The natural tendency of the local church is to stay insider focused. But in order to accomplish our mission, the church must become outsider focused. What should the church do to reach unchurched people?
In our churches, we just finished a series entitled “Whatever it Takes” based on the early church in the Book of Acts. It is so easy to get inspired by the men and women God used to get the church off the ground. Their courage and determination to spread the Gospel to the masses is incredible. This time, going through Acts, I was caught by how they thought and how they prayed. I compared their mindset and prayers with my own, and I admittedly felt a little ashamed by my small thinking and weak prayers. They prayed for boldness to keep preaching the Gospel to those in need, in the face of life threatening danger. I tend to pray for safety, for protection, and for blessings for me and my family. “Whatever it Takes” was a challenging series and I hope I can move forward from here with the same courage and focus of the early church.
Keeping vs. Reaching
Today, I am going to work on answering some questions we have received from one of our listeners. They began by stating, “The tendency in a church is to focus most of our time, effort and energy on those sitting right in front of us each Sunday morning”. If we turn again to the Book of Acts, we can begin to learn how the early church focused their efforts.
As a pastor, I find it easier and more natural to focus more on who I am trying to keep, however, the church in the Book of Acts focused their thinking on those they wanted to reach. In Acts 4, they prayed for boldness to continue preaching, despite the fact that they were just threatened with a death sentence by the High Priest. They were focusing more on who they wanted to reach, and less on who they were trying to keep. In Acts 15, they had their first board meeting to discuss which of the Old Testament laws they would keep and which they would get rid of; namely in regards to circumcision. James and Peter boldly decided “to not make it difficult for the Gentiles to come to God”, voting against the archaic practice. That was a bold decision. It may have cost them a significant portion of the Jewish members in the church, who would have deeply disagreed with them discarding Moses’ laws and their traditions. But, James and Peter decided to focus more on who they were trying to reach, as opposed to who they were keep. These are just two examples but the entire book displays this mentality of the first church. This mindset is why the church moved forward with such power and influence.
Our listener went on to say, “There is nothing necessarily wrong with this [the tendency of the church to focus time, effort and energy on those sitting right in from of them each Sunday] but how do you effectively communicate that the balance may be off and that there needs to be more emphasis put on reaching and bringing in and compelling the unchurched to come in so they can become part of God’s family and then the local church’s family?”
For me, I am not sure there is a balance. If I am going to lean one way or another, I would prefer to lean towards focusing on those I am trying to reach. I believe the best way to effectively communicate this emphasis is through the Lead Pastor from the pulpit. It is easy to preach this focus because Jesus made it His focus. He said, “I have come to seek and to save that which is lost.” He modelled this purpose in everything he did. The early church then followed his example.
When I arrived in Lethbridge over 6 years ago, I recognized a church that had become insider focused. I believe this happens naturally to every church over time. It takes a regular course of correction from the pulpit by the Lead Pastor to counter this natural drift. When I discovered this problem in Lethbridge, I began preaching about being outsider focused and went through the Book of Acts. This is why I spoke through the Book of Acts again this past month; it was time to correct our church and prevent any insider drift from taking place again. I don’t think any change can happen effectively in a church until it has been preached passionately. If people can see it in the Word, they will go to work making it happen in their lives and in the church. That is the power of the Word. So, it must be preached first and then regularly in order to bring a change of direction in the church.
Waiting on the Holy Spirit
Next, our listener says this: “I find some of the responses from church members when being asked the question of what could or should we do to reach people are, ‘Well if they are really searching and truly need to become saved, the Holy Spirit will draw them in.’ My question to you Pastor Kelly is: If we are to wait until the Holy Spirit draws people into the church, what do we do with the Great Commission, to ‘Go into all the world and make disciples’ ?”
I have heard this from a lot of well meaning Christians. They are waiting on a move of God. The only problem with this thinking is that God has already moved. He has done everything needed in order for salvation to happen. Jesus took care or the sin problem and made relationship with Him accessible to everyone. Next, He sent the Holy Spirit. When Peter and the 120 received the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, they went out and preached. The Holy Spirit did not compel people in; He empowered them to go out.
The Holy Spirit’s job is not to draw people in; they don’t have the Holy Spirit, we do. The Holy Spirit’s job is to work in us and through us to go and reach. Paul said this in Romans 10: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” We are the ones to preach. It’s on us.
If it is the Holy Spirit’s job to bring people into my church, then why does he like some churches more than others? If one church is growing and seeing souls saved and one is not, isn’t he playing favourites? Why does He like their church more than mine? It is like a farmer who has a field right next to the field of another farmer. If one reaps a bumper harvest and the other doesn’t, is it God’s fault? Or does it reflect on the skill of the farmer? The farmer can’t make a plant grow, only God can do that. But, the farmer plays a big role in the process. Has has to prepare the soil, plant the seed, fertilize the seed, water the field, get rid of the weeds, and collect the harvest. God made the crop grow, but it was the farmer who had to skillfully work the field to reap the harvest. The same is true in the church. It is God who saves, but it is us who have to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, and reap the harvest.
