Here is the uncomfortable truth. Almost everybody who follows Christ, and almost every gathering of those Christ followers constituting a church, says the same thing: “We want to reach the world for Christ.” Yet most don’t do it. So where’s the breakdown?
It’s not strategy. There are vast numbers of churches who are successfully penetrating the culture of the nones, growing through conversion growth, and who willingly offer their tried-and-true strategies to any and all who wish to learn.
It’s not theology. As mentioned earlier, almost every Christian church has evangelism as part of its core values and integral to their mission statement.
It’s not the new generation of leadership. Most young leaders got into the game to see a lost world won to Christ. They are sold out and ready to rock.
It’s not the new generation of Christians. If you want to meet an evangelistic animal, spend time with a new believer. They are, in the best sense of the word, shameless with enthusiasm.
So what is the problem?
Jesus knew. When challenged about his own missional emphasis toward those on the outside of faith, he responded: “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders” (Matt. 9:12–13 Message).
The problem? Seemingly long-term insiders. Countless leaders and members of churches have given in to a Christian consumerism. They embrace a mentality that gives ample rhetorical support to evangelistic intent but resists violently at the point of implementation because—at the point of actually doing it—it costs them. In other words, scratch the surface of a sacrificial, pick-up-your-cross, to-die-is-gain, eat-my-flesh and drink-my-blood Christian, and you find an it’s-all-about-me, spiritually narcissistic, turned-inward, meet-my-needs, feed-me consumer.
Again, listen to how we talk: Of course I want to reach lost people,
- but I’m not going to let the music change
- but I’m not going to lead a capital campaign to raise the money
- but I’m not going to park far away
- but I’m not going to risk stirring things up right now in the church
- but I’m not going to attend at a different service time
- but I’m not going to start a new church
- but I’m not going to stand for the pastor dressing casually
- but I’m not going to give money to launch a new site or relocate
- but I’m not going to watch someone on a video
- but I’m not going to put in fifty- or sixty-hour weeks
- but I’m not going to let them start playing drums
- but I’m not going to change how I preach
- but I’m not going to give up my favorite seat
- but I’m not going to turn things over to a bunch of twentysomethings
- but I’m not going to attend on Saturday night
- but I’m not going to . . .
You fill in the rest.
I’m not even suggesting this list is what a church should do. But it does betray our spirit. The problem with outreach today is that the very people who say they want unchurched people to come and find Jesus resist the most basic and elemental issues related to building a relationship with someone apart from Christ, then engaging in spiritual conversations, and then inviting them to an open, winsome, and compelling front door so they can come and see, come and hear, come and experience.
Why? Because it would call for sacrifice or inconvenience of some kind. A leader would have to work harder or invest in vision-casting and face potential opposition. Attendees would have to be part of a church that no longer exists solely to serve them but now serves those who have yet to enter the doors. This means that evangelism is fine in theory but not in practice, because in practice evangelism almost always involves death-to-self—the complete anticonsumer state of mind.
So can we change? Sure. But only when we look in the mirror and own the truth about our consumerism: we say we want them in heaven—but we act like they can go to hell.
James Emery White, Rise of the Nones, the: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014).