I'd heard through the grapevine that two coworkers, Martha and Maria Claudia, had expressed some interest in spiritual things. So I dropped by their office one day and said, "Hi! I've been meaning to ask you both: Would you be interested in reading the Bible with me?" They looked at each other, then back at me, and said yes.
I was surprised by their enthusiasm. When I didn't get back to them as soon as they expected, they called me to find out when we could start!
From the beginning, they loved it. Their initial nervousness evolved into excitement as they discovered the Bible is relevant to everyday life. By the second or third week, they were captivated by Jesus. Within about eight weeks, they had a clear understanding of salvation by faith. That was eight years ago. Both continue to walk with Jesus today and remain my friends. And it all started with a simple invitation to read the Bible together.
Of course, not all my experiences of reading Scripture with non-Christians have been so dramatic. I've endured plenty of no-shows and disappointments. I've met with some nonbelieving friends for years, and they don't seem to get it. Nevertheless, I've come to believe looking at the Scriptures with non-Christians is one of the most powerful ways we can help them to see Jesus. Here are the main lessons I've learned about how to start reading the Bible with spiritual seekers.
When I first heard about reading the Word with nonbelievers in Jim Petersen's book Living Proof, it seemed like a strange idea. Wasn't the Bible for believers? I didn't think non-Christians would be interested in learning what it says. But when I experimented with the idea, I was amazed by what happened.
Reading the Bible with my nonbelieving friends fosters a level of spiritual interaction that falls somewhere between casual friendship and an invitation to church. It creates a comfortable environment in which they can begin to look at Jesus, ask questions, and talk about life issues.
Reading together also exposes people directly to the power of Scripture. The God who encourages, convicts, corrects, and sometimes bowls you over with his Word can do the same in an unbeliever's life. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord said, "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud … My word that goes out from my mouth … will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:10-11).
I don't know what all my friends go through, or what they think—but God does. And I've seen him use Scripture to meet their needs, quell their fears, and dispel their misconceptions.
As Hebrews 4:12 says, "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."
Scripture can touch my friends' hearts in a way I may never be able to.
How do you go about introducing people to the Bible? As I get to know a neighbor or coworker, I look for non-threatening opportunities to talk about my convictions and identify their source as the Bible. After I've told someone I rely on the Bible to guide me in life, I follow up by casually suggesting we read it together. That step may seem like a big leap, but I've found it's a natural progression.
With my neighbor and walking buddy, Flor, it went something like this: During a conversation about our husbands and marriage, I told her, "You know, Mauricio (my husband) and I love to read the Bible together. It's amazing how it helps us with our relationship problems. If you're interested, we'd enjoy reading it with you and Guillermo. We could light a fire in the fireplace, make some munchies, talk about what's happening in our lives, and then read a small portion of the Bible together and talk about it." So far they haven't taken us up on this offer, but I'm confident the seed I've sown eventually will sprout.
I've learned it's important to present this idea as "reading" the Bible, not "studying" the Bible. For most nonbelievers, the idea of studying Scripture sounds too intense. For nominally religious people, I ask if they would like to take a closer look for themselves at what the Bible says.
When You Meet
When I meet with nonbelieving friends, we don't sing or pray, and I don't ask them to prepare anything in advance. We visit for a while, open our Bibles, read a passage out loud, and then talk about it. The first night we meet, I sometimes ask people to tell me about their spiritual journey.
Regarding what to read, I recommend focusing on the life of Christ in one of the four gospels. My favorite is the Gospel of John, because John presents Jesus as a multifaceted person and makes a strong case for his divinity. Briefly explain the mechanics of books, chapters, and verses, then go to the first chapter and read it out loud, taking turns if you like. After you've read a chapter together, you can begin to talk about what you've observed.
To help your friend grapple with the text, prepare ahead of time. I always spend time meditating on the portion we'll be reading, then I develop some thought-provoking questions to prompt my friend to look closely at the passage.
I know one man who asks simply, "What grabs your attention in these verses?" Someone else I know uses remarkable creativity. For example, for the fourth chapter of John, he asks, "If you were the director of a movie about this Samaritan woman, who would you cast in her role? Why?" Simple or elaborate, find a style of your own, and choose questions that work for you.
As I move from discussion toward application, I like to ask two questions at the end of every passage: "What do these paragraphs say about who Jesus is or what he's like?" and "If these things are true about him, what do you think a proper response would be?"
These questions keep your focus on Jesus and help your friends formulate personal responses to the truths they're confronting.
Questions Versus Answers
The biggest obstacle to trying this is the misconception that you don't know enough to read the Bible with a non-Christian. But it's important to get out of the spotlight and believe "the word of God is living and active" (Hebrews 4:12). Once we get into Scripture, our job is to provide the questions, not the answers. You'll be amazed at how God answers questions. He can clear away doubts. He can convince.
