of receiving. But I heard somebody say something the other day. I thought it was really good. The best way to win other people to Christ is through new believers, because their friends are still unbelievers. And there’s a moment where there’s a tremendous opportunity to serve those people. And it may be that your life starts to change in ways that causes some of the things you shared together previously to stop. You may stop taking drugs with somebody or something like that. But I would think in most cases, most friends and family, they’re still friends or family. So then the question is, “Okay, how can I now serve these people?” And if you approach it from the standpoint of, “I’ve chosen a new path and my path is one to seek the best for others. How can I seek your best? I’ve probably been mostly focused on myself, I’m trying to learn a new thing about focusing on you.” I would think it would be hard for someone to say, “No, no, no, that’s wrong. You should never do anything for me or focus on me. You should just focus on yourself.” If someone did resist that, you could say “I’m already an expert at that.”
M: We all are.
T: We all are. So that’s easy. If you want me just to focus on myself, then I’d say, “Well, I’ve chosen a new path. Aren’t you happy for me? I am focusing on myself and what I think is in my best interest so we don’t have a problem.” So you kind of kind of frame that where you win either way. I would guess from what I know of you, that’s actually what’s happened over time, that people now say, “This has actually made things better because he’s coming from a deeper reservoir of security and purpose. And actually, it’s spilling over on me in a positive way.”
Do we need to evangelize?
M: I would say that’s happened for sure. And part of it is what I learned from you. We talked about this in another segment “What is evangelism?”. As I went through my faith awakening, I never felt the need to try to cause other people to be awakened in a direct sense. I never said, “Hey, you need to know what I went through because you need what I needed.” It’s always been that I’m just going to live in the best of my ability to live a sanctified life. Try to live as God would want me to live. And I hope that by doing that, that the people who are closest to me will be positively affected by that. And then they’ll want to know, like, why do you live like this?
T: That’s really fascinating that you bring that up because we did a segment on what is the will of God and we looked at that verse in 1 Thessalonians 4, “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” It’s worth reflecting on. It does not say “This is the will of God, evangelism.”
J: You convert everybody around you. Because I imagine part of the questions or concerns people or your loved ones you have is, “Are you going to start trying to aggressively evangelize me?”
M: Exactly. Everybody’s worried about that.
J: I think as Christians, we have done a poor job of this, historically. We fall into one ditch or the other, the one being we become this like militant conversion machine. And every time your friends see you they are like, “Oh, man, Mark’s coming over, he’s just going to ask me if I know if I’m going to heaven when I die 100 times again.” We just get so focused on it that we-
T: We’re ineffective.
J: We’re ineffective or we become little silos. We just huddle up together and have no engagement with anyone who believes differently. Which is one of the things I like about New York. I did a writer’s group for a while with people with all kinds of different beliefs. We’ve got to learn how to be in common spaces. I think that the process of evangelism is to be in these spaces, be with these people, love them, serve them, and let that be the testimony that speaks for itself. And like the Bible says, be ready to give account. If you’re carrying around, like Tim was saying after you became a Christian, more peace, more of a sense of purpose. When someone notices that, they’re like, “What is up with you? It’s been the last year or so I’ve noticed this change,” and you’d be ready to give an adequate answer.
T: You actually said this in your testimony. You saw James Dobson and watched him interact with people and you said, “I want that.” He never said a word to you, never during the whole thing. So should we be evangelizing? Yes, 100% of the time. How do you do that? Be sanctified and live a sanctified life. I think a big part of it is just going about life in a way that is attractive enough that people say, “Okay, all right. Tell me exactly what this is that’s happened to you.” And I would say, “I now have knowledge to walk in a way that’s actually productive for me and have an extra power to do so.”
M: Leave it at that. Yeah. And I think you’re saying something important in a more general sense, which is, less is more in that situation. And people do have this fear. I’ve talked to people in my life about it subsequently, and they’ve been like, “So who are you going to be now? Are you going to be militant? Are you going to be somehow radically prudish and judgmental? Are you going to expect me to go to church with you every week?”
