Stop assuming your neighbors are hostile to your faith

By Trevin Wax

Some of the headlines are ominous. The value of religious liberty is on the decline. Many Americans consider normal Christian beliefs to be “extreme,” like Christianity’s foundational truths (such as, Jesus is the only way to God) or like Christianity’s moral vision (Jesus’s strict sexual ethic). In some quarters, our faith is no longer merely strange. It is bad. It is detrimental to a free and pluralistic society.

The evil one would love nothing more than to have these recent developments shut up Christians and stir up in us a fear of rejection.

The temptation to stay quiet
The Christian that knows only to bemoan the state of society is the Christian that will succumb to silence. Love for God and love for others must conquer fear.

We must not assume that our unchurched friends and neighbors are hostile to our faith. When we believe the myth that everyone hates us, we tend to retreat to our closets where our lamps are hidden under bowls. We equate faithfulness with maintenance rather than mission.

Open to conversations
The idea that the unchurched are hostile is simply untrue. A new survey from LifeWay Research and Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism shows that people are more likely to be indifferent to organized religion, not hostile.

We need to do away with that old saying that Americans don’t discuss politics and religion in polite company. Research shows most of your friends and family who don’t attend church are either (1) willing to listen to you talk about your faith or (2) will engage you in conversation.

  • Almost half (47 percent) say they discuss religion freely if the topic comes up.
  • A third (31 percent) say they listen without responding, while 11 percent change the subject.
  • Only about a third (35 percent) say someone has ever explained the benefits of being a Christian to them.

Open to invitations
People are open to conversations about religion. They’re also open to invitations to church.

  • About two-thirds (62 percent) would attend a church meeting about neighborhood safety.
  • Half would take part in a community service event (51 percent), concert (45 percent), sports or exercise program (46 percent), or neighborhood get-together (45 percent) at a church.
  • Fewer are interested in attending a worship service (35 percent), recovery group (25 percent) or seminar on a spiritual topic (24 percent) if invited.

Your neighbors may not be interested in your church’s worship service, but they’re not averse to attending other church-wide functions.

In an anti-institutional culture, a church does not gain clout simply by its status; it earns clout through its service to the community. Not surprisingly, people are more likely to attend extracurricular church activities than a worship service. Personal spirituality and community contribution take precedent over the functions of organized religion.

As we consider this research, we can either bemoan the lack of interest in a church service, or we can step up our outreach and consider new ways of engaging people in our neighborhoods.

Why not invite people in to see how Christians are salt and light?

Why not show the ways the church invests in the surrounding community?

In our time, seeing the church at work will often precede seeing the church at worship.

Questions about the meaning of life
Unchurched people are open to conversations about God and invitations to church. But what will these conversations consist of?

More than half of unchurched Americans are interested in the big questions of life, and a sizeable majority believe it is important to discover your deeper purpose. If we are to be faithful Christians in this, our time, we must consider the questions about direction and purpose that nag at the people in our community.

  • What is the point of everything?
  • Why are we on earth?
  • What does “the good life” look like?

We should start with the questions people are asking.

Questions about the life beyond
But what about what happens when we die? Will we go to heaven or hell? What does the future hold? If you died tonight, where would you go?

  • Just under half (43 percent) say they never ponder that last question.
  • One in 5 (20 percent) isn’t sure the last time that question came to mind.
  • Three in 10 (29 percent) say they ask that question on at least a monthly basis.

Let’s not miss what these stats show us. Three out of ten people say they regularly wonder about this question. To overreact to these statistics and, “No one is interested in talking about matters of heaven and hell” is to miss the fact that nearly 30 percent are asking that question. That number may be smaller than we would hope, but it’s still significant.

On the other hand, in our evangelism, we have to reckon with the reality that 1 out of 2 people we meet never ask that question at all. There can no longer be a “one-size-fits-all” method of evangelism. We need multiple strategies for engaging unchurched people with the good news.

The gospel gives answers . . . and questions
The gospel must provide answers to the questions people are asking. But the gospel also must provide certain questions that people need to ask, but don’t.

When we engage in spiritual conversations, we should use people’s questions as the starting point for evangelism, and then open up the full-orbed understanding of Scripture, which will include biblically faithful questions. We can begin where the culture is, answer the questions the culture is asking, and then move forward to the answers and questions that arise from a biblical worldview.

Take heart, Christians. Your friends and neighbors may be indifferent to your faith, but they’re probably not hostile. And the best way to engage someone who is indifferent to the gospel is to show the difference it makes—in individual lives, in churches and in our communities.

This post was originally published on The Gospel Coalition.

Published September 15, 2016

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Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher for LifeWay Christian Resources and has served as managing editor of The Gospel Project, and author of Clear Winter Nights, Gospel-Centered Teaching, Counterfeit Gospels, and Holy Subversion. He has served in pastoral roles in the United States and in Romania. He and his wife Corina live in middle Tennessee with their three children.