This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 3 (2021). For further information about the Christian Research Journal, please click here.
Surrounded by mountains, I was born to parents who loved Jesus. The day we moved from Yosemite Valley, the area known to locals as the “Cookie Cliffs” crumbled. Soon after, so did my parents’ marriage. Our family’s landslide began with my grandfather’s death, and in an attempt to outrun the crippling pain, my father turned his back on God and sought synthetic comfort from illicit drugs. To protect us from the threats of dealers and the looming mental health crisis stalking my narcotized father, my mother fled. My father became only a memory to me. I fantasized about his restoration, letting my imagination create a bounty of blessings he might return with, but it all remained a fantasy. My naïve heart and longings were left broken and unfulfilled — and the emotional debris nearly smothered my childlike faith.
I appreciated that Jesus loved me and forgave my sins. However, I loved myself more than I loved Him. It wasn’t until I was twenty when sin and suffering in pursuit of abusive love brought me to a place of surrender. What joy to be reconciled to God, the perfect Father I desperately needed! I wanted everyone to know Jesus, and my excitement for evangelism was awakened.
God calls individuals into His family in Christ and privileges them to share the good news. When seeking to help people whose lives have been emotionally fractured, followers of Christ must tenderly handle the reality that families existing in a fallen world can break. God’s family is composed of imperfect people, but there will be a day when His people together emerge “holy and blameless” (Eph. 1:4; Col. 1:22; 1 John 3:2).1 These truths not only strengthen a believer’s compassion but can serve as an evangelistic structure for presenting the gospel.
Start with Love. God’s gracious invitation into His family is powered by love and made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Evangelism is the sharing of the gospel in the hope of drawing others to salvation and eternal union with God in Christ. And the inviting and adopting love of God can be used to reveal the heart of the Father to those who are emotionally broken. Start with love because love is powerfully disarming and the crux on which a relationship with God is built. Specifically, Ephesians 1:5 can easily be used to share the gospel. Paul proclaims, “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.”
In 2018, Lifeway Research conducted a survey showing that seventy-three percent of Americans reported that their role in a family was very important to their sense of identity,2 so we cannot ignore the role that family dynamics play in spiritual lives. The lost need to hear that they can be adopted by the God of the universe. But Christians cannot stop there. They must also offer the how — through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ (Mark 1:14–15; John 1:12–13). This adoption, made possible through the perfect life, sacrifice, and resurrection of Christ, allows believers to cry out to a heavenly Father who makes them an heir of unprecedented riches (Rom. 8:15–17).
In communicating these pivotal truths about God’s desire to draw individuals into His family, Christians should seek to identify what longings the brokenness of the past has created, and what lies the individual has believed due to their experiences. Lies such as “You’re not worth sticking around for” or “People will always leave you” can present obstacles to understanding the gospel, so Christians must practice listening with discernment. Once the hurt or the lie is made evident, the evangelist should seek to apply the truth of the Word of God, and let the truth correct the false belief. There are basics to a gospel presentation, but this practice helps personalize it to the individual. The story that God is writing for them is different from the story He is writing for their neighbors, and while the offer is to all, there is not a one-size-fits-all presentation — and none guarantee conversion.
The Broken Family. The family construct was created by God as a gift but was broken by sin and humanity’s fall. Moreover, the world’s interpretation of what makes a family continues to change. There are generational differences (think Generation X versus Generation Z) and cultural differences (family in Canada looks different from family in East Asia). In order to follow the Great Commission, Christians need to learn to address specific needs by understanding people in the context of their upbringing. This includes a sharpened awareness of what a family looks like in other cities, states, or countries, and understanding how God designed the family to operate.
