Reaching the Reluctant Relative
If you have one or more unbelieving relatives, I am certain you know how difficult it can seem to start a conversation that moves toward the gospel. I am also certain this article will be of help to you.
People who have not chosen to follow Jesus can fall into certain categories regarding their reasons for rejecting Christianity. Sometimes these categories are unknown to us, but if the people are relatives, we are much more likely to be aware of them with just a nudge of help. This article is that help. My goal is to walk you through four of the most common categories for persistent unbelief and offer some short – and I believe very effective – suggestions for moving a conversation toward the gospel.
First, the categories.
Apathy – they simply are not concerned with the claims of Christianity.
Animosity – they have directly or indirectly experienced hurt / hypocrisy from Christians and are frustrated at the thought of faith in Christ.
Established identity – they feel certain and satisfied that their current religious or irreligious worldview is correct.
Uncertainty – they may be unclear on what it means to become a Christian and unsure of the implications; however, they’re often afraid to ask about either of these things.
If you have any non-Christian relatives, it’s likely that their faces popped into your mind when you read one or more of those categories. Now, let’s talk about how you can take steps toward a winsome gospel conversation with someone in each category.
Apathetic – moving them toward the gospel with real stories
The cure for apathy has always been a powerful story. Stories grab your attention, make you care, keep you engaged, and often change your perspective. And true stories hit the hardest. It’s why the Bible is full of them, and why your pastor employs them in sermons, and why whatever Bible study you’re in right now has them scattered throughout its pages. They take people from uncaring to engaged, and you can do that, too.
“Have I ever told you about a struggle that almost consumed me?” A question like this is specifically designed for someone who is apathetic. You don’t need to try to shake them out of their apathy by asking questions about their faith – you already know where they stand: They don’t care much because they don’t think there is a reason to care. However, an authentic story is the great enemy of apathy. When an apathetic person sees you genuinely open up – warts and all – about your faith, it makes them want to hear more and a conversation can bloom.
Don’t have a story like that? Find one. Find a real story about someone in your family, someone you know, or someone you’ve even read about that highlights the power of faith. Tell a story from overseas where faith perseveres in the midst of persecution. Whatever you tell, make sure it’s a real story that shows how faith is something worth caring about because it can change everything. Watch what happens and see how the conversation unfolds.
Animosity – moving them toward the gospel with genuine concern
Do you have a relative who has been let down by Christians in the past either through the experience of church hurt or hypocrisy? Consider a question they’ll never see coming.
“Have I ever told you how often I fail to live according to my beliefs?” Just imagine what kind of conversation can begin with someone who sees all Christians as hypocrites. It provides an amazing opportunity for you to be honest about something we all face (not living perfectly) while opening the door an amazing statement like, “fortunately, Jesus doesn’t tell anyone to follow me, other Christians, or even my pastor – He says to follow Him; and He has never been inconsistent.” This kind of approach can also be a healing balm for those who “gave church a shot”, but we’re disappointed or even hurt by the experience. If you can share how other believers have let you down in the past, it will take you so much farther than trying to invalidate their experience.
Eventually, you can get to a point where the relative you’re reaching can see that hypocrisy and hurt is in the church because sinners are in the church. However, it is Jesus we are following and Jesus we are worshipping – and it is Jesus who they need to know.
Established identity – moving toward the gospel with engaged interest
If someone has shown that they are firmly established in what they believe, you’ll probably want to ask a question like, “You seem really confident in what you believe. Would you mind sharing about what led you to believe that? I’d love to hear your story.” If this is a relative you’ve known for a while, they likely knows you’re a Christian and you likely know what they firmly believe. But if you’ve never asked to hear their story or taken a “I just want to listen” approach to hearing them share why they hold their views, you’ve missed a big opportunity. Take a different approach next time.
People who are confident love to share, and the more they share, the more you know about where they’re coming from so you can dig deeper later. This also buys you credit. By listening to them there is an understanding that now it’s your turn. The expectation is for you to share a little about what you believe. Even if you’ve shared with them before, this may be the first time you have their attention because you showed interest in them first.
Uncertain – moving them toward the gospel with an invitation
Do you have a relative that seems interested in spiritual things, but attempts at conversations never go anywhere of significance?
You’re likely talking to someone who is uncertain. Sometimes, this person may even be described as “al almost Christian.” You may try asking a simple question like, “Has anybody ever explained to you what it means to be a Christian? I’d be more than happy to if you’re interested – with no strings attached.” Somebody who is on the fence or uncertain will rarely reach out and ask about what you believe, but they’ll jump at the opportunity to hear what you have to say if you ask them. I think it’s especially important to let them know that you’re not expecting a decision right this moment. You’re just seeking to explain something they seem interested in so they can better understand it. If it’s “that moment” for them, the Holy Spirit will take care of that.
Understanding the category someone fits in can often be like finding the X on the treasure map. It tells you exactly where to dig for the most profitable conversation. Give some of these ideas a try and see how the conversation unfolds when you meet with family this holiday season.
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