A friend was telling me this week about a discipleship sermon series and small-group class his church has been going through to reset its congregation-wide vision to be more intentional about reaching the lost for Christ. He mentioned a discussion during his small-group meeting in which members were reviewing what the curriculum had identified as “the four Ps” of discipleship: proclamation of the Word of God; prayerful dependence on the Spirit of God; acting on the truth people are God’s fellow workers; and persevering, step by step.
One of the members of the group said he thought there should be a fifth P– permission.
He wasn’t saying, my friend told me, that we have to ask the somewhat awkward question, “May I tell you about Jesus?” to everyone we witness to. The point the man was trying to make is that there is a step before proclamation: having a relationship with the person you’re telling about Jesus that inclines them to listen to you. This is the reason why it is not the most effective evangelism strategy to stand on a street corner with a sign calling passersby to repent. A stranger without permission – some non-P words would be “connection” or “invitation” or “relationship” – has a high bar to clear to have even his or her most compelling case for Christ heard.
At Groundwire and its associated ministries, we establish that relationship, earn that permission, by reaching out in real time online to young people who have expressed feeling lost or in crisis and pain on social media. We send videos directly to their devices that offer a hopeful perspective, that invite them to engage in conversation with one of our global coaches – who show them someone cares and, as the conversation progresses, let them know who that Someone is.
A similar approach works in interactions with those in our spheres of influence:
- Listen to their hearts. One of the things we’ve discovered at Groundwire is that the young men and women we help aren’t worried about going to hell; they feel they are going through hell. Their lives are filled with sadness, loneliness, disappointment and fear. They feel hopeless, like no one cares, and helpless to do anything about it. We meet them when they express those feelings online – but we all can meet them in the RW (social media shorthand for “real world”) when we take the time and effort to really see and hear them. And reach out with a simple word that lets them know we care. Remember, you don’t need to start proclaiming immediately that Jesus loves them; first let them know that you care about them. Ask them how they’re doing, what they’re going through. Really listen and ask follow-up questions that get to the root of what they’re saying. What happened to make them feel the way they feel? Have their negative feelings and emotions intensified lately? Why? Focus on gathering as much of this information as you can rather than immediately launching into offering solutions.
- Show them you care. Just listening with attention and intention will make them feel validated. Go deeper on that front by sharing your own struggles. We all feel unsure sometimes. Scared. Sad. Depressed. The wattage of those feelings may have been higher or lower for us than for them, but we know how they feel. Make sure they know that. Honestly, transparently discussing your own struggles with hanging on to hope lets them know they are not alone. A friend of mine who has an alcoholic past talks about his reticence and resistance walking into his first AA meeting. There was no way, he thought, that a room full of strangers could understand his pain. But as he sat there silently and heard speaker after speaker talk about things he’d done and emotions he’d felt, the chip on his shoulder slowly slipped off. He was open to receive the hope and healing offered by the others who shared. Those strangers stopped being strangers and became people he realized could offer him a lifeline.
- Offer them help. This is where the prayerful dependence on the Spirit of God needs to take over. As you continue your engagement of the hurting unbeliever, whether it takes several months or just several more minutes, be attuned to the opportunity to naturally introduce Jesus into the conversation. Discuss not only His deity and power, His love and mercy, but also the ways in which those things have impacted your life, how they help you daily to live with hope even in times of hardship. Extend to them any practical assistance you feel led to offer. Allow your words and actions to be guided by 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
There is no formula to telling a non-Christian about Christ – let alone being part of God’s work in drawing them into relationship with Himself. Yet ensuring you have earned the right to proclaim the Truth by actively pursuing the relational permission to do so is a transformational place to start.
Sean Dunn is founder and president of Groundwire, a global ministry with the mission to lead every youth and young adult into a personal relationship with Jesus by leveraging current media channels to connect with them wherever they are. More than 116,000 made commitments to Christ through the organization’s efforts in 2020. For more information, visit www.groundwire.net.