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EPISODE 28: Witnessing to Family Members
With Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up, we may feel some pressure to make the most of this opportunity and “give our family the gospel.” We’ll explore why this may be difficult but not impossible on this special episode of Questions that Matter with Randy Newman.
Bringing the Gospel Home by Randy Newman. Crossway Publishing, 2011.
Jesus is off limits for a lot of families and friends—or at least that’s how it appears sometimes. Why does sharing the good news with a stranger often feel less frightening than telling those you love most? Bringing the Gospel Home will help any Christian seeking to guide loved ones into the family of God. Learn more and purchase your copy here.
Welcome to Questions that Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and today I do not have a conversation partner. It'll just be me. I've been asked by my friends at the C.S. Lewis Institute to help our listeners prepare for family gatherings coming up, Thanksgiving, Christmas, beyond, and in particular, about how we might make the most of these opportunities for evangelism. For those of us who have non-Christian family, this is a very stressful time and a difficult time, and my friends at the Institute thought that I might have some ideas based on the fact that I wrote an entire book on how to witness to family members. You may be aware of it. It's called Bringing the Gospel Home. It's published by Crossway. I think we'll have a link to it in the show notes below, but I thought I'd share just a few highlights from that book and then also things that I've learned from interactions with Christians over the years about successful stories and frustrating stories of trying to witness to unsaved parents, children, siblings, cousins, beyond.
So to start, I think it's important that we acknowledge the difficulty of the situation, because I know that, as I've talked with people, so many Christians are baffled or puzzled by: Why is it so much harder to witness to family members than it is to next door neighbors or coworkers? And I think that they make the situation even a little bit more difficult by thinking, “This should be easy. These are the people that I know the most,” or the best. Well, I want to say that it is more difficult for several reasons, and we need to understand that, so that when we step into these situations, and we find that they’re more difficult than we would have anticipated, that we're not thrown off or lose our footing. So I'd like you to first consider three reasons why witnessing to family members might be more difficult than talking to the new acquaintance you just met on the bus or the train or the plane or the next door neighbor that just moved in.
So, first, I think we need to realize that the spiritual battle dimension of witnessing to family may be more intense. And that's because God values the family. God is the one who came up with this institution called marriage and blessing it with children. And as you read through the book of Proverbs and other places, you see that the family is the place where godly character is forged. This is the place where parents pass on to their children the faith that has shaped them. And we have, in Deuteronomy 6, the Shema, where parents are encouraged to instruct their children as they go in and out of their daily activities. So the family is a very, very high priority to God. Marriage is a picture of the intimacy and the unity between the Messiah and His church.
So since it is such a high priority for God, it's also a high priority for the devil. The devil hates the family. He hates marriage. And he wants to do all that he can to discredit it, to distort it, to harm it, to make it, instead of a place of intimacy, a place of alienation, instead of a place of training in godliness, a place that stokes resentment. And you don't have to look too far and wide in our world to see that the devil is being quite successful at that. So all that to say is that, when you're gathered around the Thanksgiving table or at any family gathering, and you feel the prompting to talk about spiritual things, you shouldn't be surprised if you're also feeling attacks from the evil one. So that's the first reason why witnessing to family may be more difficult, because the spiritual battle is more intense.
Secondly, emotions run more deeply with family than with total strangers. These are the people we've known our whole entire lives. These are the people that we've seen at their worst. These are the people who have seen us at our worst. And so we have all sorts of very, very strong emotions, some of them beautiful, some of them great, some of the most happiest moments, some of the most miserable, difficult times. And so just the emotions are stronger, and our desires to see our family members come to faith are more strong. And so, again, we shouldn't be surprised if we find it very frustrating or it stimulates our anger or frustration when we're in conversation with family members.
