3 Ways to Be a Friend of Sinners

This article was originally posted at the LifeWay Church Leaders blog.

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ – Luke 7:34

Jesus was a friend of sinners. This is clearly established throughout the gospels. Jesus was among them, in relationship with them, respected by them and evidently they enjoyed his company enough that they continued to seek him out. In all of this Jesus didn’t sacrifice the content of his character or the clarity of his gospel message. Yet, it seems as though many of us in the church today find this oddly challenging – and some even argue that it’s not possible for strong believers to be in these kinds of consistent social settings, and even authentic friendships, with non-believers. So, which is it? Well, given the priority of scripture, and specifically the life of Jesus, I would prefer to come down on the side of being a friend of sinners. How do we do that, though, in a way that is faithful to his word, and honors God all the while? Consider these principles, and weigh your own life against them.

1. Integrate, don’t isolate.

Jesus was not just a friend of sinners; he was regularly among them. Don’t miss the importance of this. Place matters. I think we often forget how insular our lives can be as Christ-followers in 21st century America. As believers we have lives built around our churches. In many ways this is healthy. Gospel-fueled community is a necessary element to our sanctification. There is a problem, however, when the entirety of our community is other believers.

In the church we have grown adept at the creation of a quasi-Christian sub-culture. We have changed to definition of “counter-cultural” from a robust, biblically faithful definition to mean Christian t-shirts, Christian music and Christian sports leagues. We even offer Christian business directories because, I can only assume, we believe Christian plumbers are more effective at unclogging toilets than those who do not believe. The upshot of all this Christian sub-culture is that we can live our entire lives without ever actually relating to non-believers, and we do all this thinking that we are somehow honoring God.

This complete isolation from the culture at large doesn’t reflect Jesus’ behavior, nor the rest of scripture. Across the spectrum of God’s word we see a pattern of integrating into the culture, while both displaying and declaring the gospel message and so offering a counter-cultural message in the midst of the culture. As residents of the kingdom of God, we find ourselves living now as we will live then, when God’s kingdom is fully consummated. This kingdom living foreshadows God’s coming kingdom and exists as a kind of gospel apologetic among non-believers.

2. Be a friend to sinners, not just friendly to sinners.

I think it’s important to note that Jesus was not just friendly to those who did not believe. More than that, he was a friend to them. He was often invited to be at their parties, he was regularly engaged in friendly, yet curiosity-driven conversation. Too often we miss the importance of genuinely loving, and befriending, those who do not share our beliefs.

When we befriend only those who believe like we do, we communicate (often non-verbally) that only believers have value. We diminish the image of God that is present in every person – regardless of belief, and we set ourselves up as somehow morally superior to those who disagree with us. Each of these responses is an example of an anti-gospel at work in our hearts. We must be cautious to not just be friendly when we are around non-believers, and make sure that we are, in fact, offering genuine and authentic friendship to them.

3. Be a friend and share the gospel.

Finally, it is imperative that our friendships with non-believers be real, authentic friendships and not simply a means to an end. I cannot count the number of times I was told to be friends with non-believers so that I can share the gospel with them. This is a tragic categorical mistake. Rather than befriending non-believers so that we can share the gospel with them, I would suggest that we befriend non-believers and share the gospel with them. The phraseology is pretty similar, but the distinction is enormous.

When we befriend people, so that we can accomplish something, we turn them from people into projects, and we turn friendship into a sales technique. In short, we have become bait and switch salesman that use something as genuine as friendship as a means of enticing unwitting people, even if what we hope for them is the very best. What’s most awful about this technique is the deceit that undergirds it. We hold our friendship out as a carrot, but it masks our real goal of getting to something else. Even when gospel sharing is our goal, we cheapen the gospel we share – and the friendship we offer – when we engage this way.

Instead, let us recognize that every person is created in the image of God, and is therefore infinitely valuable. Let’s recognize that every person is fascinating, and has a compelling story. Let’s treat each person as God treats them – as recipients of his grace, and befriend them simply because the love of God in us compels us to love everyone, and the grace of God displayed in our lives has transformed us to a person who is intimately interested in others. As we offer genuine friendship, then, let us certainly make sure that the gospel is a part of that friendship. We share the gospel with our friends just like we share every other important part of our lives with them. In fact, we wouldn’t be good friends unless we shared with them the most important, life-changing truth we know, but let’s not cheapen it with cheap sales techniques that are cloaked in deceit.

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.

Celebrate, Pastor.