My friend Ana Maria asked recently, "If God is going to do his will anyway, why should I ask him for anything when I pray?" One response might be, "I've thought about that question myself. What do you think the purpose of prayer is?" If the passage has to do with prayer (in our case it didn't), direct the person back to it. If the level of trust in the relationship allows, you also could probe by asking, "Do you feel God listens to you when you pray?" Remember, we aren't the source of the truth; the Bible is. Our role is to create an environment in which our friends can discover that truth.
If your friend suddenly asks, "But what about all the people from the deepest jungle who never heard of Jesus?" Rejoice, but don't answer the question. It won't help her. It's probably a sign she feels God approaching and wants to ward him off with a hard question.
I have one friend who brings up that question about three times a year. I tried to answer it several times before I realized she wasn't really interested in my response; she was looking for an intellectual loophole, something to let her off the hook from what she was learning about Jesus. Since then, I've given up trying to answer—and she doesn't seem to miss my words of wisdom.
I also refrain from discussions about the authority of God's Word. I keep the conversation at the level of "What does this passage say?" When I move toward application, I phrase my questions like this: "If this verse is true, then how does that truth affect us?"
Without one word from me, the Holy Spirit convinces people that God's Word is exactly that, God's word. After a week or two, people still may complain that they don't like or agree with what the Bible says. But comments such as, "This is just a book written by men," or "This religion is basically the same as all the others," seem to die away. My friends begin to take Scripture seriously and wrestle with the person of Jesus.
I've discovered a number of practical considerations that may help you begin to read the Bible with nonbelievers.
1. When you invite someone to read the Bible, make sure she understands she isn't signing up for life. You might invite her to a one-time reading and then follow up to see if she'd like to go further. Or you might ask if she's interested in reading one chapter of a gospel each week until you've finished it. Whatever you do, make sure you've clearly communicated a time frame.
2. You can read with one nonbelieving friend or several at once. If you've invited several non-Christians to read the Bible with you, it might be wise to include a Christian friend as well—but no more than one. With Martha and Maria Claudia, I asked a Christian friend to join us. She listened, made a few timely comments, and redirected me when I missed something. It's critical other believers clearly understand the group's purpose: to help nonbelievers read the Word of God.
3. Short and sweet is best. One hour seems about right for most people. Better to leave them hanging than to wear them out!
4. If you decide to study the Gospel of John, Jim Petersen has included discussion questions in Living Proof that cover each chapter.
5. Be prepared for plenty of no-shows. Even if people are interested, it's probably not the priority for them that it is for you.
6. Different meeting places offer different advantages. In your home, you can create a welcoming atmosphere. Meeting in a non-Christian's place cuts down no-shows and creates a sense of shared ownership. A coffee shop or some other public space can create an effective "neutral territory."
Perhaps the most unexpected encouragement I've received from reading the Bible with non-Christian friends is the fun. After the first day with Martha and Maria Claudia, they were smiling and fingering pages of their Bibles. One of them said, "I like this. It's not what I expected. Let's do it again."
I can't wait to watch God write more stories in others' lives as well. I hope you'll give it a try too, interacting with your non-Christian friends over God's powerful Word.
Seekers Speak Out
HERE'S WHAT SPIRITUAL SEEKERS SAY ABOUT THE BARRIERS THAT SEPARATE US FROM THEM:
YOU DON'T LISTEN TO ME. We call it witnessing, but many seekers see it as "hit and run" evangelism. It happens when we attempt to persuade someone to become a Christian without taking time to get to know the person. Christians often want to "close the deal," but if we look at Christ's example, we see he spent quality time with those he sought to reach. For example, he invited himself over to eat dinner with tax collectors. He took the time to hear what they had to say.
YOU JUDGE ME. Luke, the 22-year-old son of missionaries, once described himself as a believer, but today he considers himself an ex-Christian. Luke was both loved and dogged by fellow Christians as he sorted through his beliefs. "I was called everything from un-American to immoral," Luke said. When a seeker's trying to figure out important, sometimes difficult matters of faith, we can condemn her lifestyle or questions, or come alongside to help her find answers. The second option is more likely to produce faith.
YOUR FAITH CONFUSES ME. We say we promote love and faith, but too often denominational and cultural differences, racism, selfish ambition, and divisions fracture the witness of the church. Our faith confuses people when our witness doesn't match our message. How we live, practice business, and demonstrate our faith matters because an unbelieving world is watching.
YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT'S WRONG INSTEAD OF MAKING IT RIGHT. Believers often point out that abortion is wrong, but the seeker asks what we're doing for the destitute, pregnant 15-year-old. Seekers want to know less about what we think is wrong, and more about what believers or churches are doing to make things right.
—T. Suzanne Eller
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Discipleship Journal. Laura T. De Gomez lives in Bogotá, Colombia, with her husband and two children.
Copyright 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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