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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.
It’s going to take a lot of us rethinking our cultural assumptions as we move into this next era.
If you want to read more, several other blog posts I wrote speak to the shifting reality around us.