Pastor’s, let’s be honest, as much as difficulties in the church can often trouble us, we are naturally problem-solvers. Whether it’s dissecting a biblical text, designing a discipleship strategy, helping unravel spiritual needs in a church member, or serving a family as they search for hope in the midst of grief, we like to approach and address problems. It’s among the most consistent things we do for and with the local church. With that said, I have noticed that many pastors struggle with celebration. We move from one problem to the next with little thought of relaxing and celebrating what God has done. In fact, many of us spend most of our time looking ahead at what we think God should do, rather than celebrating what he has already done. The problem with this approach is that it can burn our people out. More importantly than that, it doesn’t resonate well with the Christian experience. Christ came to give us life – abundant life. His yoke is easy. He guards our heart and our mind. He calls us to be still and know that he is God. I could go on and on. Yes God wants us to push forward. Yes, his mission must be priority. Yes this world is not perfect, and we are to advance his gospel as he heals the world. However, all of that is a means to an end, namely the end of being adopted by God, resting in his grace and enjoying life in him. When we constantly push our churches for more and more, without celebrating what God has done, we subconsciously instruct our people that life in Christ is a works-based faith, with little room for resting in him.

What should we do about it, then? In truth there is a host of things that could be done, but in short, let me encourage you to share stories of transformation from the pulpit/platform. I have done this a number of ways, and it can be as simple as bringing someone on the platform and interviewing them for 3-5 minutes about God’s work in their lives. We have found, however, that one of the best options available is to share stories through video with the church. This doesn’t have to be expensive (in fact, it can be almost free), and can be pretty simple to accomplish, and can go a long way to encouraging your church and can even be used to tell the story of God’s work to the community at large. It really can have a powerful impact. Additionally, to be clear, we didn’t come up with this. We have followed the lead of plenty of other churches who have done the same. I just want to continue to share what we have learned, and what has been helpful for us.

Find a method to record, whether it’s something as simple as your iPhone, or a more expensive option, and sit down with some folks, and ask them to share their story. We have found that a small investment ($200 or less) in a wireless microphone, and making sure that lighting is good goes a long way to making the video quality strong. In fact, I would go so far as to say that good lighting and good audio is almost more important than an expensive camera. Camera technology has advanced so much that your iPhone can record incredible videos, if you supplement it with a good microphone and good lighting. Nevertheless, edit that video down to 2-3 minutes, using some simple software, and show it in your services. Even more importantly, though, is the need to share the videos through your various social media channels. This not only helps spread the celebration throughout the week, but it gives your church a great opportunity to share with their friends and family, and many of them may be unchurched. As a pastor/church leader, I am constantly on the look-out for ways to help our people facilitate face-to-face, person-to-person advertising for our church. I would much prefer investing time and energy in that, then paying for traditional forms of advertising.

We recently completed a 4 week sermon series entitled, “I love my church.” Essentially it was a 4 week series on a theology of the church. We created a couple of these videos for every worship service, and then shared them via social media. Below is an example of one of these videos. Watch that and tell me that’s not incredibly exciting!

Another helpful idea that we use is to show stories of gospel transformation before each baptism. This allows the church to know each person being baptized a little better and it helps baptism become an even clearer testimony of faith. When we share the videos on social media, it turns that testimony into a viral statement as the one being baptized shares their story of faith with friends and family. Here’s an example of a man in our church who was powerfully changed by the gospel.

Pastor or church leader, I hope you understand that this is not that difficult, can be nearly free and yet can have a significant impact on the congregation that you help to lead. Let’s be troubleshooters, yes, but let’s also take the time to celebrate what God has done and is doing in our churches, and watch as he uses that to encourage our people and draw more people to faith in him.

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.

#TheNines 2014 :: Creating a Shalom Culture

I enjoyed the opportunity to submit a video for The Nines, a conference hosted by Leadership Network that features a series of short videos, offered by a variety of church leaders, and is viewed by an audience of more than 20,000 people. The video below is the video that I submitted. In it we look at Jeremiah 29, living as exiles and bringing Shalom. It’s only 5 minutes, so check it out.

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.

The Faith of Another

Living in an area where one is in the religious majority changes the way you see the world. In America, those of us who are Christians often feel like the world is changing, and not in a way that is positive for us, but the truth is we are still part of the largest religious segment in our culture. Often, one of the most difficult things for a member of the religious majority to do is to accurately understand the faith of religious minorities. I see this happen all the time in the US as Christians struggle to understand those of other faiths. When I travel overseas I see the same scenario play out, only in those cultures it is someone else’s faith that often struggles to understand my own. In a US context, this is often played out as Christians attempt to understand Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and so on. However, nowhere is this lack of understanding more prominent than Christian’s relationship with Muslims. This lack of understanding is problematic for Christians, in particular. As followers of Jesus, it is vital that we rightly understand and portray the faith of those we disagree with. There are two significant reasons why this matters.

It matters, first of all, because we are Christians. Our faith calls us to love those who are not like us, and even those who are against us. This is a distinguishing characteristic of Christianity. When we fail to rightly understand others, we fail to show Christian love by believing something about them that is not true. We fail to view them as God’s image bearers, as part of God’s creation, by not working to rightly understand who they are and what they believe. Beyond that, our integrity is at stake as followers of Christ. Perpetuating mischaracterizations of others may be popular on social media, but it fails when held up to the test of Christian character. Secondly, however, this matters because we are not just Christians, we are Christians who are on mission. Make no mistake about it. We desire every person on the planet to hear the message of Jesus’ gospel, and to believe in Christ for salvation. In fact, we believe this is the only way to be reconciled with God. We believe in the freedom for every person to believe as they wish, but we also desire to have the freedom to share Christ with them so that they might believe. When we fail to rightly understand those we disagree with, we impair our ability to be on mission and damage the possibility of leading others to faith in Christ.

