This is my first blog ever. The reason is simple: I’m not a natural writer. I prefer strategy, details, numbers, and efficiency. One of the most recent personality tests my husband Ben and I took said “Lynley appreciates efficiency of words.” Having said that, when asked if I’d consider writing a blog about the importance of making friends with those who are unchurched, dechurched, or simply unsure of what they believe, I was immediately on board. This is something that will bring out a lot of words for even my word-efficient self.
Confession: there was a very long period of time in my life (essentially all of it until 5 years ago) where I believed surrounding myself with only Christian friends was best for my spiritual growth. I believed that also to be true for my children. Surely these relationships would “spur us on towards love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). All I had ever heard was Paul’s warning of, “Do not be yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14). I assumed that meant I should steer clear of the nonreligious crowd. I kept myself protected and swam with my school of fish.
Then we moved to Denver. And it all began to change.
The Book of Acts says that God ordains “the exact places we should live” (Acts 17:26), and the place He chose for us was quite possibly one of the most social streets in all of Denver. Our street was brimming over with highly educated, very welcoming neighbors who were on a spectrum of “very friendly toward the Mandrells” to “very skeptical about incoming churchy folk.” We had moved to Denver 1) with the help of the North American Mission Board, 2) to start a Baptist church from scratch, and 3) in one of the most Post-Christian cities in America. They all assumed we were moving onto the street just to pass out tracts and call them to repent.
Within the first week, we were asked a wild mix of questions such as “What denomination are you?” “Why do denominations even exist?” “What’s a church plant?” “What’s a church?” “Do we handle snakes?” “Do we speak in tongues?” “Are you and your daughter allowed to wear pants or only skirts?” “Do we drink?” “Do we smoke?” “What’s our opinion on drinking?” “What’s our opinion on marijuana?”
I don’t know why my heart changed so quickly, but within that first week I remember feeling refreshed by the authenticity of this new world. I knew I was going to love Colorado! I chose to bloom where I was planted, learn the culture, and own my faith.
Since church plants are a slow-go at the start, building relationships with neighbors felt like a natural place to start. I went all in. We hiked. We bought bikes (being choosy because Colorado people will write you off for riding a bad bike). We hosted cookouts at our house. We bought three different boxes of “get to know you” cards to use during these cookouts to simply have fun with our new friends. We asked what they believed. We asked why they believed it. We asked about their families, kids, and jobs. We asked about their frustrations/hurts with religion. In all this Q&A, we received raw, authentic answers to our questions.
Over several years, we came up with a list of do’s and don’ts in building relationships with spiritual explorers. I want to share them with you now.
DO Invite People Into Your Life, Not to a Location
I was going to be friends with the neighbors on my street whether they ever darkened the door of our church or not. In their book I Once Was Lost, Don Everts and Doug Shaupp list the major thresholds postmodern people must pass through on their way to accepting Christ. The first major threshold is met on the day they meet a Christian that they trust and like. This is a game-changer for the skeptic. If I accomplished nothing else on Russell Court than this, I know that I created trust with many of my neighbors, and I will always count that as a win.
DO Encourage Questions
Quoting Everts and Shaupp again, “Jesus often asked questions of those around him. This seems normal, but when you consider that Jesus knew everything already, it makes you rethink why Jesus did ask so many questions. It seems He used questions not to elicit information from people but rather to stir within them some thought or emotion.”
Ben and I learned that we could build stronger rapport with our neighbors by drawing them out than we could by shoving truth in. This is not something that is preached much today. Sermons on listening are not a normal part of evangelism training.
DON’T Call Them Lost
Nonreligious people would never refer to themselves in such a way, and they would resent the label. Even though Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, we have to be careful in this culture how we use those words on our websites and social media. Our church would challenge folks to bring their non-religious friends, or those interested in exploring Christianity. The softer language made a difference in our outlook.
DON’T Use “Churchy” Words
I don’t know about you, but I personally dislike talking to a doctor that uses technical terms I don’t understand. We call that bad bedside manner. What if we as Christians began to evaluate our “bedside manner” and were more careful about words we use? We can use big words like “sanctification” that wow people, or we can simply say “spiritual growth” and involve them. We found that this purposeful simplification made our non-religious friends feel more at home.
I could write more on this subject, but those are a few basics that will hopefully help stir up some fresh thinking in reaching out to your non-religious friends and neighbors. Jesus made it a habit of hanging out with the non-religious crowd. Are we?
Lynley Mandrell is the wife of Ben Mandrell, the new president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Before coming to LifeWay, Ben and Lynley spent five years in Denver, CO, planting a church designed to reach the unchurched. She is a mother of four and a fan of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Dr. Pepper, and silence.