In 2014, Phillip Cohen reported that in America,
among 100 representative children, just 22 live in a married male-breadwinner family, compared to 23 living with a single mother (only half of whom have ever been married). Seven out of every 100 live with a parent who cohabits with an unmarried partner (a category too rare for the Census Bureau to consider counting in 1960) and six with either a single father (3) or with grandparents but no parents (3). The single largest group of children — 34 — live with dual-earner married parents, but that largest group is only a third of the total, so that it is really impossible to point to a “typical” family.3
Indeed, atypical family structures continue to emerge. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that “Fifteen percent (14.7%) of the 1.1 million same-sex couples in the United States in 2019 had at least one child under 18 in their household, compared with 37.8% of opposite-sex couples.”4
When sharing the gospel with those from broken families, Christians need to accept that the person they are sharing the gospel with may not see their situation as “broken,” just different. People who have lived through the loss of a traditional two-parent home will grieve, but those who grew up without it may view traditional two-parent homes as the outliers. Believers need to remember that the goal in evangelism is to have people know Jesus in a regenerative and intimate way, not necessarily to get them to agree with a certain definition of a healthy family. Jesus will take care of other issues once a person can hear from the Holy Spirit within the community of the church.
The institution of marriage and the blessing of parenthood are given by God and are intended to reveal His character — in fact, husband and wife profoundly and mysteriously typify Christ and His church (Eph. 5:32). When families break from His plan, these gifts can feel like curses to the souls lamenting over unmet expectations. For some, a fracture in the family can cause them to question the very aspects of God’s character that the gifts were meant to represent. Both marriage and parenthood emerge in the earliest chapters of Genesis, nearly simultaneous with the effects of sin. There are over twenty genealogies in the Bible; all of them include flawed and broken people. Even Jesus’ earthly family line weaves in tales of hardship and corruption. These facts make the impact of sin on all people a crucial discussion point when evangelizing.
Any good gospel presentation does not gloss over the impact of sin because a Savior would not be needed if sin were not a problem. Present the commonality of brokenness (by sin) in all families to begin dialogue from a place of what is universal, to help prevent someone feeling as though one piece of their story defines them. The story of Cain and Abel illustrates the brokenness of all families and the problems that erupt from sin ruling over them. God counsels Cain after Cain’s offering fell short by saying, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:6–7). People understand sadness and disappointment (a fallen face), and they can often see how their mother or father allowed sin to rule and break their family. This passage can also be used to ask a person to consider, “Do you always do well when the sorrows of life cause your face to fall? Do you ever feel like sin is crouching at your door?” We all have failed and let sin devour moments and relationships. This can easily lead to a dialogue about how we all have fallen short and desperately need a Savior.
Finally, when evangelizing, it is important to focus primarily on one’s vertical relationship with God, not the horizontal circumstances that surround people. For those adopted into God’s family, an imperishable inheritance is prepared (1 Pet. 1:3–5), but for those who reject God’s love and grace in Christ, horrors far beyond the sorrows of a broken family will be realized (Matt. 13:41; 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:8–9).
The Eternal Family of God. On this side of heaven, there will be disagreements and offense even within the family of God, but also the forging of eternal bonds that will be made perfect. Believers are “being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:11–12).
Although God’s family is filled with imperfect people, a day is coming when we will live in perfect, restored, and redeemed relationships with God in Christ Jesus and with others. Indeed, for those who love God, He promises to redeem even the most broken experiences (Rom. 8:28) on that day when all familial darkness will be overcome — a day when family will be forever, rooted in love, and eternally unbroken.
Chara Donahue, MSEd, is an adjunct professor at Corban University, editor of AnchoredVoices.com, and host of the podcast The Bible Never Said That.
- All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- Aaron Earls, “Americans Most Likely to Find Identity in Family and Accomplishments,” Lifeway Research, July 30, 2019, https://lifewayresearch.com/2019/07/30/americans-mostlikely-to-find-identity-in-family-and-accomplishments/.
- Philip Cohen, “Family Diversity Is the New Normal for America’s Children,” Family Inequality, September 4, 2014, https://familyinequality.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/family-diversity-new-normal.pdf.
- Danielle Taylor, “Fifteen Percent of Same Sex Couples Have Children in Their Household,” United States Census Bureau, September 17, 2020, https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/09/fifteen-percent-of-same-sex-couples-have-children-in-theirhousehold.html.