Lynne Taylor spent a few years exploring what motivated previously unchurched people to come to faith, and the roles that other Christians and God played in those journeys. She discovered that when it comes to the earliest stages of faith formation, the smallest, most fragile‑seeming things can have the biggest impact–like being a faithful friend.
Perhaps it is just me, but when I hear the word ‘impact’ I tend to think first of the dramatic and exciting, like flashing lights and big events. Impact is a word that somehow opens up the possibility of change and of effect. It encourages me to look up and to look out, and to be alert and open to possibility.
I might try to bring it down a notch and wonder what impact means in my local church or neighbourhood. As Christians, we want to make a difference in our world: to impact the lives of those we care about, bring hope, help make wrong things right, share the good news of Christ, and witness to the changes that God has made in our own lives.
These are good impulses and God-given desires, but is this the only way of thinking about impact?
For my PhD research, I interviewed people from unchurched backgrounds who had become Christians in the previous two years. I analysed and considered their stories alongside a host of other research and writings.
One of the people I met and interviewed was Olivia.1 She lived with her mother when she was growing up. Because her mum “is completely anti-God”, Olivia’s only childhood exposure to Christianity came through singing religious songs in a secular choir. She made her first Christian friend, Hannah, when she was at university.
Olivia got to know Hannah better after Hannah’s family had suffered a tragedy. On hearing the news, Olivia walked up to her and burst into tears as she was going to give her condolences. She explained to me:
I think that allowed Hannah to be open enough that she could see I was upset about it. She could see that there was stuff going on in my life that wasn’t, you know, right. That’s what made her get to know me a bit better.
Olivia supported Hannah through this incredibly difficult experience. The two friends went on walks together and Olivia listened closely as Hannah shared how she saw God’s role in her life and in the tragedy. Olivia commented to me:
I feel like that’s probably [what] made the most difference in terms of relationships and getting to know God. Because seeing how someone else sees their own relationship with God is sort of more convicting. Obviously it wasn’t so much at that stage like she was trying to evangelise or anything. She was just literally telling me how it was for her and how she viewed her relationship with God…So I felt like it made a big impact on me. To be able to talk to her and just see where her head was at.
Impact through vulnerability
We see the importance, and impact, of two types of vulnerability in Olivia’s description of her friendship with Hannah. Firstly, Hannah, the Christian, opened herself up to Olivia. Rather than pretending to have it all together, Hannah acknowledged her need for care and support, and she allowed Olivia to comfort her. This began a deepening of their friendship.
Secondly, Hannah talked about her experiences and how she understood God’s role in her life. There was a real grief and loss in this telling—a pain that Hannah didn’t hide from. As a result, Olivia saw how Hannah’s faith was helping her, even in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances.
Olivia wasn’t the only person who told me about Christians acting in ways that were vulnerable: Sarah described attending church for the first time and being struck by the vulnerability of the minister who was crying on stage as he preached; Tallulah noted that their playgroup leader openly talked about the trials her family had experienced; Luke reflected on how important honesty and openness were in his forming friendships with Christians, as well as in his developing faith journey.
Of course, Christianity was established in vulnerability. In coming to earth as a tiny baby, Jesus modelled vulnerability and powerlessness. He was literally dependent upon others to meet all of his needs. As an adult, he continued to experience the vulnerability of not being welcomed (John 1:11) and having no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58). We need not be afraid of being honest about vulnerability in our own lives.
Impact through mutuality
Did you hear the echoes of mutuality in Olivia and Hannah’s story? Their relationship grew as Olivia supported Hannah through her family’s loss, just as Hannah supported Olivia in the midst of her own challenges. Such mutuality was also evident in other stories I heard.
Another whom I interviewed, Jean, was asked by her Christian friend to pray for her unwell father. Read that sentence again: it was the Christian who asked the non‑Christian to pray for the Christian’s sick dad. It was that experience—and the comfort and measure of healing that resulted—that got Jean thinking that “maybe this prayer stuff is real.”
Luke described the importance, before he was a Christian, of having his ideas accepted and discussed in his small group.
These examples indicate an openness to mutuality that welcomed—invited even—the care and input of non‑Christians to their Christian friends.
While it is certainly good for Christians to serve others, it is also important to be willing to be served. God, in whose image we are made, demonstrates mutuality between the persons of the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit are in a relationship that is characterised by self-giving love, both given and received. Our best human relationships, including those with our non-Christian friends, can also be characterised by self-giving love, given and received.
Impact through consistency
A long time passed between the friendship developing between Olivia and Hannah, and Olivia attending church regularly. It was too complicated for Olivia to go to church while she lived at home. It was only after she left home, broke up with her boyfriend and was teaching at a church school that Olivia decided that she should go to church. Hannah was a faithful friend throughout.
Sarah’s story of coming to faith took place over an even longer period of time, and was supported by Christian neighbours who continued caring long after they had moved to a different city. While it was decades before Sarah embraced Christianity for herself, her friends remained in frequent contact as she journeyed towards that decision.
The story of Scripture tells the story of God’s faithfulness towards humans. God offers frequent opportunities for the covenantal relationship between God and humanity to be restored. As well as being invited into that redemptive story, we are invited to participate in sharing that story with others. Faithfully and consistently.
Make an impact
What do we learn about making an impact from these stories? Go make friends. Be vulnerable, open and honest. Be prepared to let others support, encourage and challenge you. Be faithful friends, maintaining relationships in the long term. These things, little and big, make an impact.
But make sure to check your motives. We don’t do this stuff—vulnerability, mutuality, consistency—because it is impactful as an evangelistic tool. We do it when, and because, it is actually who we are. People whose lives are upheld and transformed by our loving God. People who have a story that is worth telling, even when that story is sad or unresolved. People who are strengthened through healthy relationships with others, and who value others’ participation in our own lives. People who are good friends, sticking around for the long haul.
In our vulnerability, in making space for mutuality, and in faithful consistency we can and do have an impact.
Story: Lynne Taylor
Lynne is the Jack Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at the University of Otago, co-leader of Student Soul (congregation) and researcher for the Baptist Churches of New Zealand.
- All names of interviewees are pseudonyms.
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright ©1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.