“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.’” – Matthew 11:16-19
In Matthew 11:16-19, we encounter Jesus speaking to a crowd about John the Baptist. Jesus draws attention to reality. John came neither eating or drinking. Jesus came doing both. God sent both of them. Israel rejected both. Why? Like children making music for each other, Jesus says, “It’s not about the kind of music that’s being played or sung, this generation just does not like who’s performing.”
From this, I think a couple of things can be pointed out. First, the gospel will always be received with mixed results. If both Jesus and John’s message were rejected, we shouldn’t be surprised if and when our good news about Jesus is as well. Our presentation may be both peerlessly articulate and effectually impotent. That is a possibility.
Second, no single strategy is the silver bullet for engaging others with the gospel. Many strategies should be employed contextualized for each situation. A few years ago, I encountered a witnessing team who attempted to convince me that the only “biblical” method of evangelism was door to door, like Jesus’ disciples. That view isn’t fully informed. Yes, Jesus’ disciples went house to house, but Paul also preached city to city, from synagogue to city square; John the Baptizer was a burning lamp withdrawn in the wilderness; and Jesus taught crowds in and out of the synagogues, made disciples one-on-one engaging intimately with “sinners” (Matt. 11:16-19). The church was not left with one method of sharing the gospel. And this last aspect of engagement, friendship with “sinners,” is what I’d like to draw our attention to.
Jesus’ engagement was so extensive that it was a scandal. Imagine your reputation being discredited for the ways you spend time with those outside of the “religious community.” But this is just what happened with Jesus. He was willing to be associated with them. He went to dinner parties, sharing table and cup with the so-called dregs of society.
My wife and I do not consider ourselves great evangelists or disciple makers. Far from that actually. But we’ve been challenged by Jesus’s example. We desire to engage with our neighbors more for the sake of the gospel and to enter into their world where they would allow us. After all, we’re all called to make disciples. And by God’s grace, we’ve seen small success in making friends with our neighbors and others outside of the religious community, for the sake of the gospel. This engagement has been part of our strategy.
We walk around the neighborhood with the kids from time to time. As we do, we pray for the people who live in the homes we pass. We pray for marriages, for parents, and for children. We pray the Spirit would be at work in hearts of the people in our neighborhood. We pray that other Christians would be good neighbors who love and serve here as well. We pray for peace and safety in the neighborhood. We pray that we would have actual friendships with the people we live near. In doing this, we’re teaching our children to see their neighborhood, not just as a place where they live, but as a mission field.
So we plan to bump accidentally into people by frequenting the same spots over and over: getting groceries at the closest grocery store, getting the oil changed at the same shop, frequenting the same restaurant, taking the kids to the same park. We’ve made friends with cashiers and hair stylists. I’ve made friends with guys up and down the street by doing yard work. If bumping into the same people over and over is the goal, staying local is the key.
Related to proximity, we try to make sure wherever we are, we’re present. This requires us to be situationally aware. When we’re doing yard work or at the supermarket, we should welcome interruptions and interactions. When someone moves in the neighborhood, we should offer to help them move in. We should make ourselves available to talk, to help, to participate, and to be involved. We must want to know and be known. It’s at this point that friendship begins.
But there is one thing we must overcome—fear. The reason we don’t walk over to our neighbor across the street and find out their name is fear. The reason we don’t do more than acknowledge that we’ve found everything we’re looking for at the grocery store is fear. We must deal with fear. It’s a topic that deserves a separate post. But it must be dealt with because it keeps us from taking this first step. Many times it keeps us from taking the last step as well.
If presence is about being situationally aware, proclamation is about being spiritually aware. We’re looking for gospel openings.
I can’t say how the Holy Spirit may be leading you to share the gospel with your neighbors, but in the context of many interactions with them, you will encounter times where the gospel will be particularly relevant. We must be willing to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead whenever the opportunity comes, even if it appears fruitless at the time. But when we do, usually we find something unusual happening: people listening.
Being intentional with prayer, proximity, and presence is the foundation for proclamation. People will know you and you will know them. This foundation enables the relationship to carry the weight of truth. As Proverbs says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (27:6). Friends know they can say things that challenge, because they ultimately know there is a person who cares behind what is being said.
What successes or failures have you experienced in being “friends of sinners”? There are many times when we’ve moved too fast with these relationships, pushing them beyond what they can handle. I’m always wondering when and what to share. And afterward whether it’s even been helpful. What other challenges do you find in being gospel witnesses in this way?
 “How to Make Friends in a New City,” The Art of Manliness. This article has some helpful tips for making new friendships.
— Brad Hauer grew up moving quite a bit, living in 13 different states, but has called Orlando home since 2001. He's works with Cru (Formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) and is a student at Lutheran Brethren Seminary. He and his wife Jackie celebrated their 10th anniversary this year and have two special needs boys, Jonathan and Jack.