What does it mean to be on mission for God? Evangelicals are asking this question more often in a culture that seems increasingly inhospitable to Christian witness. So words like missional and incarnational are all the rage, driving people to think holistically (another buzz word) about their presence in a particular local community.
These discussions are good because they help equip God’s people to fulfill the Great Commission in our time. And yet I wonder if we often complicate the task of making disciples. Sometimes our evangelism language is so stilted and academic that it paralyzes everyday Christians from utilizing what may be their most important asset: their own God-given personalities.
Evangelism can be challenging because it confronts lost people with their own alienation from God. However, sometimes spiritual conversations are difficult because we get unnecessarily awkward. Some of this is because we’ve often reduced evangelism to a single transaction: communicating some gospel-themed material to another person and asking for a decision. So we try something ungraceful, like shoving a tract into the hand of an unsuspecting train rider, abruptly injecting an invitation to trust Christ into a casual chat with a neighbor, or firing off a misguided email, without context, to a long-lost relative.
At times these methods work. I know folks who became Christians from this kind of fly-by evangelism. But conversions usually result from deliberate, genuine friendship building. This involves intentionally inserting ourselves in environments where unbelievers are present. It includes leveraging our natural human talents to find common ground and build friendships. It requires patience, not trying to “close the deal” but coming alongside, seeking a person’s good, and learning to grow in relationship.
I’ve seen this work well in my own neighborhood. Even though we live in the Bible Belt, our community is religiously diverse. We’ve recently struck up a good friendship with our Muslim neighbors. Our kids play together. We have invited them to our parties. And we’ve had deep, long, meaningful chats about Christianity and Islam. This happened not because I confronted them with a tract, but because we took time to build a relationship.
Proverbs 18:24 (KJV) reminds us that friendships are built because people are … friendly. Normal. Human. Earthy. Relationships aren’t built by a one-plus-one-equals-two formula. The best ones are organic, with a sharing of interests and kindnesses, and a willingness to grow and learn from each other in mutually beneficial ways. This means we share meals, cry over losses, discuss hurts and pains. We walk through life side by side.
Evangelicals tend to overcomplicate this, as if “spiritual conversations” are on a different and mystical level. But when we present ourselves to others, we don’t simply bring the churchy part of who we are; we bring our whole selves, body and spirit. We bring our unique God-given personalities and emotions. We bring our experiences, backgrounds, and heritages as well as our biases, weaknesses, and preferences. Our mission is not simply to transmit a pre-scripted set of propositions but to live and share the grand story, contextualized for our own time and place.
The church isn’t made up of people who all look, sound, and act like each other. If it is, we’re doing something wrong.
To be a Christian on mission means we are distinct from the world; we represent a different kingdom, with its own counter-cultural values. But that doesn’t mean we’re somehow less than human. In reality, Christ-followers should be more fully so. We are new creations, who have experienced restoration and are showing the world what it really is to be human.
The church, then, isn’t made up of people who all look, sound, and act like each other. If it is, we’re doing something wrong. God is interested not in homogeneity but in creating a church that’s an outpost of His kingdom—a diverse hodgepodge of abilities, backgrounds, races, and tribes. To be conformed to Christ’s image is not to be conformists. God’s recreated image in us looks different from soul to soul.
When we intentionally build relationships with our neighbors and coworkers, we should worry less about acting out some kind of cookie-cutter Christian existence and more about being our imperfect, in-process selves. It’s incarnational, it’s missional—yes. But at the most basic level, disciple making is simply being human.
Illustration by Christian Northeast