In addition to being like others and unlike others, Christians should also be engaged with others.(12)
Mission for a contextualized believer is a matter of everyday life—of developing nonsuperficial relationships with their neighbors, colleagues, and others in the city.
Here are some practical, simple ways to do this:
• Take regular walks in your neighborhood to meet others who are out and about. Keep a regular schedule. Go to the same places at the same time for groceries, haircuts, coffee, shopping. This is one of the main ways you get to know those who live geographically near.
• Find ways to get to know others in your building or neighborhood—through a common laundry area, at resident meetings, and in numerous other ways.
• Find an avocation or hobby you can do with others in the city. For example, don’t form a Christian backpacking club; join an existing one.
• Look for ways to play organized amateur sports in the city.
• Volunteer alongside other neighborhood residents at nonprofits and with other programs.
• If you have children, be involved at the school and get to know other parents.
• Participate in city events—fund-raisers, festivals, cleanups, summer shows, concerts, etc.
• Serve in your neighborhood. Visit the community board meeting. Pick up litter regularly. Get involved in neighborhood associations. Find individual neighbors (especially elderly ones) and find ways of serving them.
• Be hospitable to neighbors—when and where appropriate, invite them over for a meal or a movie, etc.
Engaging colleagues, coworkers, and friends
• Do recreational activities with them—watch sports (live or on TV at home or in a nightspot); go to a theater show, museum exhibit, art gallery exhibit, etc.
• Invite them to join a sports league with you.
• Invite them to work out with you at a gym.
• Put together a movie night.
• Go out of your way to eat with them as often as possible. Invite people over for a meal in your apartment or home or just invite them out to try a new restaurant.
• Plan trips or outings—a trip to a beach, a historical site, etc.
• If the person has a skill or interest, ask them (sincerely!) to educate you.
• Organize a discussion group on something—politics, books, etc., inviting mainly non-Christians.
Part of being engaged is to be willing to identify as a believer. Engaging relationally without doing so could be called “the blend-in approach.” Many Christians live in a social world of non-Christians but don’t think much about their friends’ spiritual needs, nor do they identify themselves as believers to their friends. Their basic drive is to be accepted, to avoid being perceived as different—but this approach fails to integrate a person’s faith with his or her relationships in the world.
The opposite can be true as well. It is certainly possible for a person to identify as a believer without engaging relationally outside the church. These are Christians who are aware of people’s lostness and may get involved in conversations about faith, but their relationships with non-Christians are largely superficial. We could call this “the Christian bubble approach.” In this case, believers fill all of their significant relationships outside of work with other Christians and their time with Christian activities. They have not sought opportunities to learn from nonbelievers, appreciate them, affirm them, and serve them—so regardless of what these Christians believe, those outside the church do not know they care about them.
Forty years ago, most of us knew gay people, but we didn’t know we did because everybody was carefully quiet about it. As a result, it was possible to believe stereotypes about them. Today most young people know someone who is gay, and so it is harder to believe stereotypes or generalizations about them. I suspect most urban skeptics I talk to today do have Christian friends, but they don’t know it, because we are more afraid these days of being publicly identified as believers. In this sense, many Christians today are like gay people were forty years ago—so it is quite natural for people to believe caricatures and stereotypes of Christians because the believers they actually know are not identifying themselves. Skeptics need more than an argument in order to believe; they need to observe intelligent, admirable fellow human beings and see that a big part of what makes them this way is their faith. Having a Christian friend you admire makes the faith far more credible.
These three factors—like, unlike, and engaged—make up the foundation of what I call Christian relational integrity. Christians have relational integrity when they are integrated into the relational life of the city and when their faith is integrated into all parts of their lives. Why is Christian relational integrity important for evangelism and mission? Many churches think of evangelism almost strictly in terms of information transmission. But this is a mistake. Christian Smith’s book on young adult religion in the United States looks at the important minority of young adults who become much more religious during their twenties. The factors associated with such conversions are primarily significant personal relationships.(13)
Alan Kreider observes that early Christianity grew explosively—40 percent per decade for nearly three centuries—in a very hostile environment:
The early Christians did not engage in public preaching; it was too dangerous. There are practically no evangelists or missionaries whose names we know … The early Christians had no mission boards. They did not write treatises about evangelism … After Nero’s persecution in the mid-first century, the churches in the Roman Empire closed their worship services to visitors. Deacons stood at the churches’ doors, serving as bouncers, checking to see that no unbaptized person, no “lying informer,” could come in …
And yet the church was growing. Officially it was a superstition. Prominent people scorned it. Neighbors discriminated against the Christians in countless petty ways. Periodically the church was subjected to pogroms … It was hard to be a Christian … And still the church grew. Why?(14)
This striking way of laying out the early church’s social situation forces us to realize that the church must have grown because it was attractive. Kreider writes, “People were fascinated by it, drawn to it as to a magnet.” He goes on to make a strong historical case that Christians’ lives—their concern for the weak and the poor, their integrity in the face of persecution, their economic sharing, their sacrificial love even for their enemies, and the high quality of their common life together—attracted nonbelievers to the gospel. Once nonbelievers were attracted to the community by the lives of Christians, they became open to talking about the gospel truths that were the source of this kind of life.
Urban people today do not face the same kind of life-threatening dangers that they did in the Greco-Roman world—plagues, social chaos, and violence. In that environment, being in a loving community could literally mean the difference between life and death. But urban residents today still face many things that Christianity can address. They lack the hope in future progress and prosperity that past generations of secular people have had. They face a lonelier and more competitive environment than other generations have faced. The quality of our lives—marked by evident hope, love, poise, and integrity—has always been the necessary precondition for evangelism. But this has never been more necessary than it is today.(15)
Why is there so little relational integrity among believers? The answer is largely—though not wholly—motivational. People who are in the blend-in mode often lack courage. They are (rightly) concerned about losing influence, being persecuted in behind-the-scenes ways, or being penalized professionally. On the other hand, those who are in the bubble mode are unwilling to make the emotional, social, or even financial and physical investment in the people around them. Surprisingly, the Internet contributes to much of this. Technology now makes it possible for a person to move to a city and remain in touch with their Christian friends and family in other places, while unintentionally making it easier to ignore the people who are physically living around us. This can contribute to our reluctance to invest emotionally in people.
But this lack of motivation is not the only reason we fail to see laypeople doing evangelistic outreach. Many are highly motivated but still feel handcuffed by a lack of skill and know-how. They find that the questions their non-Christian friends ask about the faith very quickly stump them or even shake their own faith. They feel they can’t talk about the Christian faith with any kind of attractive force. This lack of skill and knowledge accentuates their lack of courage (they are afraid of being stumped) and even affects their compassion for others (they feel as though they won’t be of any real help). This leads us to consider the second necessary factor for effective lay ministry.
This excerpt is taken from Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Zondervan). Copyright © 2012 by Redeemer City to City and Timothy J. Keller. Used by permission of Zondervan.
For the rest of the excerpt, see Part 2: Pastoral Support, Safe Venues and Discussion Questions