So that begs the question, in a world that is swimming with misinformation, how do we rightly understand what others believe? Let me suggest four simple ways that have helped me.

1. Don’t use the media as the primary source of your information.
It amazes me to see Christians who loudly reject mainstream media portrayals of their own faith but who are then quick to embrace the same mainstream media portrayals of the faith of others. If, for instance, the media regularly gets it wrong about Christianity, why would we think that they’re getting it right about Islam? Stop using news channels, Facebook, Twitter and the like as your source of information about the theology and practice of those with whom you disagree. Your tendency will be to embrace anything you read which feeds your impression of their faith, and this will regularly be inaccurate. A helpful test as to the accuracy of reported information is this; if a majority of those who embrace the faith in question, disagree with the popular portrayal, the portrayal is probably a mischaracterization.

2. Read liberally from those who are in that faith. 
Often, when we desire to learn about those of other faiths, we will look to find an author from our faith writing about other faiths. This is probably not the best option. As Christians, we would be suspect of a Mormon, or Muslim, authoring thoughts about Christianity. Just so, we ought to consider that those who are in another faith are probably the most appropriate experts about their own faith. Even better, however, would be to get a copy of that faith’s holy book, and study it yourself.

3. Attend a service or two of the faith you are trying to understand. 
As I was trying to understand Islam better, one of the healthiest things I did was to begin attending a Friday prayer service at the local mosque. I obviously didn’t participate in their prayer time; I would sit in the back and just watch, but those who were part of the mosque were incredibly gracious and welcoming. I continue to learn more during these opportunities than I could in just about any other setting. If you want to understand another faith, and the faith allows visitors into their gatherings (and most do), attend a few and listen. You might be surprised what you learn.

4. Befriend and learn from those who are in that faith.
Finally, the best way I know to rightly understand the faith of those we disagree with is to become friends with those who are in that faith. This has been one of the healthiest exercises in my Christian walk. Like Jesus, who consistently spent time with those who were outside his faith community, we ought to be quick to be friends with others who might not agree with us. My experiences, gathered around a table, learning from those who are in another faith, have been among the most helpful and instructive times I have experienced. I am rarely more encouraged than these interactions with those who believe differently than I do.

As I have tried to rightly understand those who I disagree with, I have found that it has helped me to love others the way Jesus loves me, without condition, in every state possible. What’s more, it has opened up innumerable opportunities for me to share the gospel of Jesus. As I show genuine interest in their faith, those who I spend time with have, in turn, shown genuine interest in my faith. What is more, they trust me to share with them my faith, understanding that I’m sharing with them as a friend, not just someone who wants to sell them a bill of religious goods and services. Finally, let me encourage you to clearly call out other followers of Christ who are spreading mischaracterizations about other faiths. It is harmful to our collective witness, and does violence to our faith, to treat other faiths dishonestly. It is not a threat to our own Christian faith to stand up in defense of those who may disagree with us, in fact, it is often exactly the opposite. We can regularly be like Jesus when we are willing to defend those who may rarely agree with us.

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.

SBC Panel Discussion on “Salvation and the Mission of God”

Sign Up Here!

  • Does one’s belief on the extent of the atonement affect their understanding of mission and the offer of the gospel?
  • Can two Christians disagree on soteriology and partner in ministry?
  • Does the order of salvation affect how one does evangelism?
  • When it comes to the theological particulars of salvation, what is the difference between compromise and cooperation?

Join us at The Southern Baptist Convention to hear Ed StetzerFrank PageDavid Platt, and Trevin Wax discuss the topics of salvation and mission. Only 500 seats available, so sign up now!

  • Date: Tuesday, June 10th
  • Time: 6:30am – 8:00am (Be there at 6:15am!)
  • Place: The Baltimore Convention Center
  • Location: Ballroom IV on Level 400
  • Free breakfast and books

Each attendee will receive a bag of free books including:

We look forward to seeing you at The Southern Baptist Convention. Sign up for the breakfast here. 

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.

Christianity unknown?

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According to a new research project released by Gordon-Conwell’s Center for the study of Global Christianity, approximately 20% of non-Christian North Americans do not personally know a single Christian. Read that again. Slowly.

We live in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave; the country where Christianity has often been considered to be so well-known that some in other countries view every American as a Christian, simply by default. Yet, in this country with our religious freedom, 1 out of every 5 non-believers has no personal relationship with someone who follows Christ.

When you look at the numbers more specifically, you find a few examples that are even more disturbing. According to their research, almost 78% of Hindus in American do not know a single Christian. Almost 43% of Muslims and a surprising 66% of Buddhists, do not know a Christian.

These numbers should radically influence our thoughts about the need to reach our own continent with the gospel.

You can read more about the report at Christianity Today.

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.