I stood next to him in the baptistery and listened to him make his confession of faith. In a matter of days, he would be headed back home to his native Turkey where living out his new faith would be challenging at best. Before we walked into the water, I looked at Emir (not his real name) and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?” He responded with an unwavering “yes,” but it was the look of determination in his eyes that told me everything I needed to know.
When I was ordained 40 years earlier, I read several good books on evangelism but not one of them that I recall offered anything relevant about reaching people in 2018. As a matter of fact, at the time of my ordination I had never met a Muslim or anyone from Turkey. And here I was, at Emir’s request, baptizing him into Christ. Honestly, I had very little to do with Emir’s conversion to Christianity. The influences that changed his life came from folks in our congregation who had befriended and discipled him along the way. Knowing that made Emir’s baptism even more joyful.
A Wonderful Life
A year ago, the church building was used during the Christmas season for a local theatrical production of It’s a Wonderful Life. A couple of our members were in the cast, but for the most part the actors came from non-church backgrounds. The cast members from church opened their hearts and lives as we opened the building to this production. Steve played the role of the absent-minded Uncle Billy but was a bit more like old man Potter in his attitude toward church and faith-related issues. But something happened during that production; Steve’s heart changed. He started asking questions, attending worship services, and growing in faith all because of the way he had been treated by the Christians in the acting troop. It wasn’t long until he was baptized into Christ. I don’t think he’s missed a Sunday since. Today, Steve would tell you that it really is a wonderful life.
John grew up in post-Christian central England with merely a cultural faith in God. His grandmother died with cancer when John was a young teen and that’s when John lost any semblance of faith. He became an atheist who relied on science for his answers. John married a young lady from America and when they moved to Bloomington, she asked him to attend church with her. John reluctantly agreed but was surprised by what he discovered. As John tells it, “I found something I had not realized existed—intelligent Christians! Ones that could answer questions logically, scientifically, and calmly.” For the next four years, the questions flowed as John sought genuine, honest answers. His life intersected with multiple people at church who responded to his inquiries with sincere interest and encouragement. And then the moment came when John made his commitment to follow Christ. Today John passionately leads a couple of our seeker groups; he understands their struggles because he was one of them just a few years ago. John recently told one of his groups, “You will never be able to answer all the questions you have to the satisfaction you would prefer, and yes, it will take some amount of faith to make that final step, but when it is taking more faith to continue to be a non-believer, then it’s probably time!”
Loving International Students
For the last 19 years, Carthell and Peggy Everett have opened their home, a beautifully converted barn, to international students who have journeyed to Bloomington to attend Indiana University. I know they’ve hosted people from at least 36 different countries, many of whom are now back in their own native lands. Students from Korea, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, and more have also found a spiritual refuge with the Everetts—a safe place to explore faith issues that perhaps they cannot in their own countries. And many have been baptized before returning home with their new-found faith. These new disciples must tread lightly as they return. Thailand is only 1 percent Christian and China, officially, is only 2 percent. One of their Chinese friends was baptized and doesn’t mind if the whole word knows. Such boldness makes even more sense when one realizes he was a victim during the infamous Tiananmen Square incident in 1989.
Perhaps, by this time, you have picked up on some common themes and practical wisdom in these stories. Here are just a few.
Don’t expect the church staff to be the most effective tool in the discipleship toolbox. The ministerial staff is better at equipping disciple makers than being disciple makers. It isn’t a lack of desire but the “clergy” baggage we carry makes a skeptic even more skeptical. Ministers are expected to believe and teach certain principles; they are paid to recruit the seeker. Consequently, when Christian coworkers, next-door neighbors, or friends speak up regarding their faith, they have more credibility.
Relational discipleship is the principal way others will come to Christ. The Saturday morning, cold-turkey, knock-on-doors-and-invite-people-to-church campaigns just don’t seem to work in our current culture. True confession: I was never comfortable doing that—it just felt awkward. I know how I feel when a stranger comes knocking on my door and I don’t want others viewing me with the same suspicion. Today’s culture is looking for relational authenticity and that doesn’t usually begin with a gospel tract and a firm knock on the front door.
Relationships Lead to Discipleship
In my experience, most Christians sincerely want to make disciples, but in our attempt to carry out the Lord’s departing words, we’ve complicated the simple and overorganized what should come naturally. Christians don’t need a complex plan of action; they just need to be relational. And when it comes to building relationships with the hope of “making disciples,” here are a few musts:
- Look for common ground. Whenever I meet someone who likes antique cars, airplanes, or wood working, I feel an immediate bond. Common interests, experiences, and travel destinations make for good relational starting points.
- Listen more, talk less. Be interested in who they are. Most people like telling their stories so be genuinely interested in their story and quest for faith.
- Be compassionate. Practice the golden rule, treat others as you would want to be treated. Accept them where they are in their spiritual walk and gently lead from that point.
- Be patient. Genuine relationships are not built overnight. Don’t rush the spiritual discussions. Let God’s Spirit move the person’s heart at the right time.
Don’t Do This
In addition, there are some relationship killers to avoid at all costs:
- Don’t make up answers. If you don’t know the answer, don’t panic. Simply admit your lack of knowledge and search together for an answer. Besides, your new friend is probably more interested in your faith story than your theological perspective on the differences between pre- and postmillennialism.
- Don’t become defensive if your new friend makes disparaging comments about the Bible or church or the Christian faith. Here again is where patience is a virtue.
- Don’t do this on your own—build on a foundation of prayer. It is the Lord and the Holy Spirit who convict. We are but his instruments.
And please, don’t give up if it seems you aren’t making spiritual progress quickly. This is not a project. This is a relationship that will hopefully last . . . forever.
Elan Rajamani, one of our deacons, was instrumental in helping a young man from Taiwan who had numerous doubts about Christianity compared to his native Buddhism. Elan introduced him to other young Christians, brought him to church, and spent two years discipling him. The seed of truth was planted and God gave the increase. Anthony was baptized and is now a law professor back home in Taiwan. More importantly, he’s teaching multiple Bible studies through his local church. Who knows how many others we’ll meet in eternity because Elan took the time to build a relationship with an unlikely prospect?
Tom Ellsworth is in his 38th year as senior minister of the Sherwood Oaks Christian Church in Bloomington, Indiana. He and his wife Elsie have two married daughters and six grandchildren.