When surrounded by “religious” people, sharing the gospel can feel pointless.
My next-door neighbors are active Hindus on one side, and faithful Muslims on the other. Directly across the street lives a family practicing a form of Judaism. When I go to work, my team members and peers are also a mix of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, atheists, and a whole spectrum of beliefs claiming the “Christian” title.
And – as far as I can tell – they’re all very nice, friendly, generally well-behaved people who are quite satisfied with their lives, thank you very much.
Rare is the occasion that they give any indication that they see any need for a change. There’s nothing to suggest they’d be receptive to a challenge to their religious beliefs.
And I often wonder – what’s my role among these people who don’t seem to think they need the gospel I have to share?
If I knew Christ was coming back this week, the answer would be easy. I’d plead with them passionately in a last-ditch, desperate effort to change their minds and hearts. I’d take a chance at burning bridges and blast the gospel however I could. I’d risk any future relationship or potential opening, knowing all opportunity would be gone in a week, regardless.
But I don’t know that. And acting as if I knew something that isn’t true is not likely to be helpful.
And as soon as I start backing down from taking action, a voice begins to bellow in my head, “All you have to do is tell them the truth. If they reject it, that’s on them; you’ve done your job.”
But I have trouble believing that voice. Something just doesn’t sound right.
I’m Not Responsible; And I Am Responsible
In one of the podcasts from my morning commute this week, a public speaker shared advice he had been given. A mentor had told him, “You are not responsible for your audience. But you are responsible to them.”
In context, the speaking coach was recognizing that the response of an audience is beyond the control of the speaker. Whether a hearer applies the truth is indeed their own responsibility. The speaker is not responsible for the results of applying the message in the lives of the audience. At the same time, though, the speaker does bear a responsibility to the audience – to understand their background, their assumptions, their emotional triggers – to present the material in an organized manner, prepared in a way that is targeted to that specific audience.
That voice simmered for a few days.
And I began to see that understanding of responsibility reflected in the example of Jesus.
- Jesus confronted pious religious leaders. To them, He pronounced warnings to change their beliefs.
- Jesus addressed large groups. These sessions gave more education than caution.
- Jesus targeted individuals. These were often needy, and to them He offered individualized compassion.
Jesus’s interactions that we see recorded in Scripture were not the systematic delivery of a memorized formula. Even when sending out his disciples by twos to preach the kingdom, He instructed them to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils…” (Matthew 10:8). These disciples were responsible to recognize the specific needs of individuals and do what they could to meet those needs.
And if people didn’t respond well?
The disciples were not responsible for the response. Jesus said, “It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.” (Matthew 10:15)
How Do I Find Balance?
Now, I can even take this whole “responsible to” thing too far. When I have a project, my tendency is to say, “Ready, Aim, Aim, Aim, Aim …”
It’s never quite ready. My delivery for that audience isn’t quite perfected.
But here’s the kicker, “…and if I mess it up, I’ve ruined their chance of salvation.”
My fear of failure kicks in.
In my head, I know I’m not responsible for their decision, but my gut reacts with a straw man argument. “I can’t just be careless. I’m not going to litter the ground with gospel tracts or spray paint Jesus Saves on bridges and overpasses. That’s needlessly offensive. I have to be careful, don’t I?”
But that’s a false choice.
I can spread a broad message without being offensive. And I can also have a specific message, targeted to an individual – after building a relationship with them over time.
That’s why I’ll keep flossing one tooth, hanging invitations on doors like I did again this morning. I’ll keep engaging with coworkers to talk about “every day” things to build relationships.
And when one of my Muslim or Hindu or Jewish or Buddhist or Sikh or atheist neighbors or coworkers shows a need, I want to be ready to show compassion.
…like Jesus did.
How do you discover the individual needs of those around you as you prepare to share the gospel? Leave a comment below to share your ideas.