One of the chief challenges facing Western Christians today is a general lack of meaningful relationships with people who do not follow Jesus. Christians are simply not in proximity with those who don’t know Jesus yet. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Perhaps there is a view that mingling with those who don’t follow Jesus will have a corrupting influence.
- Perhaps the follower of Jesus simply spends most of his/her time among other followers of Jesus naturally, due to an honest and authentic attempt to worship, learn about, and grow in relationship with God.
- Perhaps there is fear regarding those who don’t follow Jesus, since they are sometimes vilified by some Christians.
- Perhaps followers of Jesus really are judgmental toward those who aren’t on their team (like much of the evidence seems to indicate).
- Or perhaps there are other reasons that I have overlooked.
Whatever the case, many folks who claim to follow Jesus have almost no real contact with people who don’t know Jesus yet.
So What? Why Is Proximity a Big Deal?
Why does this reality matter? What difference does it make that followers of Jesus don’t have many non-Christian friends and acquaintances? Why is proximity important?
It matters for many, many reasons. Here are just a few:
- In Matthew 5.13-14 Jesus says that his disciples were the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” And they were! They were out there in the world being salty and light-y! But if we aren’t walking about on the earth, in among people of the world, then we can’t really be salt and light!
- In Matthew 28.19-20 Jesus gives his followers one last command, namely to make disciples. Well, how can we make disciples if we are always and only surrounded by folks who claim to be disciples?
- In Matthew 22.36-40 we learn that Jesus boils down all of the commandments in the Old Testament to one: Love God and love your neighbors. Welp, how can we love our neighbors (especially those who do not yet know Jesus) if we don’t actually get to know them?
- If we are to have an impact in the cultures where we find ourselves, whether in Altadena or Azerbaijan, then we must know the culture! And while we can read books, watch movies, and hear testimonies about various cultures, the only real way to learn a culture is to meet, interact with, and befriend people within that culture.
- Lastly, while it is important that followers of Jesus maintain certain ethical standards and live out certain priorities, we don’t have to be awkwardly weird! If we cloister ourselves off from the cultures in which we live, we will drift further and further away from what a typical person is like. And if this happens, then the “us and them” phenomenon will much more easily rear its ugly head.
So, suffice it to say, it’s not biblical, advisable, or obedient to live a life completely separated off from people in this world — people created in the image of God and people for whom Jesus died!
How to Move Forward…
If it’s true that many followers of Jesus have almost no real relationships with people who don’t know Jesus and if it’s true that this is a bad thing…then what should we do? How should we respond?
Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost have a phrase that is helpful — “proximity spaces.” They define this phrase as “places or events where Christians and not-yet-Christians can interact meaningfully with each other” (24) in their book entitled The Shaping of Things to Come. What might these proximity spaces look like?
Here are a few ideas:
- Challenge your small group to begin to make friendships with people who don’t know Jesus and then have a party in which you all hang out together. Nothing “religious” has to happen at this party. This is simply a proximity space in which people can see that those who love Jesus aren’t necessarily judgmental, arrogant buzzkills.
- Another option is to plan a service event a month or so in the future. Invite some of your friends, both those who follow Jesus and those who don’t. In my experience people are much more likely to say “yes” to this invitation than they would be to an invitation to go to church.
- You could also begin to play a sport with someone who doesn’t know Jesus yet. This one is especially beneficial for two reasons: 1–They will get to observe you dealing with failure and frustration, along with victory and success; 2–There is often down time between games, holes, innings, etc. during which you can chat.
- Use your imagination. Think about where you work, live, and play. Is there some way that you could intentionally invite someone who doesn’t know Jesus yet into that space? Think about your hobbies and habits. Can you co-mingle with someone who doesn’t follow Jesus in that capacity?
Friends, if we don’t find ways to interact with people who don’t know Jesus yet, how can we be obedient to the call of Jesus? How can we truly face our growing mission field in the United States if we don’t interact with people who haven’t begun to follow Jesus?
What are some other examples of proximity spaces? Let me know in the comments below!