April 16, 2021

Being Intentional With Your Unbelieving Family

I sent my cousin a GIF this morning that said, “In my family, if you’re normal then you’re adopted!”

My family looks fairly standard until you scratch the surface. That’s when you find out about the secret sister, my ‘fake’ little brothers and my other mother (he’s not actually ‘fake’—he is a real person—he’s just not my biological brother or related to me in any way). But, it did feel like he spent more time at my house than his own and was treated like family. He feels like family and his mum feels like my other mum (maybe that’s a scheme thing). All of that is before I start to think about my church family and the fake ‘daughters’ I’ve picked up along the way. When it comes to family, we all have a different idea of what that word actually means.

Evangelism and Family

Our families can be one of the hardest mission fields we have. They remember what we were like before Christ and know how to press all our buttons. In the early days when I was first saved, I wanted to tell my whole family about Jesus. There’s no doubt I was a bit of a sledgehammer with the gospel and did some damage in my enthusiasm. Not all the conversations were bad, I have had some really encouraging gospel conversation with all my immediate family over the years.

My mum was one of the hardest people to navigate. In the early days she was hostile—’ ‘fuming’ would be a better way to describe it. There was an undercurrent of anger silently simmering away. I actually understand some of her big issues from a parent’s perspective. Six months after I became a Christian, I qualified as an architectural technician and had been offered an excellent position at work, but instead of accepting it, I resigned. I went to serve at Edinburgh City Mission and take part in their Year Team Training Programme. My mum was not pleased—she avoided anything church-related I was involved in. Over the years, it didn’t get any easier: The minute Jesus was mentioned, she’d get up and leave. It was like a silent protest. Her usual comment was, “You take church too far.”

For many, navigating our families can be difficult. In some cases, it might actually be easier just to see them on high days and holidays (or not at all). Many years ago, I was challenged by my attitude about this. Serving in ministry in the schemes, we were always thinking about being innovative and intentional with people, sharing the gospel every chance we got. But did I approach my family mission field the same way I did ministry in the schemes? I’m not talking about my kids—that’s a different conversation. For some it’s just not safe to spend lots of time or even any time with their families but, in the main, most of us struggle with our families because they are annoying, they call us out, and generally are the ones that give us the hardest time. It takes effort and it’s costly (but not in the way we think).

  • Is it dangerous for you round your family?
  • Are you avoiding your family because they are hard to navigate?
  • Do you hang out with them out of obligation – because its expected?
  • Are you just the same as you have always been around them?
  • What does your life communicate to them about Jesus and your faith?  
  • If you brought a Christian friend home, would you act differently around your family?
  • Do you always want to be right and sledgehammer them with the gospel?
  • Are you really praying for your family?
  • Are you sacrificially loving them?

Careful Wisdom Needed

As the only Christian in my family, I knew that I had to be intentional and make the effort. We don’t have a huge family, but I knew I couldn’t be intentional with everyone. I’ve tried to be intentional with my immediate family and a few of my close cousins. Specifically, my mum. It took a very long time, a lot of prayer, as well as thinking through how I served her well. I was challenged by 1 Peter 3:1–2. Now, I know its specifically talking about wives of unbelieving husbands, but I think the truth is relevant for us as we interact with our families.

“Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (1 Pet. 3:1–2)

It’s not just what I say about Jesus, I also have to follow that through with what they see in my life. If every time I mention Jesus, my mum walks away, I have to find another way to witness to her and the others. This is when the hard work really started. I couldn’t just hang out with my mum or my family without engaging my brain, I couldn’t react the same old way when they pushed my buttons (no matter what they said), no wee dodges, no family backbiting, and I needed to navigate family events with wisdom (or not go at all).  

It was over a decade before the tide turned and the Lord softened my mum’s heart. Now, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea: Even though she started attending her local church, I dunno where my mum was spiritually at the end. I do know that I could talk openly about the gospel, faith, and church, and she listen and chatted. If you asked her directly, she would say she was a Christian.

The week before she died, she asked me to bring her a book to read whilst she was in hospital. I took her Loletta’s Garden by Francine Rivers and she read it (which was a surprise in itself). For those who haven’t read it. It’s a story about a young Christian who struggled witnessing to her mum who was religious. The writer is very clear about the gospel and makes the point that simply going to church doesn’t save you or make you a Christian. When I picked up the book for her it wasn’t intentional, but in reality, it was a bit of a picture of our life. I find it comforting that even in the last weeks mum was confronted with the truth. There is no ‘I wish I had been bolder or spoke up more’ guilt hanging over me.

Eternity At Stake

For other members of my family, the tide hasn’t turned at all. In fact, it’s like a tsunami of pure hostility and hatred against God, the universe, Christians, anyone that disagrees with them and specifically on occasions, me. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t—it hurts, it’s hard, it breaks my heart. But it’s not about my easy life. It’s about their eternal destination. 

I don’t know why, after 30 plus years I am still the only Christian in my family. It breaks my heart. It’s not helpful to dwell on it—God saves who he saves. I must be confident of the gospel—sharing it with words and modelling it with my life. Praying until the end for God’s mercy.

How intentional are you being with your family?

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