And then third, part of the reason, I think, for some Christians why evangelism is difficult with family is because our allegiances are more conflicted. Here's what I mean: If you grew up in a family where family is very, very important and showing respect and honor to parents and grandparents is an absolute high, high priority, a rule that must not be violated, well, when you become a Christian, you find that you have a higher allegiance, an allegiance to God that's more important than family. It doesn't mean that family is that family loses its importance. It's just that now there is something greater, that we are to seek first the kingdom of God. And you'll remember that Jesus talked about our allegiance to God has to be such so that it almost seems like our relationship with family is hatred. Now, I think He was overstating for the point of making that very strong point. But when when you've been raised in a family where showing respect to family is the most important thing and then you become a Christian, now it may look to your unsaved relatives that you hate them, but in fact you don't. So that's on one side of things.
On the other side of things, some of us grew up in families where it was not very good, the environment wasn't very good, and it wasn't a Christian family, and then we become Christians and now we have found a new family, the family of God, the family of our local church. And now we think that family is not important at all. Well, then we start reading the scriptures, and we see that, no, we're to honor our father and mother and that family is important. And now all of a sudden it's, “Oh, I can't just ignore these brothers or sisters or my parents. No, I have to make it a higher priority than I had before.” Again, not superseding our allegiance to God, but that just creates tension and difficulties. So I think part of preparing for witnessing to family members could include things like looking at your own family traditions. Some of this is culturally wrapped up, some of it is part of our ethnicity. And to look at it and say, “Which direction am I getting tension from?”
So those are three reasons why I think witnessing to family members may be more difficult. It's because the spiritual battle is more intense, our emotions are stronger, and our allegiances are more conflicted.
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Here are three major themes that I found in my interviewing of people that I wove into my book Bringing the Gospel Home. They are the themes of time, love, and comprehensiveness. Time, love, and comprehensiveness. Here's what I mean: When it comes to witnessing to family members, it just seems to take a whole lot longer than witnessing to others. And I think part of the reason is that it does. But part of it, just think about it, family, these are the people that we've known the longest and we will know the longest, and we've known them from what we might consider is the beginning of the process, when we first became a Christian. Whereas when we get to know neighbors, well, we don't know their backstory, and we don't know that 30 years before we met them. So it just seems to take longer. I have found that it does take longer. I can't quite put my finger on it, but what I'm saying is we need to have a long-term mindset. We need to think in the long term. We need to be willing to move gradually, incrementally. Family members move to faith more slowly than we'd like them to. Part of that is just our frustration. Part of that is, again, I can't totally put my finger on it, but family are the ones that try our patience the most. But witnessing to family is something that requires patience the most. And so we need to ask God to give us wisdom for moving gradually, incrementally.
If you've been listening to this podcast for a while, you've heard that theme come through when I talk to people about witnessing. I think the need to move gradually, incrementally, to use what we would call pre-evangelism, is growing in our world today. We need to become better and better at the task of pre-evangelism, having conversations that move gradually, slowly. For a lot of people, the key components of the gospel message are really rather radical for them. The fact that there is a God, and He’s a personal God, and that He’s a God of both holiness and also grace. Each one of those components for some people is so foreign and so alien that we need to give people some time to digest this. Secondly, that we as people are created in the image of God and yet fallen and sinful and rebellious. Those are two complex issues that, for some people, it's so diametrically opposed to things they've believed or thought for so very, very long. Many people think there's nothing really all that special about being a human being, and so the idea of being created in the image of God, it's like I'm from another planet. Or the fact that we're sinful and rebellious, that's really offensive to so many people, especially if they've been immersed in a culture that says, “I'm good. I’m great. I can create my own destiny. I create my own reality. I determine my own identity.” So each and every one of the components of the gospel, for some of our unsaved friends and family, take some time for them to chew on, and we need to give them that time.
There's the components about God that I've mentioned. There's the components about us. There's the components about Jesus, that He is God Himself, and He died an atoning death, and He rose from the dead, and then, finally, we as individuals need to receive, respond to this message with repentance and faith. Every single one of those ingredients needs time for chewing. And a lot of us are just very, very impatient with that.
