In my previous post I shared 6 Reasons Why the ‘Nones’ Are Walking Away From Church. In today’s post I want to share some hope and a way forward. For too long the church has wrung its hands in despair without taking definitive steps forward to reach the Nones. Last time I checked, the Nones are included in the “all nations” Jesus commands his followers to go and make disciples of in Matthew 28:19-20. So how can we effectively begin to reach the Nones?
1. Live authentically. This counters the moral reason causing Nones to walk away from church, wher people believe suffering disproves the existence of God. Don’t hide our pain, don’t be plastic. Don’t project that following God removes pain and suffering, but show verbally and visibly how Jesus is greater even through your suffering. One thing is certain: pain and suffering is here to stay this side of heaven. Do we allow it to ‘disprove’ the existence of God, or do we intentionally change (not just with words but with our lives) the narrative? Why did Paul talk so much about suffering being so central to the spread of the gospel? Jesus brought life through his suffering.
2. Change the way we talk about the Bible. This counters the “biblical” reason where people believe the Bible is the basis of our religion, and people have questions about the Bible. This isn’t a theological issue where we doubt the inspiration or authority of Scripture. It’s a branding issue. Why do some Baptist churches take out “Baptist” out of their name? Because of the negative connotations many outsiders have with the word Baptist, and because one bad “Baptist” church can ruin the experience all the others. In much the same way, the word “Bible” is the new “Baptist”.
The problem isn’t what the Bible says, it’s what else the Bible says. When insiders think Bible, we think John 3:16. Outsiders read Leviticus 24:15-17 where God commands the Israelites to stone anyone to death who blasphemes the Name. Or how about Joshua 6 where God commands Joshua to take the city of Jericho and kill every living thing inside? If you’re raised in church, you get the nuance: “hey, that’s the Old Testament, that was a different covenant, it makes sense in the times and culture of the day.” People on the outside don’t get the nuance. They just see God ordering genocide and say, “no thanks.”
So, one of the things I intentionally try and do when I preach is not say the word “Bible.” Is it because I don’t believe in the Bible? Of course not! It’s because there is so much misinformation out there that the word Bible has become a loaded word. Definitions can change even though the word remains the same. 50 years ago, if you said someone was “gay”, you would have implied that the person was happy and carefree. 50 years later, saying someone is “gay” means something totally different.
So, instead of saying “the Bible says,” I say things like “here’s what Paul wrote,” “here’s what Mark said,” “here’s what Luke recorded.” It’s still the Bible, just approached from a different angle. The other thing to note here is that when people say they have a problem with the Bible, they usually mean they have a problem with something recorded in the Old Testament. Here’s what the early Christians did: they believed in Jesus first, then they appreciated and revered the Old Testament because Jesus appreciated and revered the Old Testament.
So rather than trying to spend all my time “defending the Bible,” I spend my time trying to help people encounter Jesus, and the whole Old Testament and Bible thing comes naturally afterwards. The other reason this is important is because if we make the Bible the basis of Christianity, then if someone can poke a hole of doubt into one part of the Bible, then it all comes crashing down like a house of cards. That’s what the college biology professor tries to do with evolution. If he can get you to doubt the creation story in Genesis, then you have to doubt everything, and therefore God is a myth.
In reality, our religion isn’t based on a book, it’s based on an event in human history. Point people to Jesus, point people to the resurrection. If someone tries to cast down on an obscure passage in the Old Testament, that has nothing to do with the resurrection of Jesus. And by the way, it also gives us a better reason to believe the Old Testament, because Jesus believed the Old Testament, and again, if someone can prophesy their own death and resurrection and then pull it off, I just go with whatever he says.
3. Make church irresistible. This counters the experiential reason people walk away from church because they had a bad church experience. It’s why we spend time and money having a nice building, with central air and heating, why we decorate the lobby for Christmas, why we have people greeting in the parking lots. When people come to church for the first time, they assume they’ll walk in, be anonymous, no one will talk to them, the music will be old and outdated and the preaching will be boring. When we exceed their expectations, we give them a reason to come back.
4. Assume they’re in the room. This counters the lack of comfort reason where people feel out of place and unwelcome at church. We don’t want to be as confusing as a conference on Medical Nanotechnology. When I preach I try and talk to those who might not believe that are in the room. I anticipate what their pushback might be and attempt to tackle some of their questions head on. Another way to assume they’re in the room is to avoid insider language. What do you think an outsider thinks when she walks in new to church and hears, “We are getting washed in the blood of the lamb,” “You need to be justified, sanctified and glorified in Jesus,” “Are you a 4-part or 5-part Calvinist?” Assume they’re in the room, and welcome them and speak to them accordingly.
5. Don’t “go” to church. Be a family. This counters the relational reason where people come looking for community and we give them a program. It’s why the most important thing a church does isn’t its worship services. It’s small groups or community life. People don’t need another program. They need a family. How is your church being the body, being a family in the everyday lives of its members?
6. Make it practical. This counters the relevance reason where people don’t see the church as relevant or important. Have you ever walked out of a church and had no idea how to apply what you just learned? If I ever went to a horse riding school, how practical would it be if I merely sat in an 8 hour lecture on the benefits of horse riding, the equipment of horse riding, and the proper technique of how to ride a horse? If I go to a horse riding school, I expect to actually ride a horse. When people do show up to church, they’re not dying to know the history of the Israelites in the 7th century BC or how the apostle John used the word agape in his letter 1 John. They’re lonely, they’re struggling, their marriage needs work, their kids are going crazy, they’re financially overwhelmed and they’re scared about the future. How are we making helping people with their practical needs?
7. Speak to their deeper needs. This also counters the relevance reason where people don’t see the church as relevant or important. The goal isn’t just to engage them with their felt needs, the ones one the surface and that are visible. It’s to speak to their deeper needs, the eternal needs God placed inside each one of us. And especially for those not in a crisis, where life is treating them fairly well, this is our way to speak into them. As Americans, we live in one of the wealthiest parts of the world. We’ve got shopping, we’ve got healthcare, we’ve got 3 cars, 2.5 kids and a timeshare on the beach. Why do we need church? How do you reach the affluent? Here are four deeper needs that is your strategic invitation to those on the outside.
- Know God – People have this innate desire to know their Creator. God placed eternity in the hearts of mankind. That’s what Sunday worship experiences are designed to help people do.
- Find Freedom – People want to be free. Freedom happens together. The best way to help people be free is to have a vibrant small group ministry.
- Discover Purpose – People want to know why they exist, that they are created on purpose for a purpose.
- Make a Difference – People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. People don’t just want to volunteer. They want to be a Difference Maker.