Reaching the Unchurched

Carey Nieuwhof:

Many today will want to say “reaching” is the wrong, and unmissional, word; some will say relationships for the sake of evangelism are wrong; yet, there are other questions: Does evangelism matter to you? How does one evangelize those who have little interest?

So how do you reach a growing number of people who are learning to live comfortably without God?

1. Build relationships. Jesus was deeply relational, and it seems he liked relationships with people outside the ‘church’ more than he liked hanging around people inside the ‘church’. One of the best ways to encourage people to build relationships with unchurched people is to stop running ministries in your church every night of the week. Encourage the Christians in your church to get involved in their kids schools, to play sports in a community league, to get to know their neighbours. Pick a few key ministries and do them well (we encourage people to serve on Sundays and be in community group one night a week; that’s about it). Salt only realizes its purpose if it gets out of the box and into the food it needs to season. You can’t influence people you don’t know.

2. Speak to success, not just failure. In your preaching and in your conversation, if you are only prepared to speak to people in their moments of weakness and despair, you’re going to miss a big chunk of your city. If every example you share is of someone in a crisis or who has deep problems, you will never connect with people who like their lives or who have decent marriages, even without God.  That kind of talk is also a bit of a guy-repellant.

So what might you say? A few ideas:

i. Talk about success, but ask questions about its emptiness. Most successful people I know are always on a quest for more. Success promises, but never (quite) fully delivers. Speak to that. Ask questions like “do you ever wonder if there’s more?” Or “ever wonder what that gnawing desire is really all about?”

ii. Assume people are doing their best. The derogatory and condescending caricatures of unchurched people by some Christians are just insulting…especially if you have unchurched people in the room. Most people are doing their best. They really are. If you start with acknowledging that and empathizing with them, they will accept your challenge at the end. Even value it.

iii. Respect their intelligence. Most people have done some homework. Often quite extensive. They believe what they believe or don’t believe for what they see as good reasons. When you respect them, they are more likely to respect you and your views.

3.  Value the good you see.  The everything secular is evil attitude of many religious leaders is not only a bit off base biblically, it’s also ineffective. Common grace is still at work in the world. If you read Acts 10, God appears to have valued people like Cornelius for his prayers and his gifts to the poor, even before his conversion. Jesus never started a conversation with an outsider by condemning them (that’s actually how he started his conversation with insiders…think about that), even if he finished it with a challenge (“go and sin no more”). Maybe that’s because Jesus actually loves unchurched people.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • mennojones

    Where are Christians told to evangelize or ‘reach’ others? The ‘great commission’ seems like a particular command to the original disciples to get the Gospel planted firmly within the Nations. But I don’t see Paul commanding the churches in his letters nor John in Revelation commanding the seven churches to reach others or to evangelize. There are individuals gifted and called to be proclaimers of the Gospel but the general church member is not commanded to do that. We are told to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that we have in Christ. I think we should simply strive to have relationships without an agenda other than love. We aren’t Jesus. He came to re-knew the covenant with Israel and to claim his Kingdom. He had to be calculated in his time on earth. I am here to be part of the church and love as Christ loved us. As I do that, as I develop relationships with people because they are people, I will hopefully be shinning the light and love of God. Of course out of love, I will point people to Jesus when I need to but I don’t consider that NT evangelism or trying to ‘reach them’. Now, I am an evangelical universalist, so that impacts my perspective.

  • NateW

    I think that Rob Bell’s approach is spot on. We need to see our role as something more similar to a tour guide than God’s tour bus.

    People are not “without God” before they become Christians, but they are not aware that it is Christ’s presence that they enjoy in all the best things in life and that they long desperately for in the worst.

    We need to stop acting like we have something that they don’t, that we have the object that must be attained for happiness and fulfillment, and find ways to show people that life is found not in fulfilled desires, hope, dreams, and intellectually correct knowledge, but in the act of giving all these things up for the greatest good of one’s neighbor (whether family, friend, or enemy).

    We are not charged with carrying God to places where he isn’t present, but with shining a light (aka, putting flesh and bones) on what already surrounds us in such a way that people’s eyes are opened.


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