I know that you might even be feeling some resistance to this right now, as I'm talking. I know that sometimes when I speak at churches and other ministry settings where I'm sharing this, and I say, “Sometimes we need to present part of the gospel and let people respond to that before we share other parts of the gospel.” I remember one time saying this, and there was a man listening to me, and he just had this very pained, puzzled look on his face. And he finally spoke up and he said, “Part of the gospel? You would share part of the gospel? You wouldn't share all of the gospel?” And so if you're totally resistant to this, then perhaps you haven't even listened this far in the podcast, or maybe you're about to click that button that says delete. I don't know. But I hope you'll consider that we do have places in scripture, where Paul, in Acts 17, for example, shared part of the gospel, where Jesus in John 4, talking to the woman at the well, shared part of the gospel. If you look through the different places, there are times when Jesus chose to say some things and let people wrestle with them for a while before bringing them more information.
So that's the component of time. It takes longer. We need to have more patience asking God to give us wisdom. Sometimes one of the most powerful witnessing tools is learning when to stop talking. By the way, when I do speak about this, very often people raise their hand and they say, “Yes, but what happens if we don't share the whole gospel, and somebody walks outside and gets hit by a bus?” It's always getting hit by the bus that I always find disturbing. Sometimes I want to joke, “Where do you people live that people keep getting hit by buses?” But I understand the concern. I think what we need to do is we need to trust in the sovereignty of God more and remember that someone's coming to faith is not totally dependent on just us, as the one person who witnesses. We need to ask that God would bring other people into their lives who would witness and carry on the conversation. So perhaps if you want to email me at the C.S. Lewis Institute to challenge some of these things, or if you want to continue the conversation about that, I'd be more than happy to, but let me move on to the second component of witnessing to family members.
The first one is time. Second one is love. And what I mean by that is, in many families, love is assumed but not always expressed. We assume that people know that we love them because they're our parent or our sibling or our child. But in many cases, we don't really express it. Or we express it almost as a passing cliche, like, “Love you,” at the end of a phone conversation. Or we sign an email, “Love, Dad.” And what we need to do is we need to find ways to express love to our family, so that they really feel loved, so that it really does make an impact on them. And this becomes harder and harder as time goes on, because, like I said, it's just sort of assumed. And so we need to find ways to express love. And by the way, that keeps changing over time. I expressed love to my sons when they were five years old very differently than I did when they were 15 years old, very differently than I do now that they're in their 30s. Children, teenagers, young adults, adults who have their own families, each of these is a different stage of life, and different things communicate love. And I'm sure you also know enough that different things communicate love to different people in different ways. Some people need and love to hear it expressed verbally. Other people, that just doesn't do anything to them. But if you do something for them as a favor or you give them a gift, that communicates love. For other people, a gift communicates nothing. Or maybe, just maybe, even for some people, it communicates a negative thing. “Oh, no! Now I have to give them a gift.” So you need to think through what would communicate love to this particular person at this particular stage of their life, in our particular stage of our relationship together. And so we need to find ways to express love that they feel it.
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Let me share a story from my own life. I was the first one to become a believer in my family of five, my parents and my two brothers. I come from a Jewish background, and becoming a believer in Jesus was kind of a scandal in our family. It was not a welcome thing. I think my parents thought I may have joined some kind of crazy cult. My younger brother in particular felt that I was going to try to convert him in a harmful, destructive way. And so he made it clear to my parents, who then relayed it to me, that he didn't want to hear anything about spiritual things. He lived kind of a pretty wild life in high school and in college. And when he went off to college—by this time my wife and I were married, and we invited him to come visit us in another city, and he just kept saying no all the time. And finally my mother told me that it was because he was afraid I was going to try to convert him.
