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How can Jesus’ disciples be effective at reaching a community that is resistant, opposed, or hostile to Jesus and the gospel? Jesus sends His disciples out as sheep in the midst of wolves [Matt. 10:16]. They were being sent as His ambassadors to a world that opposed His reign. His disciples are like seemingly vulnerable sheep among seemingly hostile wolves. But the key to being effective is not to be sheepish. As they were going to foray into the enemy’s territory to gather the Lord’s harvest they needed to be both wise as serpents and harmless as doves.

To be wise as a serpent relates to being prudent, careful, and intelligent. It has the connotation of street-smart, or able to deal with the likely challenges or dangers of life in a potentially threatening place. To be harmless as doves has an association of gentleness and peace; but the Greek term also relates to purity, innocence, and simplicity.

Here are three ways to be both wise as serpents and harmless as doves:

  1. Relate: Invest time to befriend and build relationships with people where you live, work, study, and play. For many Christians the majority of their social interaction is with other believers. Over a course of years the number of unbelievers that we develop relationships with tends to diminish. Befriending and building relationships is more than engaging. It requires an intentional investment of time and interest. In a pluralistic, materialistic, atheistic, post-modern, and declining Christian culture, unbelievers are increasingly disconnected from any church culture. Therefore, events connected with a local church or the gospel generally are likely to be increasingly less attractive to unbelievers, and thus less effective. For example, handing an invitation to your church’s epic event to your local barista, supermarket clerk, or sandwich maker is not likely to stir them to attend. Although you may be a regular customer, unless you have gone out of the way to be extraordinary and create relationship the event itself does not have sufficient attraction. There are simply way too many epic experiences available in the world to compete with.

When we invest time to befriend and build a relationship we learn about people. We discover some of their interests, circumstances, triumphs, and tragedies. When we display the love of God by: simply listening with compassion and empathy, offering to pray with or for, offering to help, and sharing the hope of Christ, and our lives then our invitations to discover Jesus with us are more likely to be effective.

Wisdom helps us to realize the importance of relationships to reach a community that is resistant, opposed, or hostile to Jesus and the gospel. Wisdom helps us to admit that sometimes we are so busy, perhaps with church ministry and programs, that we lack the time to invest in relationships with our neighbors where we live, work, study, and play. Wisdom helps us to create margin by making changes in our lives so that we can develop relationships.

  1. Respect: Doves evoke a sense of peace and gentleness. To be harmless as doves requires us to relate to our community with a gentle and humble spirit that displays respect. We are to respect people as God’s image bearers.

We are called to listen and discover another person’s worldview with respect. Too often I have found myself not listening well or with respect. I can be talking with a person and interrupt them, or be rehearsing in my mind the rebuttal as they are speaking. Or perhaps trying to show the folly of their philosophy and my worldview is correct. It is only when I show genuine respect that I can be an effective ambassador for Christ.

Harmless as doves also relates to purity, innocence, and simplicity that can relate to my motive(s). In one sense, Christ’s disciples want to see all come to faith in Christ. Yet, if I treat an unbeliever as a “project” they are unlikely to feel respected. If an unbeliever told you, “I will never become a Christian” how would you react? Would you continue to display love and compassion because that is what Christ has called us to do or terminate the efforts, bec ause the “project” was doomed? If my motive is pure, to display God’s love to my neighbors where I live, work, study, and play, and not to simply reduce my interaction with a person to an evangelistic project then I’m more likely to display respect.

  1. Resist: Resist the rant (I’m aware of the irony of my rant about the rant). Ranting on social media, or any other platform, in regard to the perceived immorality of the unbelieving culture is generally neither wise nor harmless. The seduction of the rant is the tendency to be affirmed (i.e. likes on social media) by those who share your worldview. But it is unwise and harmful because it tends to repel the people we are called to reach. As an aside, I don’t believe that I’ve ever witnessed nor heard any anecdotal story of someone coming to faith in Christ because they read someone’s rant and were convicted that they needed to repent and receive Christ.

It seems wise and harmless to be known for Who and what we are for rather than predominantly known for what we are against. If we keep the focus predominantly on Jesus rather than ranting about the perceived decline of the nation or the culture’s morals we may see more people come to Christ and our communities transformed. Sometimes, it is good to remember that Jesus did not come to save America, but to save Americans (and Nigerians, Canadians, Cubans, etc). Help people discover the reality of the transforming life of Christ, and the value of abundant eternal life that is available today. It is wise to display a life that transcends this material world and the shifting temporal circumstances. It is harmless to promote Jesus rather than your awesome local church and its amazing people.