“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, To the unknown god. What therefore you worship as unknown this I proclaim to you.'”(Acts 17:22-23)

Three and a half years ago I decided to become a soccer referee. I had several things that motivated me to pursue this part-time vocation: 1) I enjoy futbol. I grew up playing the sport and wanted to stay connected; 2) I needed to be physically active; and 3) As a pastor who spends more than 90% of his time with church people, I wanted to rub shoulders with people who may or may not know Christ in a more purposeful and deliberate way than trying to strike up a random conversation about Jesus with the cashier at Walmart. With more than 60+ officials in our association (SSOA) I regularly get to interact with people with a variety of life values and complex worldviews and perspectives.

Being a pastor immediately sets you apart in the minds of some people. It causes some people to alter their behavior and makes others altogether uncomfortable. This regularly puts me at a disadvantage relationally, and the reality is that sometimes it causes me to hesitate to look for opportunities to testify about Jesus because I know that people may expect that from me. The result has been that in 3 1/2 years I’ve have only a few of the conversations about Jesus I had hoped to have when I began this journey as a referee with a purpose.

This past weekend I was invited to go on a trip to a soccer tournament. I wrestled with whether not to go because it meant that I would: 1) have to spend time away from my beautiful wife and two precious girls; and 2) have to take vacation – which in turn would impact my wife and children down the road. I eventually decided to take the trip because it meant that I would have four days to spend with guys who I have grown to care about and respect as men, but more importantly, because it is the kind of environment that lends itself to meaningful conversations about the gospel.

In the days leading up to the trip I prayed for at least one opportunity to speak about Jesus in a non-confrontational, winsome, compelling way free from the awkwardness of just bluntly asking, “What do you believe about Jesus Christ?” I was amazed at the countless opportunities that freely came up in conversation to speak about God, Jesus and the gospel and how effortlessly I had to work to do so and I simply made observations in regular conversation. This is precisely what Paul does at the Areopagus. He listens to the buzzing conversations of the locals, observes their customs, sizes up their religious practices and cultural context, and then uses this information to transition seamlessly into a conversation about Jesus.

This weekend I got to talk at length about Jesus, listen to the life stories of these men, and learn how to point them to Christ, not only in how I responded to each situation we encountered on the trip, but also in what I said in response. Here are some of my observations and commentary about this weekend:

1) Don’t place cumbersome moral boundaries on unbelievers as long as their behavior isn’t reckless, illegal or causing you to sin personally. Sometimes followers of Jesus have the habit of expecting unbelievers to behave like disciples of Jesus just because they are in their presence. Asking unbelievers to behave unnaturally isn’t helpful or conducive to conversations about the gospel. We need to remember that those who don’t know Jesus are always acting in accordance with their sinful nature in every response and demanding that they act differently simply because you are around promotes a legalism that is contrary to the grace of the gospel. Use the things that unbelievers find satisfaction in that aren’t honoring to Jesus (love of money, excessive consumption of alcohol, profane language, insatiable appetitie for sex, boastful pride in their accomplishments, etc) as a way to speak to them about how supremely satisfying you find life with Jesus.

2) Listen well, even when you aren’t directly being addressed. I spent over 6 hours in the car one way with two guys, and even when they weren’t directly talking to me, they said many things that gave me the opportunity to learn more about their life, their beliefs, their values and ambitions. These “observations” provide ample fodder for trying to navigate your conversations in a spiritual direction.

3) Be real by not trying too hard to say and do everything right. Be open and honest in your responses to every conversation and remain acutely aware of your own need of the transforming power of the gospel in how you relate to life while around unbelievers. Everything said and done reflects either positively or negatively on the gospel of Jesus.

4) Pray. A lot. My awareness of the foolishness of the gospel to those who do not believe was heightened this weekend in my conversations with these men. In order for the seeds of faith to take root and germinate in the hearts of those who do not believe we need the power of the Holy Spirit to be at work. When I told my friend that trying to “do good” was an insufficient means to gaining acceptance by God he looked completely befuddled. As we talked about the sufficiency of Jesus’ work on the cross as our righteousness and how Jesus’ death was not meant to supplement our righteousness but become our righteousness, it appeared by the expression on his face that I was speaking Chinese. We need the power of God to rest on us as we share the gospel to those who do not believe.

5) Lastly, talking about Jesus isn’t nearly as hard as we make it out to be. We just have to be intentional, listen to people, and seize the open doors to speak of Christ. Many topics came up this weekend that served as good gateway conversations to the Kingdom of God. Fear of unemployment, raising children, spousal relationships, unresolved anger, concerns about the future, love of pleasure, escaping through alcohol, and more we topics of conversation. Each topic provided an opportunity to speak about Jesus as long as I thought creatively and spoke courageously. All of the above topics deal with issues of pride, security, God’s sovereignty, trust, satisfaction, fear and more – all issues that the gospel deals with specifically.

Here’s a challenge: find an afternoon, day, or even weekend to spend with an unbelieving friend or two. Take a trip deep sea fishing. Go on a golf outing. Go out for coffeee. Take a shopping trip. Vacation with an unbelieving family. Do something over the next 6 months to have maximum exposure with someone who doesn’t know Jesus. Then, relax, listen well, observe and be purposeful in your approach to conversations and see what doors the Spirit opens. You’ll be surprised and how often Jesus can find his way into a conversation if you are looking to make room for Him.

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