So I invited him to come visit us, and I promised him I wouldn't try to convert him. In fact, I wouldn't talk about anything spiritual whatsoever. I think he was skeptical, but he came to visit us, and we talked about books, we talked about movies, we went to a hockey game, we talked about sports. I think he might have been waiting for me to start talking about spiritual things. I made it my goal that, in the course of the three days he came to visit, I would not speak about anything religious. And I think he was kind of surprised by that but also relieved. And then six months later, when we were living for a short time in a beach town as part of a Campus Crusade for Christ summer beach mission, we invited him to come visit. And the beach sounded good to him, and he came again. And I vowed in my mind that I wasn't going to talk to him about spiritual things. But he kept bringing it up and kept asking me questions, and I, at times, even tried to change the subject. I wanted it to be very clear that he was the one bringing these topics up, and that allowed him, I think, the freedom to start really exploring things on his own. I encouraged him to read the New Testament, and he did, the entire thing. And less than a year later, he became a believer, and now he's an assistant pastor at an evangelical church. I love that story. But it embraces two of the things about time and finding ways to express love to him. Taking him to a hockey game was an expression of love that I think he needed to feel and sense, and being willing to talk about things that he was interested in was an expression of love. We need to think through what will communicate love to our family in ways that they feel loved.
So time, love, finally, comprehensiveness. And here's what I mean: I think a lot of our non-Christian family have already heard our Christian spiel, our urge for them to consider the gospel. We've given them copies of books and DVDs and pointed them to websites, and they've heard our Christian spiel, and many of them don't really want to hear any more. But they would be willing to discuss with us other topics. And so we need to find out what other topics they are interested in discussing or experiences that they would like to have and then join them and ask God to give us an interest in, I don't know, American history or art or music or movies or something. My older brother is still not a believer and has made it very clear that he's not interested in spiritual things at all. So I tried the direct approach for several years of witnessing directly. He shut the topic down very quickly. It was after several years that I learned, and I'm ashamed to admit this, but I found out that my brother was really into history, and he liked reading presidential biographies. And he had been reading them for several years, and I never knew this at all.
It was only after I started listening that I would be learning what kind of things he was interested in. And, again, I found out that he was interested in presidential biographies and that he was interested in history. He lives in New York. I live in Washington, DC. Washington, DC, has a fair amount of history in it. I don't know if you ever knew that. But he started taking the train down to DC, and we started going to museums, Smithsonian, Museum of American History, etc., and those kind of places. And talking about history. And I asked him which presidential biographies he was reading, and I tried to read some of those and talk about those. And what was it about FDR and JFK that was so attractive to him?
And one day he said to me, “How far is Thomas Jefferson's home from you, Monticello?” And I thought, “Oh, it's pretty far. It's like 2 hours away.” He goes, “That’s not that far! I could take the train down to you, and then we could drive down to Monticello together. Would you be interested in doing that?” And my first thought was, “Be alone in the car with my brother for 2 hours? I think I'd run out of conversation within the first ten minutes. This sounds scary.” But I thought, “Well, he's interested in Thomas Jefferson. I could learn enough about Thomas Jefferson to try to have a conversation about him.” And so we went, and we did talk about Thomas Jefferson, although not all that long, not for all that long.
But after we had been in the car for about an hour and a half, he started asking me questions about marriage. Or actually, I should say, he started expressing concerns about his own marriage, and they were having some problems. And I said, “Well, you know, every marriage has problems because every marriage is made up of two sinful people.” And he said, “No, come on! You and Pam, you don't have any problems like that.” And I said, “No, no, really. We are two sinful people. I know that may be hard for you to believe. Well, maybe it's not that hard for you to believe about me, but it is true about Pam, too. Two sinful people create an environment that could be a challenge for every single couple.” And see, he didn't want to talk about Thomas Jefferson. He didn't even want to talk about Jesus, but he was interested in talking about marriage.
