Posted by: smstrouse | June 8, 2013

Reaching Out to the ‘Nones’

We used to call it evangelism.  Sometimes we’d go out and knock on doors, inviting people to come to our churches. We subscribed to the definition of evangelism as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” Mostly though, we relied pretty heavily on people finding their own way to our doors and becoming assimilated into the culture of the congregation.

Then we started talking about church growth. When Baby Boomers began to face the challenge of GenX and subsequent generations, the “church growth movement” went into overdrive.  We learned how to create “seeker services,” incorporating contemporary music and simpler messages in order to attract people who weren’t interested in traditional ways of being church. “Entertainment evangelism” came into our language and was both embraced and reviled.

In the 90’s, I went to a workshop presented by Community Church of Joy, which was at that time THE model of how to grow the church. CCoJ had grown from 200 members to 1200 and we all wanted to follow their example (or in the language of the day, their paradigm shift). Now, however, even some of those who were in the forefront of that movement have recognized the flaws in the model.

And now we’re talking about how to reach out to the “nones,” the “spiritual but not religious,” the “unaffiliated,” the “church alumni society.”  So what’s our strategy today?

I don’t think we have one. And I think part of the problem is that we still want to be the ones doing the talking, the telling, the convincing. It’s inherent in our understanding of evangelism, i.e. “telling the Good News.” But if we’re serious about reaching out to people, not as a strategy to fill our empty pews or offering envelopes, we’re going to have to learn how to listen.

The author of the quote about beggars finding food is D. T. Niles (1908-1970), a Methodist pastor from Sri Lanka, who also said that “the Western pot must be broken and the gospel planted in the native soil.” He could have been talking to us today, not about foreign mission, but outreach in our own communities. We need to listen and learn the context of the people with whom we hope to develop a relationship.

What this means, though, is that we too will be changed in the process. The church will be changed. And for that reason, many won’t be able to make the necessary shift. They’ll be too busy circling the wagons. But again, D. T. Niles comes through (I’ve really enjoyed learning about him!), and again he’s speaking to us today: “Authentic Christianity never destroys what is good. It makes it grow, transfigures it, and enriches itself from it.”

Are we willing to grow, to be transfigured and enriched? Perhaps evangelism today has to begin with us. Only then will we be ready to offer others our bread.

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Responses

  1. […] published on 9 June 2013 by Pastor Susan M. […]

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  2. Many persons have been critical of the “I’m OK/ You’re OK” message of transactional analysis. But if that word results in a less imperialistic approach to evangelism — if all the talk about dialogue and relationship-building, the use of group process and small-group support, have led us in the direction of a vulnerable, open style of evangelistic communication — then the effort has, not been just a fad. The church has been changed.

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