Bringing the gospel home: Part 3
This series of three blog posts is taken from a talk Randy gave at the Christianity Explored North America conference in May 2019. Content has been adapted from material in Randy's book, Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, published by Crossway, 2011.
Three principles for witnessing to family
After I wrote Questioning Evangelism I went around giving talks about it. People would come up afterwards and say that they liked the book, but wanted specific advice about what to say to their parents or children or siblings.
I realised there’s not many books that talk about witnessing to families. I found it difficult sharing the gospel with my own Jewish family, but as I spoke to people I discovered that everyone finds witnessing to families difficult - not just Jews!
So I did some research and I wrote Bringing the Gospel Home as a result. In the book, I share three big principles for evangelising family members:
In some ways, witnessing to family is really the same as witnessing to other people: the same message with the same resistances to telling and listening, but it is a little different. It seems to take longer - we are involved in our family’s lives for longer and we have known them through many life stages - so we need a more long-term perspective.
We need to be patient and understand it may take some time, and we need to be long-suffering, acknowledging we don’t know how and if this is going to happen. We need to ask the Lord to work in our family’s lives to draw them to Himself, and to work in our lives to give us patience and trust in His timing.
When I became a Christian my brother was living a wild life, and he wanted nothing to do with me. He told me to stay away from him. My mother told me he was afraid I was going to try and preach to him. So in order to see him and spend time with him I had to promise him I wouldn’t preach. Finally he came to visit - I think he was pretty scared. We spent a whole weekend together and we talked about all sorts of things and I didn’t mention anything remotely spiritual and he was shocked. And he left and I prayed when he left - it had been really hard not to say anything.
I prayed God would bring other people into his life and make him hungry. He wasn’t happy - his wild lifestyle was making him depressed.
He came to visit us again and this time he asked me so many questions - I hadn’t even planned to bring it up. I told him to read the New Testament and he went back to college and he read the whole thing.
When he next visited I forgot that I’d told him to read it. We were talking and I told him to consider reading the New Testament. He said: “I’ve read it! I’m on my second time through!”
Two months later he became a Christian. He was sitting on a bench reading the New Testament and a stranger came and asked him about it and led him to the Lord! That brother is now on the staff team of a church and his specialty is in evangelism to Muslims. My Jewish, wayward brother!
So be patient, and ask God to work at the pace he is working.
We need to find ways to express love to our family. Family is the place where love is assumed but not always expressed. We just assume they will know they are loved.
We need to find ways so that they feel we really love them. Sometimes our family annoys us and we have to ask God to give us that love to express! And it keeps changing - loving parents as a young adult is different to loving much older parents. We need to keep asking God, how do I show and communicate love so it’s not just a cliche at the end of a phone call?
My youngest son is now far from God, I am sorry to say, and when he was in high school he got mixed up in drugs in a terrible way and my wife and I decided to send him away to a private boarding school ‘for troubled teens’. It was very very difficult. He came back a year later clean and sober, and when he came back I had to rethink how to express love to him.
What I had been doing hadn't been working. I was a pharisee with so many rules that I had inflicted on my son that he thought were stupid. So I’m glad that when he came back I didn't just force him to live by these rules. And I’m thankful God didn't allow me to explain why I had these rules. Instead, the Lord gave me wisdom to say to him that I saw these rules hadn’t worked very well, and that I wanted to have a good and meaningful relationship with him and that I wanted to figure out something different with him.
It’s been a long process but we have figured out how to communicate about things that he enjoys. When he got home we sat and watched all of The Lord of the Rings films, including the director’s cuts. He wanted to watch it all and point things out to me so I watched and I listened. He majored in graphic design in college and he now works doing graphic design in the day, and comedy in the evenings. So I ask all about it and find ways to connect with his world through it. We analyse comedians together.
Family is a place where love is assumed and not always expressed. It is a constant challenge and we need God’s wisdom all the way through.
The gospel is a rich, comprehensive message. At its core is atonement for sin, propitiation. But there are so many words and images used to describe the gospel, not just propitiation but redemption, reconciliation, salvation, adoption, regeneration - all these words about this same gospel.
We need to think of the implications of the gospel in all areas of life. It’s a way to make marriage work, it gives me reason for living, purpose in my job, ways to connect with people around me that I don’t know. A million implications. It’s a comprehensive, all-encompassing message.
Many people have heard about Jesus dying on the cross and think that it isn’t relevant to them, but they might be interested in hearing about why you go to work and actually think it’s worthwhile, how you think about money in a world that’s so uncertain, how you face physical disease and still have a sense of joy in the midst of it, etc.
I have an older brother and I have been trying to witness to him for the last 40 years and it’s not going well. His response is always “nah!” to anything to do with religion. Several years ago I found out he likes history. So I started talking to him about history, I even read up so I could talk to him about it.
I live outside Washington and there’s lots of history here. He asked me about Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s house). It’s two hours away and I didn't want to go because it’s so far and I find time with my brother difficult. But he suggested coming down and us driving together and I reluctantly agreed. After about an hour and a half, he started opening up about serious things (sitting in a car where you are both facing forward and not towards each other is a good time to open up).
We were talking about marriage issues and he thought I didn't have any issues. I explained every couple has issues because everyone is sinful. He was shocked to hear my wife is sinful, he wasn't so shocked to hear I was sinful too! He didn’t try to shut the conversation down this time. So I told him the reason our marriage keeps going is because we’ve learned to forgive each other. We say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” A LOT. He wanted to know more and I explained that the only reason we know anything about forgiving each other is because we’ve experienced forgiveness from God. He said he would have to think about that.
And that’s the best conversation I’ve ever had with him and it started not talking about Jesus or God but how we make marriage work without killing each other.
We need to think comprehensively about how the gospel makes a difference in all areas of life.
My dad was an angry man for much of his life. He enlisted in the military as soon as he could and served in the coast guard during World War II and saw some terrible, horrible things. He told stories afterward that brought anger to the surface in him. He was angry at God. For a very long time he didn't believe in God.
He would always pose the question about how God could allow evil and suffering. I would try to answer that question with philosophically solid arguments but they never worked. There is a time and place for that, but when people are asking angry questions we need to find out what the anger is about.
After 9/11 (my parents lived nearby so they were really exposed to it) my dad asked me the question again. And I just said I didn’t know. But I told him I did know that I have a sense of hope and strength in the midst of evil and suffering. And my relationship with my dad changed - we started talking and writing to each other about these things.
My dad became a believer four years before he died. He requested we sing ‘Amazing grace’ at his funeral. It was the most wonderful moment.
May the Lord use us and many other people in the lives of those that we love so that they will request ‘Amazing grace’ at their funerals!
Read part 1 and part 2, or listen to the full talk here.
Have you considered trying Life Explored or Christianity Explored with your family, as a group or one to one?