Where do you go when you have a problem?

Who do you turn to when you need help or advice on some issue of great importance in your life? Or, for that matter, whom do you talk to when you want an opinion on what kind of new car or vacuum cleaner to buy?

Now let’s look at the flipside of these questions. How do you feel when a stranger tries to talk to you about personal matters? Do you relish the thought of interacting with people you don’t know about below the surface issues in your life?

Suppose you’re spending some leisure time with your family on a Saturday morning when suddenly your privacy is interrupted by a knock at the door. There stand two religious people who want to tell you how you can become part of God’s organization? Let me guess: You get all fired up and think, “Wow, a chance to talk to some articulate people about such an interesting and important topic!”


I seriously doubt it. If you’re like most of us, your first response is, “Oh no! Why did they have to show up today? I’m not in any mood to talk to people off the street about topics that are so complicated and personal — not to mention the fact that they’re probably trained to argue with everything I say!”

If you, a Christian who’s committed to spreading God’s love and truth to others feel that way when it comes to talking to strangers about spiritual matters, just think how your irreligious friends must feel in similar situations! They’re likely horrified by the thought of taking to someone they don’t know about their private lives.

It’s no wonder that so many of the older, impersonal approaches to spreading the faith don’t work very well anymore. As people in our culture have gotten further and further from their Christian roots and heritage, they’ve gotten less and less comfortable talking to anyone — especially people they don’t know — about matters of faith. With the increasing secularization of society, there seems to be a proportionate decrease in people’s willingness to move outside their comfort zones in order to search for answers to life’s most crucial questions.

It’s no wonder that so many of the older, impersonal approaches to spreading the faith don’t work very well anymore.

How much attention to you pay to all the addressed-to-Occupant junk mail that crowds your box every day? It’s probably safe to assume that gospel leaflets, tracts, direct mail from churches, and ads in the Yellow Pages or in the church section of the local newspaper don’t get much attention either. And aren’t you as skeptical as I am about whether clever slogans on Christian bumper stickers and John 3:16 banners at ball games have any meaningful effect on people? I certainly don’t hear many testimonies these days from people who’ve been reached by these impersonal approaches.

Even the higher-quality Christian programming on radio and television, for all its expense and effort, tends to miss the truly unchurched people who need so desperately to be reached. From my interaction with these individuals, I’ve found that they’re usually unaware that such programs even exist.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying that God sometimes uses these techniques to touch people with the truth. Regardless of the approach, there will always be an occasional story here and there to prove that these efforts have at least some worth. I’m just saying that as people get more and more immune to impersonal methods, we’d be wise to start putting fewer of our eggs in those baskets.

The fact is, all of us experience discomfort when someone outside our circle of friends tries to influence us about personal, significant matters. We all naturally gravitate toward people we already know and trust. Friends listen to friends. The confide in friends. The let friends influence them. They buy from friends — and that’s true of both products and ideas.

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The most effective approach

So if we’re going to impact our world for Christ, the most effective approach will be through friendships with those who need to be reached. We’ll have to get close to them so they can see that we genuinely care about them individually and that we have their best interests in mind. Over time, that will earn their trust and respect. But let’s be honest. The whole enterprise of developing friendships of integrity with unchurched people takes significant amounts of time and effort, not to mention some occasional discomfort. So our temptation may be to short-circuit the process and — ready or not — issue a spiritual challenge to the person. After all, we reason, there are too many people who need to be reached for us to spend a lot of time getting to know just one of them.

The problem is that what might seem to us to be a reasonable shortcut toward truth ends up being a wrong turn that derails the person’s spiritual progress. Feeling pressured to take a premature step, they will likely slow down or, in some cases, even abort the whole process. Mark learned this lesson the hard way. It happened a few years ago when our church was putting on a week-long presentation that combined contemporary music and drama to communicate Christianity to people who don’t normally go to church.

He had bought four tickets for the Friday night performance, and along with his wife, Heidi, had invited another couple. But that couple canceled at the last minute. Now it was the day of the event, and they were holding two extra tickets with no one to bring.

Mark drove home from the office that evening, and as he turned into his driveway, he saw the young couple who lived next door walking on the sidewalk in front of his house. They weren’t married, had shown no inclination toward spiritual interests, and he only knew them by their first names. Still, he figured, why not give it a shot?

“Hey Scott!” he called out. “I was wondering if you two are busy tonight. You see, I’ve got these extra tickets to a concert at our church.” He quickly tried to dispel any stereotypes they might have and to convey that this would feature music they’d really like, that there would be professional-quality and up-to-date drama, good sound and lighting, and so on. And then he asked if they would like to go. Push the pause button for a moment. If you think along the lines I do, you’re probably admiring the confidence Mark showed in forthrightly explaining this opportunity and inviting a couple he’d barely even met. It was the kind of thing a lot of us think about doing but find it hard to muster the needed courage. The only problem, as he found out, was that it was probably too bold and too quick. It risked the possibility of scaring them away not only from this but also from future chances for interaction.

Barbecue First: Investing in Relationships

Scott glanced shyly at his girlfriend for a moment and then looked at the ground. Somewhat awkwardly he finally said, “Um…thanks anyway, but I don’t think we’ll go this time…but, well, if you’d ever like to get together in the backyard for a barbecue, let us know.” As they walked away, Mark thought to himself, “Why didn’t I think of that? In fact, that’s the very thing I’ve been teaching in my evangelism seminars for years: you’ve got to barbecue first!”

It is so important that we make investments in friendships — what I sometimes call paying relational rent — in order to gain the person’s trust and respect, as well as to earn the right to talk to them about spiritual issues.

Interestingly, Mark did follow up later with Scott. After a few weeks, he called him and suggested that the four of them see a movie and then go out for dessert afterward. When the night came, Mark and Heidi decided that they would not bring up topics related to church or Christianity. They knew they’d already gone too far too fast, and they determined to “barbecue” several times with the couple before even thinking about trying to steer the conversation into matters of faith. But to their surprise, that same night in the restaurant, Scott himself asked some questions of a spiritual nature!

Out of that experience came a maxim Mark has been teaching ever since: the “Barbecue-First Principle.” We’re wise to try to first establish relationships on natural, non-threatening grounds and then later in the context of that relationship, open up the conversation to spiritual issues. In many cases, this doesn’t have to be a long wait. A lot of people are looking for a trusted confidant with whom they can discuss such important matters.

Adapted from Becoming a Contagious Christian by Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg © 1994 by Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg, published by Zondervan, used with permission.

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