In a recent conversation with a pastor recently returned from a mission project in Hungary, I asked him how he was able to begin conversations with people in a secular society. I have observed the rising pressure of secular thinking in the US culture and the way secular pressure is reshaping the US government, even to the redefining of familiar words in unfamiliar terms. I thought there might be something for American Christians to learn from a person who had been a missionary in a completely secular nation.
Hungary has been a nation for a long time. It has had its ups and downs in the power grid, but since it exited the hegemony of the Soviet Union it has, at the least, remained independent. The legacy of the years as a Soviet satellite is a nation where church buildings are museums. This state of affairs is actually not much different from many western European nations. In those countries, a state church receives money from the national government, but nobody takes the church all that seriously. Church attendance is not common, and the statistics decline with the age of the group surveyed.
What, then, did a missionary to Hungary do in order to share Christ with people who believe they have grown past all that religious voodoo?
This missionary spent some time observing before he did anything. While he observed, he got acquainted. He met people on the street, in stores, in churches, at the fence that marked the boundary between his yard and his neighbor’s yard.
He asked a lot of questions:
- · Do you have children?
- · What do you think of the price of coffee these days?
- · Where is the best place to get new tires for my car?
- · Have you eaten at the new restaurant downtown?
Then he listened.
These questions don’t sound very spiritual, but they do sound very human. His theory is that after we get right with God by putting our faith in Christ, we need to get serious about loving our neighbors. He believes that Christians try to share Christ before they have shared themselves, and most people simply aren’t ready for the good news until they have learned to trust the messenger.
After this missionary pastor made some casual friends, he invited those friends to dinner. He says that if people are enjoying a good meal together, laughing about the antics of some relative last Christmas, they are predisposed to share more of themselves and to receive more of other people. This missionary looks to the gospel for this model, finding many stories of Jesus in social settings, irritating the Pharisees who expected a religious man to act religious. The missionary told me that he had no success at all when he tried to buttonhole someone and ask “Do you know Jesus?” but people who had eaten at his table would sometimes come back and ask, “What did you mean yesterday when you said that Jesus died for murderers? I thought Christians had to be good people.”
The missionary has a lot of philosophical and theological underpinnings for this approach. Maybe he will write a book someday about the three tables: the table at my house, the Communion table at my church, the table of the Lamb’s Wedding Supper in heaven at the end of time. For now, I am trying to absorb what he said about sharing himself first.
Do you share yourself with people who need Christ? Do those people trust you to love them for themselves, not for a conversion statistic? In your heart of hearts, do you truly love people for Jesus’ sake? Will you continue to give of yourself as generously if they never respond to the good news of Christ? Are you making friends, or are you cultivating prospects which you will drop when they prove not to be productive? Jesus said that we should be salt and light. Are we doing that job?