The conversation was going great. I was at the office of a local specialist for a minor procedure, and this was my first (and only) visit.
When she asked me what I did for a living, I mentioned that I’m a pastor to people in healthcare. While I didn’t think anything of it, she abruptly stiffened. I forgot my pocket thermometer that day, but I’m pretty sure the room temperature dropped about 30 degrees.
The conversation was over. She did the procedure, forced a courteous smile, then quickly left the room.
I can’t be certain, of course, but clearly bringing up the idea of God was unsettling for her. I’ve had enough interactions like this to know that way too many people have had bad experiences with the church. And, people like me who are members.
Maybe you’re one of them. But even if you’re not, you know people who are. Although our secular and skeptical friends bring their own issues to the table, as Christians we often contribute to the problem.
How can we relate to people in a way that allows them to meet the real Jesus? Instead of a carnival-mirror version that repels them?
The Place To Begin
The answer can be found by watching Jesus himself. Just watch him at work anywhere in the Gospels. Today, let’s take a look at Luke 5:27-32, where Jesus calls Levi (also known as Matthew) to be his disciple and then hangs out with Levi’s friends at a party.
Here’s the passage for easy reference:
27 After this [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Here are 6 ways we can invite people to take the next step on their journey with Jesus.
(Quick note: some of my secular friends have had bad experiences with Christians being pushy and ‘trying to convert’ them. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about Christians living with integrity so that their secular friends get an accurate picture of Jesus and can learn more if they’d like to).
And now, back to our regularly-scheduled programming.
1. We need to move toward people who have questionable morality. Levi was not the kind of guy you’d like your daughter to marry. He was a sellout. A Jew collecting taxes – and undoubtedly more than his share – for the hated Roman government ruling Israel at the time. But Jesus doesn’t avoid or merely tolerate him. He moves toward him (see verse 27).
2. We don’t need to focus on what’s wrong with other people. A lot of our secular friends think that they need to clean themselves up before they can come to Jesus. That they have to be ‘good enough for God’ before he’ll have them. Part of that is our natural tendency, but part of the fault lies in how the church has portrayed God. We say we believe that Jesus loves us despite our sins and failures, but we live like being perfect is what matters. (This is one of my biggest struggles). Jesus could have called Levi out on a million things, but he didn’t. He invited Levi into a relationship with him first and trusted that change would come later, within the relationship. (It did).
3. We need to go where people are, even if it’s uncomfortable. Notice how Jesus, right after inviting Levi to be his disciple (‘follow me’), goes and hangs out with his friends at a big party Levi threw. Like Levi, many of his guests weren’t model citizens. They were other ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (30), people who were clearly not living the way God had laid out for Israel. The religious leaders rejected people like this (see v.30) and kept their distance, but Jesus embraced them while still acknowledging they needed help (they were ‘sick’).
It’s really easy to act more like the religious leaders than Jesus. I was at a party some time ago and people had naturally divided up into groups with others who were like them. (Like we usually do). I can remember wanting to reach out to people in the other groups, but feeling afraid to go first and put myself out there. If Jesus had been at that party, I think he would have taken the risk and done what I didn’t.
4. We need to spend informal time with people. It’s significant that Jesus went to a party. It gave him relaxed, informal time with Levi’s guests where they could really get to know each other. But informal times like this also scare us because we don’t know what to expect. Who will say what. What the ‘rules’ are. If we’ll be accepted. But when we realize that Jesus has accepted us, it gives us courage to stick our necks out there a little bit and move toward others in love.
5. We need to integrate truth with grace. On the one hand, Jesus isn’t pushy. He didn’t grab a bullhorn, stand on a table, and yell, ‘Repent! I’m coming back, you know!’ On the other hand, he understood that many of Levi’s guests were still ‘sick’ and in need of a spiritual ‘physician’. Of him. The Apostle Paul says that every one of us is naturally separated from God and in need of a Savior (Romans 3:23). So Jesus was always looking for opportunities to invite people into a relationship with God through faith in himself.
We should model this balance when we spend time with people, too. We don’t need to be pushy or manipulate people into something they don’t want. But we need to understand that, like us, people need Jesus. This means we should be asking God to show people who he is through us. As we spend time with them, we should look for signs of spiritual hunger and opportunities to point them to Jesus where they can find life.
6. Look around you. Sometimes we feel like we need to go on a missions trip or do something extraordinary (or worse, awkward or weird) to introduce others to Christ. We don’t. Like Levi, we should just look around us, see who God has put in our lives, then spend time with them and ask God to work through us. The results are up to him. Pressure off – for you and the people you meet.
None of this is easy, of course. I fail at this way more than I succeed. But the story of Jesus using Levi – of all people – to invite others into a relationship with him reminds us that he wants to use us, too.
Let’s Live It Out: What principle from the passage above would most help you introduce the people around you to Jesus? Share it with us in the comments below!