So I decided to try to shine a gospel spotlight on the topic of marriage. I said, “You know, I think the only reason why Pam and I haven't killed each other is because we've learned how to forgive each other. We learned a whole lot about forgiveness. We say, ‘I'm sorry,’ to each other a lot, and we say, ‘I forgive you,’ to each other a lot.” And he's listening now more intently than most other topics. By the way, there was something about the fact that we were in a car, driving, and both facing the same direction, not facing each other. I think there's something very threatening about two people sitting across a table or a coffee table from each other, looking directly at each other. There's something disarming about both facing a certain direction. And there we were, both facing straight ahead, Route 29 South on the way to Charlottesville.
And I've talked to a number of people who have told me that the only—parents of teenagers—the only time they have decent conversations with their teenagers are in the car, when they're both facing the same direction. So you may want to take that into account. But anyway, there we were, both facing the same direction, talking about marriage and forgiveness. And I said, “I think the only reason we can forgive each other is because we realize we've been forgiven for so much. I think that's what our faith is, our Christian faith, our belief in Jesus as the Messiah. He paid for our sins, and so we're forgiven. And so the fact that we have total forgiveness is like a resource for us to forgive each other.” And again, he was listening more closely and more intently than any of my spiritual conversations before. Now, he still isn't a believer, but he heard more of the gospel that day because we weren't talking about the gospel, we were talking about marriage, which eventually got to a conversation about the gospel.
All I'm trying to say is we need to think of our faith in a very comprehensive way and ask God to give us wisdom about implications of the gospel on a million topics, like marriage or family or health or sickness or job or money or retirement or a million topics. If I may, once again, quote C.S. Lewis, I have to go back to Lewis’s rather famous statement, where he said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Did you catch that? Lewis saw everything through the lens of Christianity, the God who took on flesh and died in atoning, sacrificial death, so that people could be made into new creatures and have eternal life. Lewis's close friend, Walter Hooper, said C. S. Lewis was the most thoroughly converted man he ever met. Lewis, when he became a Christian, changed the way he thought about everything. And we need to grow in that kind of discipleship, so that we think so very deeply about every topic, so that when we're talking to people about things, we can talk deeply with them and dig into the conversation with them and then shine a light on it from the vantage point of the risen Messiah.
One time, I was doing a workshop on witnessing to family members, and I asked people to consider: What are the topics that your family likes to talk about? And this one woman raised her hand. She said, “I'm just so frustrated. All my family ever wants to talk about, the only thing they ever want to talk about, is the weather.” And I said, “Do you join them in that conversation?” She said, “No, I just don't want to talk about the weather. I don't care about the weather.” I said, “Well, I would encourage you to find out about the weather and try to start talking about it. I think if that's the only topic they want to talk about,” and then I looked at her and said, “By the way, is that really the only topic?” She goes, “Well, no. It just seems like they talk about it all the time.” “Okay. I think you ought to join in those conversations. I think you should watch The Weather Channel. I think you should find a weather app to put on your phone and start checking the weather and learn about air flow and high and low pressure systems and hurricanes and all that, so that you can talk to your family about those things. And then maybe they might be interested in talking about other things.” By the way, I could be wrong, but I think a conversation about the weather could point to God. Well, I'll let you chew on that and think about that. I think it could work.
Anyway, I'm going to wrap this up. I hope this has been helpful and stimulating of ideas of things you can talk about, perhaps, this Thanksgiving or Christmas. What are some things you can talk about and have a long-term time perspective? What are ways you can express love to your family in ways that might surprise them, but also convey that you really do love them? And what are some other topics that the gospel touches on in a comprehensive way? Because God is the Creator of all of life, and everything has His fingerprints on them.
Well, I hope that this has been helpful, at least for starting some thought about witnessing to family members. If you like reading about this kind of stuff, I did write a whole book on it. It's published by Crossway. It's called Bringing the Gospel Home. I believe we have a couple of articles on our website, cslewisinstitute.org, about evangelism and particularly about witnessing to family members. And we do hope you'll check out that website, look at our resources, audio, video, written articles, book reviews, so that you can explore heart and mind discipleship, so that your faith is comprehensive, rich, and deep. Again, thanks for listening.