Last year I took a class at Covenant Seminary called Apologetics and Outreach taught by Jerram Barrs (he has spoken at the last two Lux conferences). The class is about how best to communicate the Gospel to unbelievers in a meaningful, relevant, and winsome way. But recently he made a change.
He used to explain to students that our job as believers was to “build bridges” with unbelievers, but upon further reflection he thought it better to say that our job as believers is to “cooperate with God” in the ways He is at work in the lives unbelievers. You see, the first statement can make it seem as though we as believers have to figure out how to, for lack of a better phrase, break ground in an unbeliever’s life so God can start to work in their life. But that isn’t right.
That assumes God is not at work in the lives of unbelievers, and that is the furthest from the truth (Mt. 5:45). He does not need anyone of us to do His work for him. If He wants someone to believe in the Gospel, He can make that happen without us. But the reality is that He has been at work in their hearts every day of their life.
The question we need to first ask when relating with non-Christians is not how can I start building, but how can I start cooperating?
Volumes have been written on this subject. And while there is a big circle of unwise, ineffective ways to relate with these group members, there is also a big circle of wise, effective ways to relate with them and begin to cooperate with the ways God is working.
Cooperating with God involves our actions as well as our words – it is never an either or. While no one’s lives are perfect, I think many students I’ve talked to use their actions extremely well. However, for a number of reasons I’ve seen it is more unnatural and intimidating for students to actually tell someone about an aspect of the gospel.
So in an effort to overcome these fears, the following are some ways to cooperate with what God is doing in unbeliever’s lives verbally:
Affirm truth. All truth is God’s truth no matter where it is seen. So if you have some unbelieving friends who are passionate about stopping social injustice, commend them for it. The desire to see those injustices stopped was placed there by God. If you know an unbeliever who works in order to help pay for expenses at home, commend them for it. That is a costly sacrifice and their desire to do it comes from God.
Mourn sadness. Everyone knows what it is like to feel shame and sadness. If you have an unbelieving friend who just lost someone they love, express your deepest sympathy – maybe even cry with them.
Extend invitations. It is crucial that we do not simply affirm truth without explaining where it came from, or mourn sadness without explaining why it is sad. Explain to them that God is passionate about caring for the oppressed. Help them understand that God hates it when loved ones die, or even the fact that God Himself wept (John 11:35)! To invite our unbelieving friends to participate in the joy we have of worshiping God is to mirror the actions of Jesus over and over.
God is not waiting for us to break ground in an unbeliever’s life so He can start working. God is waiting for us to cooperate with Him in the ways He is already at work.