According to Matthew 28:18-20, our goal as believers is to lead people to become obedient and reproducing disciples of Jesus Christ. Sounds simple. We have the answer and eternal hope that people need. So, we should just tell them that their sinful living is wrong and that a life of faith is right, right? It doesn't always work that way.
Sometimes in our human nature, we get caught up in being "right" and forget about just sharing the "light." We may offend and turn people off with our good intentions.
But Jesus Christ demonstrated four principles for winning people instead of just winning arguments.
• Engage with those who hold opposing points of view. I love the story about the woman who was confiding to her next-door neighbor about her husband: "George is driving me crazy with his obsession with fishing. Every day after work he comes home, runs to the bathroom, puts on his waders, hops in the bathtub, and starts fishing out of the commode."
"That's terrible," the neighbor responded. "Have you taken him to a psychiatrist?"
"No," the woman signed, "I've been too busy cleaning fish."
Here's the simple truth. If you want to catch fish, you have to go where the fish are. Jesus understood that principle. As an avid Fisherman of men and women, Jesus went where the people were. In the opening verse of John 4, the apostle recorded, "[Jesus] left Judea and went away again into Galilee. And He had to pass through Samaria" (verses 3-4).
Had to pass through Samaria? Why? There were certainly other routes Jesus could have taken from Judea to the northern region of Galilee. But Jesus "had to pass through Samaria" because He had a divine appointment with a potential new "catch" for His kingdom. Instead of hanging out in a monastery with His disciples, Jesus was regularly hitting the pavement recruiting new converts. During the three brief years He spent here on earth, His goal was not isolation, but influence. And He urged us to adopt the same mind-set as well: "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?...You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden" (Matthew 5:13-14).
In Jesus' day salt was a highly valued commodity used not only to add flavor to food but also to preserve the food in days when refrigeration was unavailable. However, for salt to perform its job, it had to come into contact with the food. At the same time it was imperative that the salt not be diluted or it would become worthless and be thrown away.
Some Christians so identify with the world that they lose their "saltiness" and become worthless to God's kingdom. Other Christians, fearful of contamination by the culture, go to the opposite extreme and isolate themselves form unbelievers. They huddle together in churches, Christian schools, and fellowship groups, hoping to insulate themselves against any contact with unbelievers that might corrupt them.
But Jesus discourages us from either identifying with or isolating ourselves from our culture. Instead, He urges us to influence our world. And we can do that only when we come into contact with unbelievers-up close and personal.
• Listen to other people's stories. They way we influence others is not by cornering them and then dumping our "stuff" on them. Instead of unloading our spiritual dump truck of arguments and answers to unasked questions, we need to carefully listen to the person we are trying to influence. An insurance salesman friend told me, "A good salesman learns to listen — really listen — to a potential customer." Why? "By listening you learn his interests, his needs, and his potential objections to your product."
It is significant that Jesus did not begin His discussion with the Samaritan woman by asking, "If you were to stand before God and He were to ask you, 'Why should I let you into my kingdom?' what would you say?" Instead, He began with a topic of interest to her: water. She had a need for water, and from her felt need, Jesus was able to offer her something much better that would satisfy her spiritual thirst (John 4:13-14).
Everyone has a story to tell, and we must be willing to listen — really listen — to that story without judging.
• Distinguish between major and minor issues. The only essential belief a person must embrace to receive eternal life is that Christ died for his sins. Belief in a literal hell is not necessary for salvation. Nor must a person accept that homosexuality is a perversion, that evolution is a myth, or that the husband is head of the family to be welcomed into God's presence. That doesn't mean that we don't deem the other beliefs to be important; instead, we put them in perspective just as Jesus did. Even though the Samaritan woman was living in an immoral relationship, Jesus did not argue the merits of sexual abstinence with her. When she attempted to sidetrack Jesus with a theological argument concerning the proper temple in which to worship God, Jesus ignored the question and focused on a more important issue: the woman's personal relationship with God.
Similarly, we should not expect people to accept the truths we believe in without their first embracing the One who called Himself the Truth.
• Reflect the love of Christ. A debater's goal is to win the argument. A disciple's goal is to win the person. I've discovered the hard way that it is possible to win the battle of words, but lose the war over a person's soul by being unnecessarily harsh. Many non-Christians have rejected the gospel not because of the offense of the Cross, but because of the offensiveness of Christians. Gandhi once observed, "I might be persuaded to become a Christian...if I ever met one."
The Samaritan woman was ultimately drawn not to dogma, but to a Person. When she ran into the city to tell people what had happened to her, she did not shout, "come and listen to these ideas that have changed my mind," but "Come, see a Man who has changed my life!" (John 4:29 paraphrased). Our ultimate objective is not to attract people to our ideas, but to our Savior.
Arthur Burns was a Washington power broker who served as chairman of the Federal Reserve, as ambassador to West Germany, and in other prominent positions from the 1960s through the 1980s. He was a counselor and confidant to a number of U.S. presidents during his career. Arthur Burns was also Jewish.
That is why his regular attendance at a weekly Bible study and prayer meeting at the White House in the 1970s was a surprise to many. Although he was warmly welcomed, different members of the group who took turns leading the meetings never called on him to pray.
One week, however, a newcomer leading the group asked Arthur Burns to close in prayer. The other members shot a glance at one another, wondering how Burns would respond to this awkward situation. Burns never hesitated. Instead, he joined hands with the others in the group, bowed his head, and prayed, "Lord, I pray that you would bring Jews to know Jesus Christ. I pray that you would bring Muslims to know Jesus Christ. Finally, Lord, I pray that you would bring Christians to know Jesus Christ. Amen."
The more we know — and reflect — the loving compassion of Jesus Christ, the more we will influence others to say not to hell and yes to heaven.
(Excerpt from the book "Hell? Yes!...And Other Outrageous Truths You Can Still Believe" by Dr. Robert Jeffress.)