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Friends Outside the Faith

4 women talk about the challenges of reaching out with compassion while living lives of holiness

What happens when you mix good friends, caffeine, and provocative conversation on the topic of how Christian women should reach out to friends outside the faith? TCW wanted to know, so we asked our May/June 2006 cover personality, Lisa Harper, a well-known Bible study author and speaker, to gather three friends from different walks of life—Kim Hill, Eva Whittington Self, and Lou Taylor—and get their unique insights on fulfilling Christ's Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). For some stimulating discussion, read what these four had to say.
—The Editors

Meet Our Participants

Lisa: Scripture compels us as Christ-followers to be lights in dark places; we're to permeate our world with Christ's compassion, to play a part in redeeming culture, not to run from it (Matthew 5:13-16). So how do we really connect with people who don't claim to have faith in Christ without compromising our call to reflect God's holiness?

Kim: That's a great question. My realtor—who's gay—recently invited me to a dinner party at his house. Part of me wanted to attend because I've known him for years and I care about him. But another part was anxious about going. I wondered if I'd feel weird, or if I'd be able to carry on a conversation. I don't typically socialize with many gay people. I also wondered if it would look bad for me to go.

Lou: In 1 Corinthians 5:9, the apostle Paul says not to "associate with sexually immoral people"—but then he goes on to say, "not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world."

Lisa: The Bible cautions us to be in the world but not of it, but also calls us to be salt and light. When I look at who Jesus was in the gospels, I suspect he would have gone to a gay realtor's party because he didn't shy away from irreligious people. The reality is, people who aren't Christians are desperate for something that's honest, true, and real—and that's Jesus.

A Calling—or Obedience?

Lou: I have an interesting role in the marketplace because I work in the sports and entertainment industry. I know high-profile professionals who've come out of lifestyles of drunkenness, promiscuity, the whole thing. They can't put themselves back into that kind of environment because of the temptation it creates. The Holy Spirit imparts wisdom about how to handle certain invitations and opportunities. At times that may mean not even putting yourself into a specific situation. I believe the difference is if you as a believer truly have a call. I've always felt called to minister to people others don't normally get to. And I know a big part of that means hanging out with people who don't know God yet. I thrive in those situations.

Eva: Lou just said hanging out with people who aren't Christians is her calling. It's obvious Lou's wired for outreach, but do you think we're all made for that? Sometimes for me it feels more about obedience.

Lisa: Is that because you don't have many relationships with people who aren't Christians?

Eva: I'm a stay-at-home mom, so my big outing of the week is volunteering at my children's school. But something did happen a few weeks ago when I was grading papers and talking with some other moms at the school. Initially their bad language and off-color comments about sex really bugged me. Then I remembered how in college I used to love connecting with unbelievers. The Lord broke my heart with the realization that I've evolved into this judgmental snob. So the following week, I brought in Starbucks for everybody. God melted my heart for those wild women.

Lisa: I think if we were more intentional about connecting with people God providentially inserts into our life, we'd be more effective in sharing the hope we have in Christ. It's not like we have to agree with everything they do. We don't have to say, "That's great that you get drunk every weekend and have sex outside of marriage as often as you can." But we can celebrate their joys, lament their losses, and affirm their humanity.

Kim: Just taking a minute to ask, "How are you doing today?" can be significant. It's so important for Christians to value other people.

I love to interact with people at a store, on a plane, or in a restaurant. For instance, I used to frequent a café. We ate there so often, my children thought it was an extension of our house! {Laughter.} One day this hippie-looking guy named Tree, who worked there, said, "Kim, somebody told me you sing Christian music. I said, 'There's no way that girl sings Christian music.'" I thought, Why would Tree think I don't sing Christian music? Am I rude or something? Then he said, "I've met a lot of jerks in the Christian music industry, but you're always so kind to me. That's why I thought there's no way you could be a Christian singer."