Designing a Service
Continuing on, the listener has received this answer in response to the question “What could or should we do to reach people?”: “We can’t limit the elements of our service (lessen the music time or hold back from going really deep or shortening sermons or preaching on topics rather than whatever God would lead the pastor to preach each week) just so unchurched feel more comfortable.” This begs the question, how should the church “go deep” and for whom and when?
I believe each church needs to go deep, but each church has to reach. So, are we preparing our services for those we are trying to keep more than for those we are trying to reach? These are great questions and ones that I have wrestled with for a long time. One thing I discovered in our church is that, the way we were designing our services was creating completely dependant followers. What I mean by that is, as a team, we had to define what a “disciple” was in order to go and make them. we noticed how John wrote to the early church in 1 John 2. He wrote, “I write to you little children, I write to you young men, and I write to you fathers.” He was addressing three different groups in one church, based on their spiritual maturity. Our team looked at that and knew we must have those three groups in our church as well.
A little child is completely dependant on someone else. They need someone to feed them and clean up their messes. A young man is strong and independent. In fact, John wrote that when he said, “I write to you young men because you are strong in the Word and have overcome the evil one.” Young men are strong because they have the ability to feed themselves. When we discovered this, we noticed that we were designing our services in such a way that kept the congregation as dependants—as little children. We were trying to preach people full on Sunday’s by giving them heavy meat, instead of preaching them hungry so that they could go and feed themselves. Christians were never meant to get all of their spiritual meat in a Sunday gathering; they were meant to get it from the Word on their own. The language of little children is “I’m not being fed,” because they are completely dependant on someone else to feed them. So, we endeavoured to get people to begin growing themselves. When they do, you are not “limiting” their growth by cutting back on anything in your services because they are not solely dependent on you anymore.
The Holy Spirit and the Unchurched
Now, is there a difference in the way and in the relevance of the Holy Spirit as He moves in the hearts of the churched versus the unchurched? I believe so. Look at what Jesus told the 120 before they received the Holy Spirit. They were followers of Him yet He told then to wait until they received the Holy Spirit before they went and preached the Word. This exemplifies the purpose of the Holy Spirit as well as the difference in His role within a believer versus a non-believer. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to the church; it’s for the believers and the unchurched will not recognize Him. In fact, Paul said that, to the unbeliever, the Holy Spirit will appear like foolishness.
So, the Holy Spirit is to guide and comfort the church, and is also a source of boldness. Our job is to be the preachers, to be the ones who compel them to come meet Jesus. We have to tell them, teach them, and explain to them. That is why Paul warned the church in Corinth to be careful with the gifts of the Spirit in the presence of unbelievers. They need to become believers before they will fully appreciate who He is and what He can do in and through us.
A final response to the question, “what could and should the local church do to reach unchurched people” is this: “People will be attracted to our uncompromising elements of the service.” However, how would unchurched people know whether the “elements of a service” are compromising or uncompromising?
This saddens me, because it is not biblical. Paul explained his approach to reaching the lost in 1 Corinthians 9. He said, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” To me, this doesn’t sound like compromise; this sounds like someone who is dedicated to reaching as many people as possible. When churches say “people will be attracted to our uncompromising elements”, it is like Paul saying, “because I am a Jew, the Gentiles will be attracted to God through my traditions and the law.” Paul realized that to them, it would be foolishness, even though the law is a part of the Bible. He said he became like them and spoke in a way they would understand, in order that he may win some. We see him do this in Acts 17 while he was in Athens. He quoted their poets as a part of his sermon when he said, “in him we live and move and have our being.” That is a direct quote from a poem by Epimedes of Crete in reference to Zeus. Most Christians today would accuse Paul of compromise, yet he was successful in planting a church in Athens.
Did Paul compromise? No. The guideline for me is to keep the message sacred, not the methods. The message is Jesus and His resurrection; I will never compromise that. The methods we use to preach that message are totally up for discussion. Our methods and traditions are the music we play, the order of service, the length of service, the length of music, the type of altar calls, the dress code, the language we use etc. When churches that are reaching the unchurched are criticized, it is usually over the fact that they are using different methods than what are traditional. It is rarely over the fact that the message is incorrect. We need to learn to discern the message from the methods and be open to messing with the methods in order to open people up to receive the message. This will help us “win some”.
In the weeks to come, we will go deeper into this subject. This approach to ministry challenges every church to do things relevant to the unchurched as well as the churched. I would be lying if I said I didn’t regularly wrestle with my traditional preferences and with the willingness to lay them down for the sake of reaching someone with the gospel. It is an easy trap to fall into; we all have the natural tendency to focus more on those we want to keep than on those we want to reach. But we have to do everything we can to resist that tendency and keep our focus on the mission. Why? Because the church is the hope of the world, and we’ve been given a mission to reach every available person, at every available time, by every available means, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by creating churches unchurched people love to attend.
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