This post is derived from the book Becoming A Contagious Christian (BACC) by Bill Hybels and Mark Mittleberg.
Despite not taking any of his classes, in the midst of my high school years I learned a powerful lesson from the German teacher at my school. He showed me how preconceptions are overcome. Mr. Meyers worked to arrange a yearly cross-cultural event between my school, about an hour’s drive south of Chicago, and another school in Germany. Students from my school went to Germany for a week, attending school there, and staying with their students’ families. Likewise, students from the German school came to stay with ours for a week.
I recall the day the German students came and toured my school. A group came into my class and we were introduced to each other. After they left, students began snickering, then the Nazi jokes started. It was pretty crude. At the time, I felt concern for our visitors, wondering how much ridicule they would face being here for a week. I talked to the German teacher about what I was seeing. I thought for sure he wouldn’t want to do this exchange again, considering what was going on. His reaction stunned me. He said something along the lines of, “Great! This is exactly why they should come here!” Of course, He didn’t mean that it was good for them to be ridiculed. He meant that it was good for them to come and change our hearts towards the German people.
There is no justification for the crimes committed by the Nazi’s. That wasn’t what this was about. This was about getting to know who the German people are today. It was about separating prejudice and preconceptions from present reality. It took real people coming and showing their humanity and decency for us to see who they are apart from the infamy of others who preceded them.
I wonder what our students encountered in Germany? What preconceptions did the Germans have? Was anything gained by interacting with Americans?
Stepping Out Of The Box
There are all kinds of perceptions followers of Christ have about relating with those outside the faith and all kinds of perceptions unbelievers have about Christians. Some of these are based in truth. Many are based on pride and prejudice. Other ideas are just ignorance run amok and fears of the worst. These misconceptions are a tough nut to crack, and compartmentalization only serves to harden the lines. To separate fact from fiction requires spending time together.
Have you noticed how groupthink takes over when people only associate with those they agree with? It’s easier to make things fit our version of reality when we’re not challenged. This isn’t a good thing. It’s like commerce without competition. Falsehood thrives unless we are forced to question. Extremism becomes more tolerable without dissent.
Wikipedia has this to say about groupthink:
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. It is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. Antecedent factors such as group cohesiveness, structural faults, and situational context play into the likelihood of whether or not groupthink will impact the decision-making process.
The primary socially negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking. While this often causes groupthink to be portrayed in a negative light, because it can suppress independent thought, groupthink under certain contexts can also help expedite decisions and improve efficiency.
There is benefit in forming cohesive groups, “no man is an island.” There is comfort in being with people we agree with. Yet, balance is needed to avoid the negatives. We have to venture out of our comfort zones to grow and to expand the sphere of own influence to affect others. The Box is what we put ourselves in when we refuse to take chances. It’s the church building we encapsulate our faith in if we only ever engage the choir. It’s the pigeonhole others will place us in if we don’t define ourselves with the love of Jesus.
Making The Most Of Every Opportunity
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote:
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; 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.” Colossians 4:2-6
It’s interesting to me how different following Christ is from the religions of the world. The perception of those outside of faith is that simply of a religion. Without Jesus that’s all we would have, a mere religion, a system of practices with goals and achievements designed to bring us closer to God or some other type of spiritual fulfillment. If you think that’s what following Christ is about you have a lot to learn. Just go read the book of John and see. Jesus points out the failure of religion time and time again. He came in the flesh because religion isn’t enough. God wants something more: a true personal connection to us. We can’t reach him with religion. He had to come to us to make that happen. Instead of a religion, we get a relationship, free of charge, by simply putting our faith in him. Boom! He’s there. There’s nothing left to do to get to God. Just trust. That’s the gospel.
As followers of Christ, we need to help people see the difference between religion and Christ. You can easily find people, even in Christian churches where the gospel is taught, who have not grasped the message. Sometimes, even people who are the pillars of their churches, serving extensively, reading the Bible day after day, don’t get it. Then twenty years in, one day something happens and the the potency of the cross suddenly dawns on them. In that moment they put their full trust in Jesus for salvation for the very first time and are finally reborn; connected to him directly for the first time in their lives. After all those years of religion, they finally find something better. It’s a miracle every time.
Paul’s words to the Colossians are an example to us of how to help others overcome the spiritual blindness that prevents them from recognizing Christ.
Be watchful and pray – Scripture says only God can reveal himself. We can’t do the work he gave us in our own skill and strength. He gives us eyes to see where he is working and enables us to be a part his work when we seek him. Time in prayer and in God’s word builds us up in him so that when opportunities arrive he can use us. We have to fill up with him so that we have something to give from him.
Seek to proclaim the message clearly – God knows how to communicate better than we do. He knows people’s needs, how they think, and what they need to hear to break through. We can’t see all the stuff he sees. We can be prepared with the message, but if it falls on deaf ears it won’t help. We needs God’s help to bring clarity in the midst of confusion. We may know the way to the head, but only God knows the way to the heart.
Be wise in the way you act – We need to have a bit of street smarts when sharing Christ. (The book of Proverbs gives a lot of help in that department.) It takes care and delicacy to handle ourselves well with others. We need to exercise good judgment, not just blindly and clumsily tromp through people’s lives. With care and consideration we can avoid needless offenses and worthless arguments. We must be firm in our integrity for Christ, but wise to our environment. A savvy missionary takes the culture and venue into account in order to share the gospel message effectively.
Make the most of every opportunity – An opportunity is a chance to say or do something worthwhile that makes a difference in someone’s life for Christ. We can’t make the most our opportunities unless we are looking for them. We have to seek them. This may seem daunting, because we have a lot of ideas in our heads about how people will react to spiritual discussions, but most people are not that opposed to discussing these topics, provided it really is a discussion. Nobody wants to be talked at.
“He who answers before listening— that is his folly and his shame.” Proverbs 18:13
There are definitely some people who are just hostile. Even then, there is opportunity, if only to demonstrate God’s love in patience and non-retaliation. The most an opportunity can be is a mysterious thing to measure. If we offer the best we have, that’s enough for our part in it. God is in control of the outcome.
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone – Sharing the gospel is like sharing a meal. We just keep stirring the pot, lifting up the aroma of Christ, and giving out morsels of God’s grace. We avoid straying into strange ingredients, giving half-baked answers to questions we don’t really know the answer to. We stick to the meat and help where we can with other issues people have. We don’t go beyond what scripture tells us. If we do speculate, we have to make very clear that it’s our own thoughts and not try to equate them with God’s. We are not self promoting. We’re not recruiting people to come follow us or our local church. We’re simply bringing people to Jesus, who stepped way out of the box for us all.