As the winds toppled neighborhood trees, ripped weaker limbs from the forest behind our house, and succeeded in tearing a window screen away from a downstairs bedroom, the lights inside the house merely flickered four or five times. We were surprised that our power remained throughout the night; a lesser windstorm this past summer managed to knock out our electricity for five days. This time, we were ready: propane stove, gas-powered generator, and plenty of food and water.
We didn’t need it. Or neighbors to the north, however, suffered an unimaginable blow. The ocean came rushing into neighborhoods, and the power went out for weeks. So you can imagine the frustration of people who toughed it out, day after day, with no power, in freezing temperatures … only to get a larger-than-expected electric bill from Long Island Power Authority. Because the company bills on estimated usage from month to month, invoices went out as usual – to people whose properties have been uninhabitable and powerless for weeks. The amount due section at the bottom of the invoice did not reflect the failure to provide service, or mention refunds.
Customers were, of course, incensed.
Some years ago, a woman visited my office and proudly told me of her endeavors to win her neighbor to Christ. “He was in the back yard, trimming the hedges, so I leaned over the hedge and said, ‘Hey! Did you know that the judgment began in 1844, and that you need to get right with God right away?”
She seemed quite pleased with her report, so I asked her: “So how did that go?”
“Not as well as I hoped,” she admitted.
“How well do you know him?” I asked.
“Not well,” she said. “He just moved in a few weeks back.”
“Well, that’s the problem,” I replied. “You didn’t have permission to discuss a topic like that. At all.”
What she had done was deliver a bill where a bill was not expected – or welcome. Did the judgment begin in 1844? I am absolutely convinced that it did. It was a true statement. Does her neighbor need to get right with God? No question about it; we all have that need.
But if you’re going to deliver news like that to a stranger, you’re highly unlikely to meet with receptivity. You simply have no credibility. If an individual comes to church or an evangelistic meeting and hears such statements, they came voluntarily and will have an opportunity for the Spirit to help them process that information on a personal level If they read it in a book, they voluntarily picked up the literature and read it. If they come across the information on the radio or the internet, so be it … they discovered it for themselves. But if you lean over the hedge to pronounce judgment, you have invaded their personal universe in a most unwelcome way. You might as well invoice them for something you didn’t provide and they didn’t buy. At least with the power company, people were asking for the product.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t warning our neighbors. We absolutely should. But when it comes to one-on-one witness, there’s a key concept that shouldn’t be overlooked: permission. You have to earn the right to discuss deeply personal topics with people.
That’s why siccing the pastor on an unbelieving spouse or child doesn’t work. If you have a family member who doesn’t believe in God, or actually dislikes Him, inviting the pastor over to set him or her straight is usually going to make your life tougher, not better. Why? People aren’t stupid: they know why the pastor has come, and while they may be polite (prayerfully) during the visit, they will feel violated. The pastor needs permission to become personal, just like anybody else. In fact, you need permission to bring the pastor into someone’s life, too.
Permission is not hard to obtain. Good friends give it out quite willingly. What’s that? He or she is not a good friend? That’s easy to fix, too.