T: All the stereotypes that are promoted that are antagonistic against Christianity.
Don’t be militant
M: Correct. And many of them, to be fair, are well earned over time. So for me, I think it’s very important to understand that other people are going to feel that way. And understand that you’re going to feel a little bit worried about it. The one thing that I really want to caution people is don’t be afraid to share your faith. Don’t be militant about it. But for me, the way that has worked is to just credit to God where it’s due, which is pretty much everywhere. What it means is just different ways that I phrase things. So somebody would say, “Man, you’re so lucky.” And I would say, “Yeah, God has really blessed me.” And that’s a very minor thing. I could just say, “Yeah, I’m really lucky,” and that’s what I would have said in the past. But I’m going to say, “Yeah, God’s really blessed me,” because I want them to know that in my life I understand where all this stuff comes from, and that causes somebody else to be curious. It’s like “Mark now says that God blessed him. That’s different than what he used to say.” So I try to throw phrases like that in regularly. It’s natural for me.
T: It’s authentic. It’s not something you’re saying to bait somebody.
M: No. It’s true.
T: It’s an extension of who you are and what you’re doing. I do something similar. My way of thinking has been so shaped by the Bible, I’ll just routinely say this Bible verse or this biblical principle or something like that. And people know when you’re saying that in a sense of “I’m now judging and coercing you.”
M: Right. I agree with it.
T: And when you’re saying it in a sense of “This is where this came from and it’s what I’m attached to.” And if you’re always doing it from the standpoint of “this is why I do what I do and this is why I’m functioning in this way,” I don’t find people get offended by that.
M: I agree with that. For most of my life, as a non-believer, that didn’t bother me at all. You kind of get a feel for where somebody is coming from. So the key is, if you’re not doing it in a self-righteous, judgmental ‘Well, if you were a believer, you would know X right now, you would know that the Bible…I know you don’t know what the Bible says, but the Bible says X.’ And so the key is–
T: You’re obviously inferior and here’s why…
The key– authenticity
M: The key is authenticity. For a new believer, we don’t know any scripture. So for us, we can credit God for our internal transformation. And that’s really where it starts. And I think that’s profound and that is true evangelism. I also think it’s very important, when you’re a new believer you really don’t know anything in the knowledge sense, right? You haven’t studied scripture, you don’t know the Bible. So there can be a hesitancy to share that you’ve become a person of faith, because you feel like you have to have all this knowledge.
T: It’s also very important to recognize what you do and don’t control. And you don’t make choices for other people. And you’re not responsible, none of us are responsible, for the choices that are the stewardship of other people. What we’re responsible for is to walk our walk of sanctification and be good stewards of our choices as an example and a testimony to other people and for our own benefit. It’s a win win. Other people are responsible for their choices. We’re not ordered to coerce people into the kingdom or–
M: To the contrary.
T: Yeah, to the contrary. We’re told to love them and that you do that with words and deeds, but it’s mainly a lifestyle.
Be there for the non-believer
J: I think a lot of Christians, whether they’re new or old, feel this pressure of, “Oh, my gosh, I have these non-Christian friends. I’m letting God down or I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing if they’re not also converting to be believers.” I think it’s an unfortunate pressure we put ourselves. Because, and we do this with college students, especially the ones who oversee the Christian formation in the smaller communities that we have, where we say, “You’re not responsible for people’s faith. That’s not a burden we’re placing on you. What we’re asking is that you help provide atmospheres where it’s easier for people to meet and hear about Jesus, and then they’re going to make choices.” Which also makes me think of, Tim mentioned gentleness in one of the other segments on spiritual gifts, how a lot of that is seeing from other people’s perspective. At the college not all the students are Christian. And it is spoken about immensely, and when I sit down with them I’m just trying to understand or listen to what they’re saying. We’re a predominantly Christian school, so we do a lot of things that have worship music. And I’ll ask a non-Christian student, “Hey, I know we just had this big gathering, an all school gathering where we did worship. And you’re not a Christian. How do you feel about that?” Basically just acknowledging that I understand this is weird for you and I think that helps people to feel seen and less judged. I think we’ve unfortunately gotten to this point where you either have to be actively, militantly trying to convert or you have to be doing nothing. And there is a space in between which is more effective and I think more true to what the Bible lays out.
