4) Take the long view and cultivate patience.
With family especially, we should consider the long arc. Randy Newman is not afraid to say to Christians in general, “You need a longer-term perspective when it comes to family.” Chances are we do. And so he challenges us to think in terms of an alphabet chart, seeing our family members positioned at some point from letters A to Z. These 26 steps/letters along the way from distant unbelief (A) to great nearness to Jesus (Z) and fledgling faith help us remember that evangelism is usually a process, and often a long one.
It is helpful to recognize that not everyone is near the end of the alphabet waiting for our pointed gospel pitch to tip them into the kingdom. Frequently there is much spadework to be done. Without losing the sense of urgency, let’s consider how we can move them a letter, or two or three, at a time and not jerk them toward Z in a way that may actually make them regress.
5) Beware the self-righteous older brother in you.
For those who grew up in nonbelieving or in shallow or nominal Christian families, it can be too easy to slide into playing the role of the self-righteous older brother when we return to be around our families. Let’s ask God that he would enable us to speak with humility and patience and grace. Let’s remember that we’re sinners daily in need of his grace, and not gallop through the family gathering on our high horse as if we’ve arrived or just came back from the third heaven. Newman’s advice: “Use the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ far more than ‘you’” (65).
6) Tell it slant.
Some extended family contexts may be so far from spiritual that we need to till the soil of conversation before making many direct spiritual claims. It’s not that the statements aren’t true or desperately needed, but that our audience may not yet be ready to hear it. The gospel may seem so foreign that wisdom would have us take another approach. One strategy is to “tell it slant,” to borrow from the poem of the same name—to get at the gospel from an angle.
“If your family has a long history of negativity and sarcasm,” writes Newman, “the intermediate step of speaking positively about a good meal or a great film may pave the way for ‘blinding’ talk of God’s grace and mercy” (67). Don’t “blind” them by rushing to say loads more than they’re ready for. As Emily Dickinson says, “The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.”
7) Be real about the gospel.
As we dialogue with family about the gospel, let’s not default to quoting Bible verses that don’t really answer the questions being asked. Let’s take up the gospel in its accompanying worldview and engage their questions as much as possible in the terms in which they asked them. Newman says, “We need to find ways to articulate the internally consistent logic of the gospel’s claims and not resort to anti-intellectual punch lines like, ‘The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it.’”
Yes, let’s do quote the Bible when appropriate—we are Christians owing ultimately to revelation, not to reason. But let’s not make the Bible into an excuse for not really engaging with their queries in all their difficulty. (And let’s not be afraid to say we don’t know when we don’t!)