It is a different time for the Church in America. While other parts of the world, such as Asia and Africa, are experiencing rapid growth in the church, we are seeing a steady decline. And just to be clear, that drop was going on long before COVID.
Our Evangelical Church has a rich past of outreach and growth. The very word “evangelical” means to share the “good news” pointing to the priority to evangelize. However, we seem to have lost our salt and light in the world around us.
Ben Pierce, in a recent blog, shared that as our culture shifts, our approach to evangelism has to change as well—but we are lagging behind.
Ben writes, “We need an honest assessment of why our outreach strategies are largely ineffective. This type of honest review will reveal what has worked before and what will no longer work today.” Here are his five reasons why we struggle to reach our secular culture.
1. We use Christian language and assumptions that are foreign to secular culture
Many well-meaning followers of Jesus want to share the Gospel but still use their grandfather’s words and explanations. This oversight in communication is costly because many secular people are open to the Gospel but may not understand or are simply put off by what we are trying to communicate.
We have to increase our own awareness around “in-house” terminology and discard anything that wouldn’t make sense to someone without a church background. This applies to our use of the Bible in an outreach setting. For instance, to most Christians, the Bible offers a sufficient defense for the Christian faith. However, the problem is that a secular person doesn’t accept the Bible as an authority, making this approach circular and illogical.
Jesus was brilliant at knowing His audience and shaping his message in a way that spoke in a visceral and relevant way.
Unlike in your grandfather’s day, people today are less familiar with biblical language. We must discard these distractions and learn how to point people to Jesus using words and symbols that speak powerfully to them.
2. Secular people have become suspicious of religious institutions and are less likely to come to church
In the past, you could invite a skeptic to a church event to hear a compelling speaker share the Gospel, and they would actually come, but this will not work today. The emerging secular culture isn’t coming to our “cool church nights,” no matter how often we invite them or how we dress it up.
While we are undoubtedly sincere in our desire to reach people through these events, this approach is quickly losing relevance. We must focus our efforts on those who will not normally come to our churches looking for answers, e.g. the growing majority of culture today.
I think many followers of Jesus are aware of the need, often painfully represented in the lives of their own family members, yet they don’t know what to do about it.
The simple response is to be like Jesus—to get out of our Christian ghetto, develop authentic relationships, and share the Gospel in relevant ways with unbelievers in their places.
3. Christian entertainment rarely connects with secular people
When our “in-house” outreaches invariably fail, we respond by taking the church outside. We line up the best Christian speakers and entertainers, rent a world-class facility, and expect them to come to us. This approach simply relocates the problem.
Our approach remains foreign to a world that did not grow up in our Church context and culture. Bringing church culture outside only proves that we don’t recognize the massive cultural gap that exists between the church and secular people.
Relevant and effective evangelism is about expressing the truth of the Gospel in the language of the people God has called you to reach.
4. The Church has become known for what we are against
To the average secular person today, Christianity is seen as a system of rules intended to suppress freedom and killjoy. We are against gay people, women, and the environment. We’re anti-science and close-minded. We seem to have an attitude toward the outside world as if to say, “if they would clean up their lives, then maybe we would accept them.”
Youth culture esteems tolerance and inclusion above all else, making this false version of Christianity antithetical to their values.
Too often, Christian outreaches focus on moral issues and behavioral modification, which perpetuates this religious version of Jesus and drives secular people further from the truth.
We need to present a positive vision of the Gospel; after all, it’s good news! Secular people don’t need to be reminded of what we are against. They already know, but many of them wonder if we are for anything—let’s start there.
5. Secular people have not experienced God’s power!
Every fruitful outreach approach, whether your grandfather’s or the most current form, has one thing in common: God’s supernatural power.
Secular people don’t need a fancy new approach. They don’t need world-class entertainment or compelling arguments. They need to encounter God.
When our outreach approaches rely on looking cool or clever taglines, people see a marketing pitch or just another brand, not an opportunity to experience God.
This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, “And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit.” This is still true today.
This means that we need to hold loosely to any method and seek God like never before. He is the vine, we are branches. In humility, we must recognize that strategies come and go, but if God isn’t in what we are doing, it will produce nothing.
BEFORE YOU GO
When it comes to our outreach strategies—it’s time to rethink how we do everything. The biggest shift is to empower all followers of Jesus to reach the people that don’t normally look to a church for answers, not just relying on high-profile evangelists to do the work. All of us need to get in the action.
What are your thoughts? What changes can you and your church make to impact our world for Christ?
Written by Ben Pierce
3 Comments Add yours
Great thoughts. I’ve been seeking the Lord for years about how to reach people within my circle of highly secular friends, primarily through prayer and meditation on Scripture. Here are some thoughts.
1. Absolutely need to speak in the right “language”, but we also need to recognize that this is primarily a work of the Spirit (eg Matt 10:19-20, Eph 6:19). This involves serious prayer, listening, and humility. It seems we assume it happens automatically but it doesn’t; seeking is a deliberate act. The Spirit matters.
2 & 3. Yes, and not just because people are skeptical, but because it’s what we’ve been commanded. Jesus did not say “stay and invite”, but to GO. And that means more than just going physically; we need to go into their context to speak in their languages. This is very hard for people who are immersed in Christian institutions, and is a reason to involve more people. Note that the initial forays into the most Gentile cultures in Acts were not by the leaders (see Acts 11:20). But we need to be equipped!
5. If we truly seek the Lord, allow Him to empower us as mentioned earlier, then people will experience God.
The starting recommendation: LISTEN! To your people who want help. To the words of the lost. To their desperately seeking hearts that are all around us. But most importantly, to the Lord.
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I absolutely agree with what you’ve said. And what Jim has said.
I also know people who believe religion is responsible for a lot of violence in the world, whether on a large scale like the Crusades or WWII or simply within their own family. Often they are right. Christians have done and do terrible things. The church has done terrible things and continues to do awful things.
Christians and the church needs to confess and repent of the horrible things we Christians have done. We need to find our way back to loving like God – loving all no matter who they are or even what they’ve done.
We need grace and forgiveness back in churches and Christian hearts. We need to love all well.
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