As Christians, we know that we are supposed to be engaging the lost. Here in the South there’s a lot of talk about the unchurched, but I’m not sure I really want to church anyone up (can church even be used as a verb like that??), and multiplication of terms sometimes obscures the plainest problem which is that these people are sinners in need of a Savior–just like you and me.
Sometimes I fall into the pattern of thinking that I only need to spend enough time with lost people to share the Gospel with them. Or even worse, I think–and I really try not to slip this far: “I need to get to know some lost people so they can come to my church.” Have you ever thought like this? There are godly motives for caring about numbers in our churches (which I wrote about here), but in general, this mindset is deeply flawed for three reasons.
I bet you’ve done this before. You come into your church’s sanctuary on a Sunday morning, and as you sit in your normal spot, you notice someone new sitting a few rows away. It’s a young couple with a few of toddlers–just the kind of people you are hoping to add to your congregation. So, reluctantly you go up and thrust a hand in their direction, offering a firm handshake and your heartiest “Welcome to ________________ Baptist Church!” After asking their names and where they are from, you quickly say, “Let me know if there is anything I can do! Thanks for coming!” and you retreat to your seat.
That visiting family can smell your motives from a mile away. Let’s admit it. We did our hospitality duty for the day, and the only reason we greeted them was in hopes that they would come back the next week. So what if they come back? Is church really that simple? Are we just trying to get as many people to sit next to each other inside a building one day a week?
When we have conversations with non-Christians and our primary goal is to get them to come to our church, they can sniff us out. When we are just trying to boost our Sunday attendance, they can tell. So, quit. If the only reason you talk with people who don’t go to your church is to convince them to come to your church, you are fulfilling the stereotype that Christians don’t really care about people–only their church’s Sunday attendance.
It’s Not Enough.
If we think the only responsibility of the Christian to the lost world is to invite them to church, we have misunderstood the mission of Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven is the stone of Daniel 2:35 that “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” The rule of Christ must bleed into every area of our lives. His healing and live-giving blood has to reach into the deepest parts of human existence.
We like inviting someone to church because it is so clean. But when we see Jesus, he’s constantly getting dirty: touching lepers, putting mud on the eyes of the blind, allowing prostitutes to wash his feet, washing his disciples feet, sharing meals with tax collectors and sinners, and having conversations with loose women–just to name a few. Here was his motive: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matt. 9:37).
We have to capture this compassion and make it our own. The people of your city are not prospective church attendees, they are sheep without a shepherd. They are harassed and helpless. They have dirty lives full of problems and issues. We have to be willing to enter into their lives and bring the love of Christ into their very particular and sticky situations. “For the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14). Like Jesus, we must refuse to be satisfied with shake hands with sinners on Sundays. We must allow our lives to become entangled with the problems, sins, and struggles of people who need Christ’s love through us.
Your neighbor is not just an opportunity for you to tally your ‘Conversions Chart’. Your co-worker is not just a chance to boost your church’s baptisms record. Your waitress is not merely a number to add to your Sunday attendance count. She is a person made in the image of God dying in a dark and hateful world without anyone to care for her. What she needs is not another person trying to use her, but someone who treats her like creature of such value that the Almighty Son of God would stoop to dying on a cross to rescue her.
Every group on earth is trying to boost their ranks, improve their attendance, and grow their influence. Jesus calls us to value every single person, to love them because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Our love is a love in the Gospel. It is a love motivated, shaped by, and empowered through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are sent to shine the light of the cross and the warmth of reconciliation that comes through repenting and believing in Jesus. This is a love-soaked message. It must be accompanied by actual genuine love.
How Do We Test Our Love?
Here’s a simple way to get at your motives. Anytime you feel the impulse to engage a lost person, ask yourself this question: “How will I respond if they refuse the Gospel?” Will you move on to the next one? If you immediately begin to feel that a relationship with that person is a waste of time because they won’t come to your church or immediately become a Christian, you have your answer.
We have to be willing to build relationships with the lost in order to show them the love of Christ. Faithfully share the Gospel with them. Allow them time to see that the Gospel is not merely a set of beliefs, but a life-changing relationship with the Savior King Jesus. Give them time to see what repentance and forgiveness look like. Show them the value of brotherly love in the Church. And plead to God for them. If you are doing these things, I’m pretty sure love will take care of itself.