It feels like a Norman Rockwell painting. Your family is gathered around a luxuriously set table. A huge roasted turkey makes its arrival. Side dishes crowd the scene. Relatives begin to drool.
Suddenly, the background music veers into an ominous minor key. Your brother-in-law, who has already had too much to drink, announces, “I suppose we need our token religious guy to pronounce some kind of prayer, right? Let’s not take too long on this — the food’s getting cold.”
Everyone turns to you, the lone Christian of the family. Which prayer do you pray?
Choice A: “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Choice B: “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth to save sinners. Thank you that all who receive you as their Savior and Lord can be born again, can have their many, many, many sins forgiven, and can have eternal life. What a great God you are! And thank you for all this delicious food. Please protect us from gluttony. In Jesus’s name. Amen.”
Of course, I’ve exaggerated this scenario. But for some of us, going to a holiday gathering (or hosting one) can be fraught with spiritual tension when few (or none) share our Christian faith. And given numerous trends in our society, the tension may only get worse in the days ahead. Not long ago, most of our non-Christian family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers believed that Christianity and church membership contributed to the well-being of society. Today, many people blame us for all sorts of problems in our world. We’re the bigoted, intolerant, homophobic, gun-toting, anti-science Neanderthals that are dragging our country down, backward, and into decay.
Into such an environment we gather together to celebrate “the holidays.” How do we navigate this terrain? How might we evangelize our family on what appears to be a minefield? It may prove helpful to begin with some internal preparation before we brainstorm strategies for external interaction. In fact, framing the topic through before, during, and after scenarios might ease the burden of our endeavor.
Have you been praying for the people you’ll see at the upcoming gathering? If not, it’s not too late to start. If so, it’s never a bad idea to intensify your efforts. Jesus taught the disciples to “pray and not lose heart” because he knew they — and we — would be tempted to quit (Luke 18:1). Prayer takes perseverance, especially when it comes to praying for people who seem resistant to change or closed to the gospel. That’s one reason Paul tells us to “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2).
It’s also good to check your attitude toward your family. Do you love them, or do you find them difficult to love? Perhaps both feelings swarm together. For many, family is the realm where love is assumed but not so often expressed (or, at least, not expressed well). If we’re honest, some of us disdain our family. So at times, preparing to connect with family should include confession of a cold heart. God is the one who has sovereignly placed you in your particular family. Perhaps your chief objection about your earthly family is toward your heavenly Father.
A little self-reflection about your default settings regarding evangelism also can help. Are you pushy when it comes to sharing your faith, or are you an evangelistic chicken? Do you tend to “always be closing” when telling people about Jesus, or do you live more in the realm of the wallflower-witness? If your family dreads seeing you, fearing your questions about their eternal destiny, perhaps you need to consider a less overbearing approach. If you never or seldom broach the topic of faith, perhaps you need to make God’s glory a higher priority than your comfort or family harmony.
Some Christians think of evangelism as convincing others to agree with cognitive arguments and logical propositions. Others imagine evangelism as overwhelmingly emotional. They say that people need to be loved, not argued, into the kingdom. But the Bible sees us as whole persons with both brains and hearts. We need multifaceted approaches to connect with multifaceted people. We proclaim truth and express love. We craft arguments and also embody hope, joy, and peace.
If you tend toward the cognitive side, perhaps this Thanksgiving and Christmas you’d do well to talk about what you’re thankful for, why you’re encouraged about the future, and how you have felt buoyed by the ways you’ve been provided for in the past. You might consider ways to convey care for people: listening more, sympathizing more, and pontificating less. Explore common interests as avenues for further, deeper conversation, which could make room to discuss God’s goodness shown through common grace and general revelation.
If you lean more in the direction of the silent witness, perhaps you should prepare to explain what you believe, and then try verbalizing your faith to one or two relatives who are most likely to converse in respectful ways. To be sure, you’ll find this uncomfortable. Again, perhaps you need to repent of making comfort an idol.
Before the age of social media, email, texting, and other modes of electronic connection (can you remember such ancient history?), holiday gatherings were some of the only times to have substantive conversations with family. If we didn’t broach important topics then, another year or more would pass before we could.
It’s a whole new world now, which does offer some advantages for evangelism. We can continue the conversation long after the family gathering, and some forms of electronic communication might be better than the face-to-face variety. Many people feel put on the spot or backed into a corner when they’re asked about their religious beliefs. Those moments can be so uncomfortable, they resort to dismissing the topic out of hand, changing the subject, or offering mindless clichés: “I think religion is a private matter,” “Well, who’s to say what’s right or wrong?” or “I think all religions contain some truth.”
A follow-up email after a brief in-person conversation may prove more fruitful. First, it’s one-on-one, with no one overhearing. Second, it gives people time to reflect before responding, allowing them the chance to think deeply about what they really do believe.
Many people almost never think about spiritual things. If you ask them about their beliefs, it may be the first time (or the first time in a very long time) they’ve considered the topic. That’s why some resort to clichés, which protect them from deep reflection. But as they sit in front of their computer or look at their phone, with the question you posed waiting patiently before them, they have time to consider a new perspective.
Let’s not forget that considering the gospel unnerves many nonbelievers. When people seriously think about their sinfulness or God’s holiness or Jesus’s uniqueness or the world’s emptiness or their own lack of inner peace, we shouldn’t be surprised if they need space to wrestle on their own before coming to painful conclusions. As C.S. Lewis observed about the kinds of gods in which we would rather believe instead of the real God,
An “impersonal God” — well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth, and goodness, inside our own heads — better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap — best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband — that is quite another matter. (Miracles, 150)
Battle for Family
It shouldn’t surprise us if witnessing to family members seems tougher than talking to strangers or close acquaintances. It is more difficult! Our emotions run deeper with family. We’ve known them longer, and will know them longer still.
But on a larger scale, the family is a favorite battlefield for the devil. He hates marriage, family, and, most of all, the God who calls himself “Father.” God places a high value on families, and they are a high priority for him. If family is a high priority for God, then family is certainly a high priority for the evil one.
So, as we come together for holiday celebrations, let’s not be naive: there’s a lot more going on than just turkey and all the trimmings.