In the event that the Bible is not convincing enough concerning the Christian responsibility of gospel proclamation, some tremendously helpful research recently dropped from LifeWay. Apparently, sharing the gospel with people we know is still a good idea.
In all seriousness, the data from the recent report does a great job spelling out some things we should already know but rarely practice. In addition, there are a couple of data points that may come as a surprise to many and serve as a help to local churches trying to engage their community. The research specifically deals with unchurched people. That is important, because people who do not attend church should be the primary group we want to engage as local churches.
Often our success metrics (the things we look at to decide if we are doing a good job) simply deal with numbers of people, any people. In other words, if our local church grows in attendance this year, we think we did a good job. Yet it would do us well to dig a little deeper and ask some other questions. Churches should be more concerned with their output of disciples than their number of attenders. A church is successful at the Great Commission when it is reaching people who did not know Jesus, seeing their lives changed by the gospel, baptizing them and teaching them the Bible’s commands, and sending them to do the same. This means a church succeeds when there are more disciples than there were before.
Unfortunately, so much of our ministry is actually geared around shuffling sheep. Think with me for a moment about how many churches grow. Most growth nowadays is transfer growth, or a person moving from one church to another. There are a lot of completely legitimate reasons why this happens. People move towns because of work, or they go off to college, and they need a new church community in their new location. There are also many reasons why this should be discouraged. Too often, disgruntled Christians leave their church because of preferences, only to shuffle around to the next church where they inevitably become disgruntled down the road.
This is why LifeWay’s research is so helpful. Local churches should make their primary focus on reaching lost people instead of shuffling sheep from one pasture to the next. I believe many of our methods of outreach only speak intelligibly to church folk. They speak in a way that makes sense to us, and so they make sense to other Christians but not to those who are unchurched. This data gives us some handles for speaking intelligibly to the unchurched.
Here are a few of their findings:
Unchurched people do not think about where they will end up when they die.
This may come as a surprise to us, but most unchurched folk spend little time wondering about heaven or worrying about hell. In fact, almost half of them say they never wonder about it, while 20 percent are not even sure of the last time they contemplated it. This is a very different way of thinking from many Christians. After all, the Bible tells us to fix our minds on things above, and for previous generations a fear of hell was a big motivator for gospel conversations. You may be reading this and thinking that lost people should be thinking about eternity. The fact remains that they are not, and our witness may be minimal if we lead with something that is not a concern to them.
However, most unchurched people think their life has a meaning and purpose, and that it is important to figure that out. According to the study, 7 in 10 unchurched people agree there is an “ultimate plan” for their life and 6 in 10 think it is important for them to figure that out. In other words, your average unchurched folk may not be thinking about hell at all, but they are pretty concerned with the meaning and purpose of life. That news should impact how we share the gospel. The gospel speaks about more than your eternal landing pad. In fact, the gospel has all kinds of ramifications for life right now. It is the answer to life’s deepest purpose. The gospel tells us why we were created, what all went wrong, and how it can be restored. If we simply talk about it as a means to heaven, it may not resonate, but we can share about how it fills life with meaning now and ears may perk up.
Your fear of talking about your faith is unfounded.
Another significant point in this study is the overall openness exhibited by unchurched people to have conversations about faith. I have been in enough church small group meetings to know that many Christians have a fear concerning gospel proclamation. They are concerned that it will be awkward, or that their lost friends and coworkers will get upset about them raising the topic. Apparently, this is not true. In fact, the evidence seems to point to the contrary. Roughly half of the people surveyed said they would freely talk about these issues if someone raised them.
This brings me to a point discussed here before. We love the term “relationship evangelism” today, but I am afraid we often miss the point. When our assumption is that people will get awkward or hostile if we bring up the gospel, then we focus on building a relationship with them and conveniently leave out the gospel. We wait on the “right moment” to add that to the relationship. Problem is, there is no right moment, and the longer we wait the more awkward it becomes to try and insert the gospel and claim it is the most important thing in our life. We should definitely focus on real relationships, but we should do so with the gospel as a natural part of the relationship from the very beginning. Truth is, we need to get over our fear of talking about the gospel and make that a regular part of conversation with everyone.
Unchurched people talk about faith, but they are not interested in your church service.
This seems to be the main idea of the article posted at LifeWay’s website. While it seems many unchurched people would be comfortable having a conversation with you about the gospel, they are most likely not interested in attending a worship service. When we try to promote “come and see” ministry, such as worship gatherings or ministry events, the people that will most likely be interested are other Christians not unchurched people. In other words, many of our current outreach strategies do not speak to unchurched folk.
The study found that there is openness to attending events at a church building as long as they (1) do not sound like they are a worship service and (2) directly meet their felt needs. The example given was a meeting about neighborhood development. Holding and advertising meetings like these may be a good way to get people into your church’s building, but I believe we need to be careful about using them as a means for evangelism. If people are coming because of neighborhood development, then make the meeting about neighborhood development. That does not mean the gospel cannot be woven into that idea, but tricking people into coming to a worship service will have a negative effect on the corporate witness of your church.
However, these things may not be as necessary as we imagine since there is an openness to conversation. A paradigm shift is in order from mostly “come and see” strategies to “go and tell” methods of gospel proclamation. The gospel needs to be shared by local church members outside the walls of the church’s building instead of attempting to talk unchurched people into your service.
Now this does not mean that we should not invite people to our services. It also does not mean that preachers should assume everyone in the audience is a believer. We should still invite unchurched people to our worship gatherings, but it needs to be a personal invitation instead of some mass call. The study actually supported this, claiming that half of unchurched Americans say they would attend a worship service if personally invited by a friend. Those odds are pretty good. That means you need to know some lost people personally. They need to know you are a Christian and how significant that is in your life. When you have shared the gospel with them already and told them how important it is, they are more likely to entertain a personal invitation to your church’s service.