Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of John Burke’s new book Unshockable Love: How Jesus Changes the World through Imperfect People (Baker Books, 2014).
Too often, people who are seeking to learn more about Jesus are repelled by Christians who react in shock to their sin rather than show them love. Jesus himself was never shocked by people’s sinfulness, and he loved them no matter what. That great love is what encourages sinful people to grow spiritually.
People who don’t yet have relationships with Jesus need to know that Christians like you are for them rather than against them. The most creative evangelistic strategies and the cleverest apologetic arguments won’t successfully reach people unless you relate to them with true love, helping people sense Jesus’ heart for them.
Here’s how you can move from shock to love with sinful people:
See the masterpieces underneath the mud. The sin in people’s lives is like mud that makes them dirty, obscuring the beauty of how God intended them to be when he created them. Sinful people may strike you as ugly, when in fact they’re beautiful masterpieces made in God’s image. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you see the full value of the sinful people you meet underneath the mud of sin in their lives – and to relate to them with respect, kindness, and grace in light of their God-given value. When you meet people whose sin bothers you, refuse to take a condescending attitude toward them and instead look beyond their sin to their worth as God’s children. Engage the people you meet in conversation, asking them questions about their lives with no agenda other than to simply learn more about them.
Help people identify with God’s image in them. People who are caught in sin get caught in shame as a result, so they can lose hope that they can ever change for the better. It’s important to show sinful people that their true identity isn’t based on anything they do, but on who they are: valuable people made in God’s image. Helping people see what kind of people God created them to be can motivate them to trust God and move forward on their journey toward spiritual restoration. Pray for the ability to relate to sinful people with mercy and a commitment to help them discover and fulfill God’s purposes for their lives.
Make yourself available to join God in his restorative work in sinful people’s lives. Always be ready to say “yes” to God when he brings someone to your attention whom you can encourage spiritually. Whenever you sense the Holy Spirit calling you to help someone who is seeking God, make time in your schedule to respond.
Call out the masterpiece in others around you. Aim to bring out the best in the people around you by affirming or encouraging them. Whenever you recognize something good in someone who isn’t yet a Christian – such as caring for the earth God made, leading others with integrity, or using their power to work for justice – point that out. Inspire people to discover their true identity as God’s beloved children.
Hold grace and truth together in tension by a stronger force: love. Since God uses both grace and truth in tandem to restore people’s lives, you should do the same when you’re joining God in his work. Call seekers toward the great plans that you imagine God has for them, point out godly character traits that you recognize in them, forgive them when they hurt or offend you, spend time with them simply to enjoy their company and show them that they’re worth being with, and affirm their wisdom whenever they say something that reflects biblical truth.
Respect people’s freedom. Don’t try to fix, manipulate, or force change on people. Instead, ask the Holy Spirit to help you better respect the freedom God has given others. Enjoy conversations with non-Christians simply to learn more about them; ask them questions and listen to what they say without judging them. Seek to understand their needs and concerns – and in the process of interacting with a genuinely caring Christian, people will be inspired to discover more about God and why they can trust him.
Share people’s pain. Meet people in the middle of their pain and brokenness by listening compassionately to them describe their sorrow or grief and doing what you can to meet their needs.
Communicate the Gospel message in ways that reach people’s hearts. Tell people the good news about God and life (that God created them for a loving relationships with him and others, and he is available to lead them into the lives they long to experience), about Jesus (that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection opened the way for them to receive God’s forgiveness for their sins and become the people God intends them to become), and about their part (they can freely choose to turn away from their sins and place their trust in God to move forward into the lives they were meant to live).
Speak hard words when people need to be confronted by the truth in love. People whose hearts are hard – who are rebelling against God and persistently sinning – need to be confronted by the reality of how they’re harming themselves and others. Pray for the courage you need to go to people who are stuck in sin and urge them to respond to God to start breaking free of that sin.
Build a core group of other believers with whom you can serve and befriend seekers. Pray for God to lead you to two or three other Christians with whom you can work together to serve and befriend people who haven’t yet placed their trust in Jesus. Then pray together to discover specific people whom God wants you all to reach. Build relational momentum by doing activities you enjoy with people you meet outside your church, and then after you’ve develop meaningful friendships with them, inviting them to come to your church just as they are to learn more about God. Encourage seekers to join you and other Christians working on volunteer service projects, rather than waiting until they’re believers to give them opportunities to serve people in need.
Create a “come as you are” environment at your church. Help seekers feel comfortable learning more about God at your church by: welcoming their doubts, acknowledging their questions and resistance, teaching the essentials of Christianity, using the arts to communicate creatively, streaming worship services over the Internet, offering seminars where seekers can freely explore spiritual meaning, and opening small groups to seekers who want to join.
Adapted from Unshockable Love: How Jesus Changes the World through Imperfect People, copyright 2014 by John Burke. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Mich., bakerpublishinggroup.com/bakerbooks.
John Burke is the author of No Perfect People Allowed and Soul Revolution, and the lead pastor at Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, which he and his wife, Kathy, founded in 1998. Since then, Gateway has grown to more than 4,500 members, made up mostly of unchurched people who began actively following Christ at Gateway.
Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, is author of the Christian novel Dream Factory, which is set during Hollywood's golden age. She produced a site about angels and miracles for About.com. Now she writes about the power of thoughts on her “Renewing Your Mind” blog.
Publication date: October 14, 2014