Point of View: Lifestyle evangelism requires us to first love our neighbors

Article Date: Jul 12, 2014

Serving in West Virginia and Iowa for a total of 26 years—both new-work states and states where Southern Baptists are considered newcomers to the culture—my wife, Cheryl, and I became people who thought and behaved like missionaries. Kevin Bumgarner’s May 22 editorial, “It’s time to stop avoiding our non-Christian neighbors,” feels like a call for your readers to become people who think like missionaries.

Thanks for issuing the call. I hope some folks catch the vision from your clear article. It may be difficult for them to do so. Here’s why I think you are swimming against the current.
You are basically asking Southern Baptists to draw a mental picture of an animal they have rarely—if ever—seen. If I asked my granddaughter to draw a picture of her grandmother, she could go to work quickly and create an image that would be filled with clues regarding how she views my wife. If I asked her to draw a picture of something she had never seen with her own eyes, she would have no clue where to begin.
Lifestyle evangelism is mystifying to most Southern Baptists. Ask them to tell you the plan of salvation and many of them will be able to provide you enough information that it will be obvious they have the “theology” to lead someone to God’s offer of salvation. But living a lifestyle that leads to opportunities to talk about spiritual issues is as hard for them as asking my granddaughter to draw a picture of something she has never seen.
There are difficult introspective questions Christians have to come to grips with if they choose to become lifestyle evangelists. For example, if my neighbor is a Muslim, am I willing to adjust my time commitments for the rest of my life, if necessary, in order to be that person’s friend, to walk through life’s ups and downs with them, to put up with their self-absorption, values that are significantly different than mine and the frowns of self-righteous Christians who believe “we should come out from among the sinners” lest we become like them?
An even more difficult question to answer for most Christians is, “Am I willing to go to all this trouble for someone even if they make it obvious they are content with their current religious views and knowing that it is highly unlikely that I will live long enough to see them become Christ followers?”
In today’s culture, spending a lot of time with unsaved people who “don’t bite the first time the bait is dangled in front of them” just looks like a waste of time to the average Christian. To my wife and I it looks like the obedient action of Christ followers whose Savior commissioned us to be His witnesses.
We have lived and served in a denomination that has placed results ahead of obedience when it comes to its promotion of evangelism. At this point in our history the animal most of our church members can draw mental pictures of is virtually extinct. They can describe “door-to-door evangelism methods,” but they cannot figure out how to open the doors.
We have sent the message that the basic task of Christians is to be “soul winners” when the Savior’s mandate is to bear witness to the power of the Gospel to transform lives as we live among the people who still need to be changed.
Cheryl and I have always tried to be good neighbors. Sometimes that has opened doors. Other times the neighbors simply locked us out of their lives for their own reasons. We didn’t let their behavior become our excuse for becoming insensitive or thoughtless toward their spiritual need. We just lived with the fact that we were supposed to witness when we could by being kind and offering spiritual remarks in less threatening ways.
In those situations we were feeling something that I didn’t understand for a long time. It was simply the well-known phenomena of receptivity. Those particular neighbors were not receptive to us or the Gospel for their own unique reasons. I could not block them out of my life. So I tried not to offend them. I tried to remain connected by talking to them.
Other neighbors have been more open and receptive. In those places, we made conscious decisions to include our neighbors in social activities. After a few years of being a good neighbor, being friendly and taking responsibility for working on behalf of our little community, we decided to host a 40 Days of Purpose video Bible study in our home.  We invited all our neighbors and a majority came. That became a doorway to other opportunities to be witnesses.
In the neighborhood where we live now, there are almost 1,300 houses. It is not a gated community, but it does not allow solicitors. That means that door-to-door canvassing is illegal in our development.
That has not stopped us from being good neighbors, building relationships with the folks who live near us and inviting them into our lives on a regular basis.
We have next-door neighbors who are the Muslim example I alluded to earlier. When we moved in, they approached us first. They had noticed that we had a crew of a dozen or more adults who had worked with us to prepare the foreclosure property we had purchased so that it would be in move-in condition when the van arrived with our possessions from West Virginia. They came over to offer us the loan of a coffeemaker and some dishes until we could unpack. I’m sure they wanted to see who we were and we were impressed that they were able to make contact with us so quickly. Christians should be so alert!
Soon after we moved in we returned their items, thanked them and began building a friendship. It has now been 5½ years and we are very close friends. They are still unsaved but in the ensuing years I have taught both of them the history of the Bible and why we rely fully upon its message to guide our lives. I have done a verse-by-verse study with them of the Gospel of John. We have talked repeatedly about the exclusivity of the Gospel.
Early in our dozens of evenings of witnessing to them, Cheryl and I made one very important point to them which we meant with all of our heart. We said to them both, “If you never choose to become Christ followers as we have chosen to do long ago, you will always be our forever friends. We will love you until the day we die. We would rejoice if you chose to follow Christ as your Lord but our friendship does not hinge upon that decision.”
Because we love them in truth, they know it in truth.  It makes all the difference in the world. We eat out together and I am free to pray for them when I pray for the food. We can discuss spiritual issues as freely with them as any other subject because they know we love them and want the best for them.
In summary, Southern Baptists and Christians in general are failing to simply love their neighbors by opening their lives to them. You cannot probe the depths of a lost adult’s soul if they do not know that you love them for unselfish reasons. If they believe you are trying to enlist them to add to your denominational statistical report, they will not believe your message. They need to see love in our eyes instead.
Dr. John Adams is a deacon and adult Sunday School teacher at First Baptist Sweetwater in Longwood.

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