I was recently asking a group of leaders to tell me about various ‘social mosaics’ that exist in their cities. These leaders lit up as they brainstormed all of the various groups of people who gather in groups throughout their communities – cycling clubs, PTAs, surfers, bikers, and artists. They rattled off dozens of groups where people who are far from Jesus could be found.
Then, I asked them what their social mosaic was. Where do you hang out? Which of these groups are you a part of? The room fell silent. One brave leader shook his head in disgust and said, “church.”
And we wonder why we aren’t seeing more people come to Christ.
See the problem is this, the more secular, the more urbanized, and the newer the city and community, the less our traditional behaviors around ‘evangelism’ work. In an increasingly secularized society we find more and more that ‘getting them to church’ isn’t as simple as it once was. Just a decade ago, you could invite a new acquaintance to church and have them hear a quality band followed by an evangelistic message, and somehow, they’d respond. Today the visits are few and far between, and the decisions, even fewer. Our knee jerk reaction is tweak the service, improve the experience, or hire a staff member who has a tat. But until we recognize our disconnect from our surrounding culture, we will never penetrate it with the Gospel.
The explanation for our disconnect is not our programs or the quality of our services. It is our ignorance. We have a shallow understanding of the secular mind.
In the mid 70’s, (yes, that long ago), James Engel helped develop a way of representing the journey from complete atheist to committed Christ follower. It unpacks the process of conversion, and the various decision-making steps that a person goes through before they become a Christian. It can be best understood this way:
-8 Awareness of supreme being, no knowledge of Gospel
-7 Initial awareness of Gospel
-6 Awareness of fundamentals of Gospel
-5 Grasp implications of Gospel
-4 Positive attitude towards Gospel
-3 Personal problem recognition
-2 Decision to act
-1 Repentance and faith in Christ
+1 Post-decision evaluation
+2 Incorporation into Body
+3 Conceptual and behavioral growth
+4 Communion with God
Now, many have debated the nuance of each of these points and defined them a bit differently, but what no one disagrees with is the reality that there are roughly 8 stages that precede a person ever becoming a Christ follower. Ask yourself where the church spends all of it’s time, and you start to unpack the deep seeded sickness in the church today. Our scorecards and celebrations completely ignore the tremendous victory it is for someone to move from stage 8 to stage 7. What’s even more devastating is the fact that in a secular culture people are moving further away. More and more people live at a -9. They aren’t even certain God is reality. It takes very little analysis to recognize why simply inviting someone to church won’t work the way we think. This should challenge our understanding of the ‘activity’ of the local church. In a secular culture, where are we putting our energy? Who are we reaching? This should be especially challenging to us as leaders.
I heard one prominent leader describe one of the ‘pre-decision’ stages as, “They need to realize that not all Christians are idiots.” Well, if that’s true, where will they discover that? In a church service? At a Bible study? Or, will they discover it when they realize that this man or woman they’ve been sitting next to in an art class, or getting to know in a bike club, or hiking with on Saturday, or serving the neighborhood alongside of, is not only intelligent and kind, but also a Christ follower.
Do you see the secular thinker in the complex manner in which they deserve to be understood? And, are you living the gospel out in a way that reflects this reality? Does your ‘ministry’ reflect just as much intentionality with stage -8 as it does with stage -1? If we are serious about reaching the lost, it begins with taking the lost, seriously.
Brad Williams is the pastor of Summit Church in Spokane, WA, the Global City Coordinator for Foursquare’s efforts in NYC, and the Director of Foursquare Multiply. He lives in Spokane with his wife and three daughters.