The rise of the nones calls for not only a renewed commitment to conversion growth and a rethinking of evangelism as both process and event, but also a new understanding of strategic effectiveness. Simply put, there has been a seismic shift in outreach that few church leaders are understanding, much less pursuing.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, the vanguard of evangelistic outreach was direct proclamation of the gospel. Whether the crusades of Billy Graham or the creative approach of Willow Creek Community Church, presentation led the way. This resulted in the unchurched joining a community and eventually being discipled into participation with the cause of Christ.
From the 1990s thru the 2000s, community took the strategic lead. People wanted to belong before they believed. Skepticism was rampant, and trust had to be earned. Once enfolded into that community, Christ was often met in its midst. Cause, again, was the last to be manifest.
From the 2010s forward, cause—think campaigns to rescue girls from sex trafficking or food drives to end hunger—became the leading edge of our connection with a lost world, and specifically the nones, in terms of both arresting their attention and enlisting their participation in community and relationship. Consider the recent Passion Conference in Georgia. What captured outside media attention was not the sixty thousand students in attendance, much less the messages related to the Christian faith; what attracted the media was their commitment to eradicate modern-day slavery—in a word: cause. Then and only then did community come into play. After exploring that community, Christ could be—and was—introduced.
As the Pew Forum’s study reveals, the nones believe religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, rules and politics. And many believe that religious institutions do very little to help protect morality. Only 28 percent say that belonging to a community of people with shared values and beliefs is important to them. Yet they do believe that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community and aiding the poor. Three-quarters say religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds (78 percent), and a similar number say religious organizations play an important role in helping the poor and needy (77 percent).1 In other words, we may have lost the opportunity to talk to them and do life with them, but we haven’t lost the opportunity to do good to them, before them, and with them—good that will then open their ears and hearts to the message of the gospel.
Think of this shift in terms of moving people through stages of introduction:
Unchurched → Christ → Community → Cause
Unchurched → Community → Christ → Cause
Nones → Cause → Community → Christ
I know some of you will be uncomfortable seeing how far the message of Christ is down the strategic line. It’s not that the church should bury the lede in terms of intentionally putting Christ at the end of the line, and it’s certainly not implying some kind of bait and switch. Remember, we’re talking strategy. Leading with Billy Graham’s simple, “The Bible says,” was effective for people in a different place spiritually than most are today.
Reflect on the ground we’ve already covered. The more post-Christian a person is, the more evangelism must embrace not only event/proclamation, but also process and event/proclamation. Earlier models were almost entirely event/proclamation-oriented, such as revivals, crusades, or door-to-door visitation. This is only effective in an Acts 2, God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem context. Process models are needed in Acts 17, Mars Hill, nones/skeptical contexts.
James Emery White, Rise of the Nones, the: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014).