If Jesus is now in us, then it follows that, like Jesus, we must be for people.
But unless people see our lives reflecting the fact that God is for them, they will continue to believe that God is against them. They’ll continue to be afraid of God.
For us to restore the church to the mission of Jesus, we must communicate to people in every way possible that Jesus is for them and, therefore, that we as followers of Jesus are for them.
Letting Others Know We Are for Them
How should this Christology be lived out by followers of Jesus on mission as the church? In our conversations we must build bridges instead of erecting barriers. In my own family I have found I don’t need to assert “what the Bible says.” They have already heard enough of what Christians are telling them the Bible says. It is much more powerful if I actually live like I am for them.
I was recently among a gathering of pastors in New York City. I had an evening free and called a friend to see if he could meet me for coffee. This friend of mine is openly homosexual. After coffee, going with him to his favorite bookstore, and walking around the city for a couple of hours, I said to him, “I don’t know what to do with your sexuality, but I want you to know that I love you enough to die for you.”
And he tearfully replied, “That’s enough.” My friend knows I am for him.
Can I ask you a personal question? When was the last time you put your life, reputation, and finances on the line for someone because you know God is for that person? I have seen beautiful answers to that question in the lives of several people I know:
• One family got out of debt so they could be more generous with those in need.
• Another family renovated a room in their home so battered women could stay with them in safety.
• A single mom uses her late-model van to give rides to physically challenged young adults who otherwise would not be able to get to work.
This reality of God being for people plays out in real time by our being with people, not sequestered away in our church buildings or church lives. Just as a reminder, in Matthew 28 Jesus instructed his followers to go into the world and make disciples. Jesus did not tell us to build buildings and invite people to come be like us. But that is exactly what many have been doing. Most Christians would probably concede that God is for people, and they might even agree to be with people if those people will come and become like them. But according to Jesus, the exact opposite is called for—we must go and be with people. And I mean really be with them.
If we actually enjoy being with people, that still may not make people smile (we’re changing the way we as Jesus’ followers have been perceived in our culture).
Practical Ways to Be with and for Them
Being with people means the church must move outside its walls. It means we should stop having so many church programs that our people have no time for their unchurched friends. It means the measures we once used for church success need to change. Instead of counting how many people are “with us,” we begin capturing and retelling stories of how the church is “with them.”
At RiverTree, the church God has entrusted me to lead, we regularly share stories in our weekend gatherings about how we are with people. For our friends Jon and Kelly, this meant sharing the story of their involvement in the arts community (a community Christians are notorious for avoiding).
Jon is director of our city’s Player’s Guild. At one time, Jon was cast in the lead role in Rent on Broadway. So it seemed a natural step for Jon to direct the Player’s Guild performance of Rent here in our city.
Everything was going well until several Christians found out Rent is all about people with differing sexual preferences, drug abuse, and AIDS. Because Jon is a close friend of mine, a few of these well-meaning Christians asked if I would talk to him about the inappropriateness of his involvement with the performance. What they didn’t know was Jon and Kelly were having the entire cast (many of whom were living out Rent’s exact lifestyle) over to their house for dinner every Sunday evening. What they didn’t know was Rent has an amazing redemptive message. What they didn’t know was those people are exactly who Jesus would be hanging out with if he were here today.
Because Jon was on the crew, he had access to them. A trust relationship had been built because Jon was for and with them. If we want people to know God is for them, then we have to be with them. But it doesn’t stop there.
The only way to really be with people is to become one of them. In other words, we may show interest in the same sports teams they like, eat at the same restaurants, hang out at the same coffee shops (or, God forbid, pubs). We authentically live amid people because we understand their hurts, pains, and fears since they are our hurts, pains, and fears.
We become like people so we can become one of them.
This “one of” concept has far-reaching implications. I frequently hear people say things like, “Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week.” They’re referring to the fact that the vast majority of Evangelical Christian churches are lily white. Do you know why they’re lily white? Because we’re not one of diverse cultures. Churches composed predominantly of white people build their churches in the suburbs where the community is white like them. They frequent restaurants, parks, and shopping malls that are “safe.” If we want to see the church become racially diverse, then we must become one of people of color. Here are some real practical suggestions:
• Become a Big Brother or a Big Sister to a young person in your community. My wife, Julie, is a Big Sister to a 14-year-old girl who lives in Canton, Ohio. This little girl is regularly in our home, and my wife is in her home.
• Get your foster care license. In Ohio alone, there are more than 14,000 children in the foster care system.1 My wife and I have been foster parents for the past five years. If you want to begin to build bridges with people of diversity, then invite them into your home. It seems like something Jesus would do.
• Adopt a child. Three years ago, our family adopted our son, Elijah. He happens to be a little African-American boy from Cleveland, Ohio. Today more than 150 families in our church have adopted or are in the process of adopting children. Adopt and see what happens to your heart about “those people.”
• Make a move. Move out of your safe, beautiful home in the suburbs and into a home inside the city. Julie and I are currently in the process of selling our home, which sits nestled at the top of three wooded acres, and moving into the city of Canton, recently listed by Forbes magazine as the ninth most miserable city in the United States. (Cleveland was No. 1.)2 We’re not moving because it’s a wise financial decision. We’re not moving because the schools will be better. We’re not moving because we want to live near a cultural center. We’re moving because we want to be one of a largely overlooked group of people that Jesus loves deeply.
Those are just a few of the things our church is doing. And the good news is I’m hearing stories just like this from all across the country. As a result, people who are far from God are starting to get the message: God is for them, with them, and one of them! They are attracted to Jesus, who is now in us; and through the trust relationship we have built by being for, with, and one of them, they in turn will invite Jesus to come live in them. Just like in the book of Acts, the number of disciples will increase daily. Innumerable!
Greg Nettle is senior pastor with RiverTree Christian Church, Massillon, Ohio.
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