Lisa: I used to think evangelism involved accosting people with tracts or waving a placard that said, "Turn or Burn!" I even had a boss who made us sit on different rows of an airplane when we traveled to Christian conferences so we could "aggressively convert" other passengers. He told me to initiate conversations with perfect strangers with that Evangelism Explosion question, "If you died tonight, do you know if you'd go to heaven?"

Here I was, this 22-year-old girl asking 50-year-old businessmen whether or not they'd go to heaven if they died! You should have seen the look that crossed their faces, like Does this crazy chick know something about the plane that I don't? That kind of guerilla-warfare "outreach" made me so uncomfortable. But I thought that's what you had to be willing to do if you were committed to living out the Great Commission. Fortunately, since then I've learned it's more important to connect with people instead of treating them like targets.

Eva: I think the Great Commission —to "go and make disciples of all nations"—emphasizes the "as you go." Wherever I go—whether it's to Target, the Y, or to clean the commode—I'm supposed to reflect Jesus.

The Reality Test

Kim: Sometimes I think we're afraid to validate people's negative experiences with other Christians. It's as if we think we're a "bad Christian" if we don't defend everything that's ever been done in the name of God.

Last week I sat next to a successful-looking guy on a plane who asked about my guitar. When I told him I'd just led worship at a church, he told me about his childhood experiences in the church and why he turned away from organized religion. "What happened to you was terrible," I said. I acknowledged the junk he never should have experienced, especially in the name of Christ. We had a great conversation about how he's gone through a divorce and is grappling with a new marriage and parenting young children. He told me he's trying to figure out what he wants to teach them about God. I got to tell him how God has revealed himself to me—especially in the pain of my divorce. But I don't think he would've shared anything with me if I hadn't been honest and sympathetic from the beginning.

Lisa: It's always more important to be real than to be "religious."

Lou: But we're accountable before the Lord to bring the truth to others. And God says his Word won't return void.

Lisa: I agree. It's only the gospel that has any impact. That's the only way people will find living hope. So if I don't talk about Jesus, if I don't tell my story about the unconditional love and redemptive mercy I've received from God, ultimately people will walk away from me disappointed … whether or not they connected with me relationally.

Freedom—Or a Formula?

Lou: This morning Robin, my assistant, and I were traveling back home, and one of the crew members from the concert we'd been to last night started talking to us at the airport. He knew I ride a motorcycle, and I told him we should go for a ride the next time he came through Nashville. Then he said, "Hey, do you guys want to go to the bar and have a Bloody Mary with me while we wait for our flights?" I said, "No, that's not really my thing. But when you come to Nashville, call me because we'd be glad to take you out for a ride!"

We can get on thin ice quickly when it comes to connecting with unbelievers—we have to be careful. It takes accountability and years of learning to sort through what's OK to do or say and what isn't.

Lisa: I think if you're spending time alone with the Lord—listening to his voice through prayer and through his Word—the boundaries become clear. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah says God will tell us when to turn to the right and when to turn to the left (30:21). He'll impress us with when it's OK to go to a party full of people who are sexually promiscuous. Or when to chat with unbelievers in a bar. He'll also prompt us when to graciously decline an invitation or suggest another time and place. But there's no instruction manual on exactly how to walk in questionable places with colorful prodigals.

Kim: Unfortunately, most Christians want a formula.

Eva: But freedom doesn't come with a formula!

One time I was praying with a friend about being an effective witness in a situation where there would be a lot of people who weren't Christians. I prayed something like, "God help me not to mess this up. Please help me to do and say the right thing!" Then she prayed, "Lord, help us to be a blessing today." I remember thinking, Oh there's an idea. Maybe he could actually bless somebody through me!

Lou: We tend to think we need to achieve some position or positive public perception, when all the while God just wants our availability. Before Jesus fed the 5,000, the disciples encouraged him to send the hungry crowd away. But Jesus said, "You feed them." He could've fed the hungry crowd himself, but he used the disciples to distribute the food, and he blessed the provision.

Likewise, God wants to use us to feed spiritually hungry people.

What kinds of questions would you like to see TCW discuss? E-mail your suggestions to "Roundtable" at tcwedit@christianitytoday.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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