M: I would say on the hard end of this, that you might lose some relationships. And it’s not necessarily your choice, like you said. But people make their own decisions and people, I’ll use the example of “I’m going to stop doing drugs.” And there might be a moment of, well–
T: Then I have nothing in common with you anymore.
Habits change, so can friendships
M: “This is what we do together. We party, right? Right. Yeah. So what do you mean you’re not doing drugs? And who are you? I don’t even recognize you.” I think the question in that case as a new believer that you’ve got to ask yourself is, “Was that even a real friend?” And the answer is no. But also, “what am I willing to give up? What am I willing to do for this life that I believe is so important?” It’s a gift from God, but, you may be called to sacrifice. And if you are, are you willing to? There’s a question I ask my interns all the time, and I ask them not to answer it. It’s kind of a funny question. But I always ask them, “What are you willing to die for?” I think it’s a really important question. It’s an existential, big question. A “why are we here?” kind of a question. And I don’t think anybody really knows the answer to the question unless you’ve faced it. Pretty much every Christian I’ve talked to would say, “Well, I would die for my faith. I would not renounce my Lord and Savior at the point of a gun.” I actually don’t know if we actually know what we would do. We say that. I think we should say that. I should believe that. But until that gun is in your face, you don’t know. Would you die for your family? So the three that I hear all the time– for my faith, for my God, for my family and for my country, I hear those all the time. I don’t know if that’s true. And I just want the young people to think about those things because we should think about serious things. I had a girl who was 19 years old at the time who I spent a lot of time with, she’s kind of been adopted by my family, her name is Amanda. And we’re sitting around in my kitchen, one night she was staying with us, it was probably midnight and we. were having long philosophical discussions. She said, “You know that question you always ask people about what what you would die for?” And I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “It’s always bothered me because you always say it’s so hard to answer.” And I said, “Well, yeah, I don’t think you can really know.” And she goes, “I think it’s really obvious and really easy to answer.” I said, “Okay, how?” And she said, “Well, just look what people live for. Are they living a sanctified life?” Because I would say, and she said, “If you’re not trying to live a sanctified life, then you wouldn’t die for God. That’s ridiculous.” You know, you’re not willing to even put your effort into living for God.
T: I think she’s on to it–
J: I think so too.
T: Because the Bible actually says we’re supposed to die every day to self. And interestingly enough, if we do that, we’re actually dying for ourselves because that’s what actually allows us to live and thrive. And “The no greater love you have known than this,” you lay down your life for a friend. And when you do that, you find yourself. And so you either have a lose-lose or a win-win in this life. It’s kind of the way it works.
M: And the reason I bring that up is because in your walk as a new Christian, you may find yourself sacrificing relationships along the way.
Good, but not a burden
T: Going back, there’s a biblical passage here that occurred to me that is worth bringing up. It’s kind of a famous passage in Romans 10 that says, and I’m going to paraphrase it, this is starting in verse 14, if you want to look at it. It says “It’s really good for people to go and share the gospel. It’s really great. It’s a wonderful thing. How beautiful are the feet for those who preach the gospel of peace.” Okay. So that’s that part. And then part B, it goes on and says, “But if they don’t hear from you, they saw it from nature.” And then it quotes from Psalm 19, “The sound has gone out to the earth and the words the ends of the earth,” speaking of the stars and the creation. So you can take from that that it’s really awesome to live this life and speak these words. It’s a wonderful thing to do. Everybody needs to hear that. But you’re just one of many voices, the stars and everything around you. God is speaking to every single person, every single day, constantly. It’s a privilege, not a responsibility, not a burden.
M: It’s not on you.
T: It’s not on you. It’s a privilege for you to do that, a good thing. But it’s not on you.