Finding Common Ground and Moving to Higher Ground

I was driving past a local high school the other day when something caught my eye. A group of kids were standing at a corner, waiting to cross the street. One of them, a boy who was probably fourteen or fifteen, was smoking. Driving by, I couldn’t tell if he was vaping or smoking tobacco or marijuana. Though all are (unfortunately) legal where I live, they are definitely illegal for someone that boy’s age. And yet there he was, in broad daylight, breathing smoke into the faces of his fellow students.

Something about that scene caused me to pause in gratitude to God that we’ve been blessed to keep our kids out of public school. Knowing my kids as I do, I could see them reaching that age and finding their hearts being torn between wanting to fit into a group like that and yet knowing that smoking and things like it aren’t things God wants in our lives. And yet, as I continued to reflect on that scene, it also occurred to me that God has called me to help connect both that boy and the countless millions like him with the love of Jesus. In fact, when my children grow up, my hope and prayer is that this will be their calling too.

So, how do we do it?

As Christians, we are not to “be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). To that end, we must keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).  The world is a place of carnal, fleshly behavior, and as Christians we are to “make no provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14), not even to give a chance for it to affect us, “hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (Jude 1:23). In fact, we must “not love the world or the things in the world,” for if we do so, “the love of the Father is not in” us (1 John 2:15). When we live as we ought to live, we are “strangers” in this world (1 Peter 2:11 NASB), and the world finds our behavior “strange” (1 Peter 4:4).

While all of this is true, Paul reminds us that no one is an island: “For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself” (Romans 14:7). While we are to distance ourselves from the sin of the world, we simply can’t do what we’ve been called to do if we don’t make connections with people in the world around us. Paul told the Corinthians, “I wrote to you […] not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:9-10). Paul envisioned ongoing, evangelistic contact with the world for the Corinthians. It’s impossible to be the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” if we’re too far away for the world to “taste and see” (Mathew 5:13-16; Psalm 34:8).

The apostle Paul was an expert at reaching people and, as he said, becoming “all things to all men” in order to “save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). When he found himself in Athens surrounded by idolatry, he didn’t get out his hammer and start smashing statues. Instead, he attempted to find common ground with his audience. He discovered that they worshipped an “unknown god,” which, in the days when he had rejected Jesus, he himself had done (Acts 17:23; 1 Timothy 1:12-14). Complimenting them on their “very religious” attitude, he used that altar to the unknown god to encourage them to pursue the true and living God (Acts 17:22-31). He even showed an awareness of their local poetry and used that to further his outreach to them (Acts 17:28).

While finding common ground with people in the world is important, we need to remember that the aim is higher ground. Sometimes in attempting to connect with people, we don’t demonstrate the difference that salt and light are supposed to make. We hear people fret about the state of politics and the direction of the world, so we tell them about our fears about these things. We hear them complain about the boss or about their spouse, so we do too. We hear them talk about sports and pop culture, so we join in. We hear about their fun plans for the weekend, so we share ours. At best, these conversations are morally neutral, but at worst, they demonstrate that we are either no different because of our time “with Jesus” (cf. Acts 4:13) or, like them, are guilty of engaging in the things that Jesus is actually calling us away from, like complaining (Philippians 2:14). Instead of leading to Jesus, too many of these conversations ensure that if/when we build up enough courage to mention Him, people will be surprised that we have done so.

Yes, it’s absolutely OK to share a clean joke, comment on a good show or movie, or talk about the last game you watched with your non-Christian friends. However, instead of discussing your fears about the way the world’s headed, what if you talked about your confidence in the future because of the Lord who “will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5)? Instead of complaining about your spouse, what if you praised him or her so that marriage could be “honorable among all” (Hebrews 13:4)? Instead of sharing the fun thing you’re going to do or have done on Saturday, what if you told them about the highlight of your week when you were blessed to assemble with your fellow Christians and praise your God on Sunday? These kinds of conversations may help to create evangelistic opportunities so that you can move from common ground to higher ground.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org
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