Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Are You Churched? Does It Matter?

Back in the 90's, I bought a book by Lee Strobel (of Willow Creek Church) entitled "Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary". The book focuses on evangelism, and has a lot of useful observations and ideas (many of which have been implemented at Willow Creek) with regard to how we might make our churches more friendly (and less intimidating) for unbelievers, so that cultural barriers do not hinder such people from listening to the gospel with an open mind.

Overall, I have no problem with that idea, provided that it doesn't result in a church in which spiritual "meat" is seldom offered to believers who are ready to go on to the next level, and provided that it doesn't strip out the harsh but nevertheless true aspects of the gospel which are essential to an accurate understanding of the Christian faith.

Unfortunately, some Christians think that it has in fact done just that, in the case of Willow Creek and other "seeker friendly" churches such as Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church. Such critics appear to think that the slogan for such churches ought to be "all of the milk, none of the meat" --- or perhaps "quantity, not quality".

That may be an unfair exaggeration, but I still think that we ought to take such criticisms seriously. There is a balance, and we ought to seek that balance. It ought to be possible to create a "seeker-friendly" church which nevertheless makes no moral compromises. We shouldn't confuse our human traditions (many of which alienate unbelievers to an unnecessary degree) with God's word. However, even if we make adjustments to our methods in order to create church environments which are more "seeker-friendly," there is no way to please everyone. Pleasing God should always be our first priority, even if it sometimes makes the marketing "experts" unhappy.

I think that the title of the Strobel book also raises some interesting questions which ought to be discussed by all Christians in more depth:
  1. If someone is currently "unchurched," does it logically follow in every instance that the person is therefore an unbeliever? Does it logically follow, for that matter, that the person is a shallow or immature Christian? Is it possible that there are situations in which the fact that a person is "unchurched" says less about that person than it says about the churches to which that person has access? Might there not even be cases in which obedience to the Lord would demand that one refrain from participation in the activities of specific churches?
  2. Conversely, if a person is "churched," does it automatically follow that he or she is a faithful and spiritually mature disciple of Christ who has a vital relationship with God? (I think that the obvious answer is NO. I'm reminded of preachers who have correctly pointed out that living in a hen house doesn't make one a chicken.)
  3. Should our goal be to make people into "church people," into converts, or into disciples? What are the differences, if any, between those three things? Why did Jesus tell us to go and make people into disciples, not into church people or converts?
  4. What is the basis for the assumption that the only way or the best way to win unbelievers to Christ is to persuade them to attend church with us? Is that the most appropriate or effective way in which to do evangelistic work? What about the role of individual Christians insofar as evangelism is concerned? Is their role merely to get folks to come to church so that they can hear formal evangelistic presentations? Isn't it somewhat lazy to rely primarily on the "professionals" for evangelism, rather than learning to actively share one's faith with one's friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers, etc.? What are the best ways to teach people to allow God to directly use them in such a manner?
  5. Why aren't we Christians making more of an active effort to infiltrate the surrounding culture with the gospel of Christ so that it isn't necessary to bring people to church in order to present the gospel to them in a manner which leads to conversions?
It would be simplistic, I think, to focus solely on one method of evangelism to the exclusion of other methods. God can and sometimes does bring people to salvation in Christ as the result of being invited to church services or special evangelistic events sponsored by churches. But I think that it's unfortunate when we ignore the numerous other opportunities with which we are presented. We need to encourage fellow believers to be bold and creative in terms of sharing their beliefs with non-Christians.

We can do so by setting up group activities which enable people who have never "witnessed" to others before to get their feet wet so that they eventually feel very comfortable about talking about the Lord with others, and by creating environments (such as storefront Christian coffeehouses) which are particularly conducive to such conversations with unbelievers. (Most churches, even the best churches, are NOT conducive to such honest conversations.)

People learn how to do such things by doing such things, and by observing other Christians as they engage in such conversations. I also think that we ought to invest time in training people in advance (using role playing exercises, for example) so that they are encouraged to spend time thinking about how they might most effectively answer specific objections when engaging in conversations with unbelievers. We should also make people aware of various training resources (such as Paul E. Little's book "How to Give Away Your Faith", which helped me quite a bit when I was young) pertaining to personal evangelism.

I also think that it's vital to emphasize the idea that listening to unbelievers and attempting to honestly grapple with their questions and issues is an essential aspect of effective evangelism. Far too many Christians approach unbelievers with an attitude which borders on disdain or condescension. Such "evangelism" can be worse than no evangelism at all.

No methodology can replace a personal one-on-one relationship with Jesus Christ in terms of training people to engage in witnessing and evangelism, but having such a relationship doesn't necessarily mean that one will be an effective evangelist. That's why people need to be actively trained and encouraged to share their faith with people who aren't saved.

When people become personally involved in kingdom building by sharing their faith directly with unbelievers --- instead of merely promoting the evangelistic activities at their local churches --- then they are well on their way to becoming real disciples, not just church goers or converts.

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