By Joshua Young | Church Planter and Lead Pastor of Redeeming Hope Church
Last year, my wife, Rachel, and I moved to a predominantly military town to plant a church. Our community teems with officers who have graduated with some of the world’s best leadership training.
Tim is one of those successful military officers. He lives in our neighborhood — and if he comes to any event, others will, too. When we started our first “dinner and discussions” events geared toward those who don’t yet know Jesus, I knew I had to invite Tim.
I was nervous.
One afternoon I was walking and praying around our neighborhood and I saw Tim. I mustered up my courage, looked him in the eyes, invited him to come talk about Jesus and waited.
Then I got it: the smirk.
I think many of us can resonate with the dreaded sarcasm of the smirk. It felt as if he was thinking OK, now the crazy Bible thumper is coming out. He was polite, but I still felt his smirk on a gut level. I went home dejected.
As I prayed for him later, I realized something important: I had lost my image of what Tim could become.
He is surrounded by a big house, luxury cars, successful kids, a great job and a loving wife. At times, it’s challenging to imagine my friend seeing his need for Jesus. Underneath my dejection was a lack of belief he could ever change.
On a deeper level, I had forgotten about the overwhelming, disruptive power of the gospel. Paul says the gospel is the power of God (Rom. 1:16), but with Tim it felt more like a suggestion.
The message of Jesus has the power to awaken the human heart, even in the slumber of suburban comfort. I think many of us forget this powerful truth.
The reality is that the power of the gospel resides in us. So how do we access and share this power? How do we know when it is the right time to boldly proclaim truth? When should we have “the talk”?
The simple answer is we cannot know for certain when someone is ready. But we can prepare to help lead them to Jesus and invite them to believe the gospel without being awkward, overbearing or aggressive. This preparation comes from seeing the disruptive movement of God in another person and responding with a reflexive boldness at the right time.
It takes time, temperance and wisdom to develop the balance between patience and boldness. We cannot have a notch-on-the-belt mentality — our evangelism efforts must come from a place of humble dependence on God’s Spirit to convict. Yet, there are practical ways to become aware of spiritual openness.
Here are four proactive ways to see the movement of the gospel in a friend’s life and know when to invite him or her to repent and believe:
When we pray earnestly
Jesus told his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Lk. 10:2, ESV). We know and believe God is sovereign and works through his people’s prayers.
When we pray, we become sensitive to those who are separated from Jesus. Our Father uses faithfulness in prayer to prepare the soil of our hearts for compassion and of others’ hearts for faith.
When Christians pray, God moves. Pray earnestly and God will give you extraordinary sensitivity to his Spirit’s work in others’ lives.
When we are faithfully present
In the very next verse of Luke, Jesus commands his disciples, “Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Lk. 10:3, ESV).
Jesus never commands his disciples to pray without intentional action. Prayer without action is folly. Prayer with action is effective in seeing others come to faith.
We must move with winsomeness toward those who don’t know Jesus. He knew how to spend time with non-Christians. In fact, most average, nonreligious people enjoyed being around Jesus, and that should be true of us, too. We can learn to intentionally place ourselves in the presence of those who don’t know Jesus in natural and noncombative ways.
In Acts 8, an angel tells Philip to go toward Gaza. As he was walking, a man in a chariot passed by, and Luke recounts, “And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.’ So Philip ran to the man and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’” (Acts 8:29-30 ESV).
Philip was sensitive to the Holy Spirit and obedient to his direction. He approached the man, a eunuch who served as a court official to the Ethiopian queen, with a winsome question rather than an out-of-context soapbox sermon. That is faithful presence in action.
Presence carries weight in a culture notably distracted. Time is the most valuable commodity in the world. Undistracted attention sensitizes our hearts to the movement of the Holy Spirit and prepares us when the moment arises for a bold call of repentance and faith.
God uses faithful presence to represent him in the midst of nonbelievers who need to respond to his gospel. Know non-Christians as friends and not as projects, and you will see his disruptive power when it occurs.
When non-Christians give the power of permission
Jesus continues commissioning the disciples:
“Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you...But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you...’” (Lk. 10:8,10-11, ESV).
God gives us dignity and choice because we are made in his image. Part of our role as Christians is to ensure others are giving us their permission to speak to them and with them.
When we speak without permission, we’re in danger of being bullish, aggressive and antagonistic. When we speak with permission, we have others’ willingness. It’s the difference between inviting a friend over for dinner or having a salesman push his way into your home.
We also see this power of permission in the next verse of the story of Philip. After asking the man in the chariot whether he understood what he was reading, the man replied, “‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:31, ESV).
Invitation is a key indicator of spiritual openness. Wait for permission to speak in others’ lives. It demonstrates a humility and ensures that when you speak, non-Christians will listen.
When non-Christians are personally convicted
Jesus finishes his instructions to the disciples by saying, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me...” (Luke 10:16, ESV).
People either accept or reject Jesus. This is the heart of the evangelical framework: personal conversion through personal conviction.
This concept of conviction might seem foreign in our culture, but whispers of it are everywhere. When someone shares personal information to get your advice or counsel about past failures, these are mini-confessions.
Many times — after prayer, presence and permission — non-Christians moving toward Christ will process personal conviction through shared confession.
After Philip was invited to sit with him, the eunuch asked, “‘About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:34-35, ESV).
The questions of the eunuch indicate conviction. He has invited Philip in and is now disturbed by a lack of understanding. His honest, humble questions are met with an immediate response in which the gospel is clearly proclaimed. In the next verse, the eunuch desires to renounce his gods and be baptized into Christ.
Philip shares boldly about Jesus after responding to the Holy Spirit, being present and receiving permission. As a result, the eunuch arrives at a personal conviction. Like Philip, we are called to engage with the same level of care and passion.
Going back to my friend Tim, I pray earnestly for him. We spend time together in the neighborhood, and I continue to invite him to talk about Jesus.
More important, I believe Tim is lost, broken and desperately needs the gospel. I believe Jesus has a plan to redeem him. I believe in the power of the gospel to awaken his dead heart to a living faith.
And I believe through the fervency of prayer, faithful presence, necessary permission and the personal conviction of the Holy Spirit, we cultivate a reflexive boldness. And I believe the disruptive power of the gospel can turn a smirk of sarcasm into a smile of saving faith.