This is the first of several talks I gave on the topic of Evangelism at an Acts 29 Regional conference in New England. In it I layout some the the reasons our evangelism has become unbelievable, as well as address the issue of rising secularity and how to respond to it.
In our first year of marriage, it was not uncommon to find me steadily peering down toward my lap whenever we had guests at the dinner table. I had to be prepared. If the conversation remained superficial or became dull, I would discreetly turn my eyes from our guests, and to my wife’s horror, begin reading the book of choice, placed carefully in my lap.
I was present but absent.
Everywhere but Nowhere
This is, perhaps, an apropos description of modern life. Head down and heart disengaged, our thoughts are elsewhere. We are “dislocated”, as Jeremy Writebol posits in his new book, everPresent. Teeming with technological distraction, or simply absorbed with Self, we are often missing from the present. We have lost the wisdom of Seneca who warns, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
Consequences of Dislocation
The consequences of dislocation often go uncalculated. Jeremy does some of the math for us. Our sense of place is, perhaps, the first to go. Preoccupation blinds us to the sights and sounds of our surroundings and, as a result, we fail to fully enjoy the gift of the moment. Our environments devolve into means. The inherent value of place is lost on us and, as a result, restoring broken places is often far from our minds.
Worse still, people are affected. In my foolish stints at the dinner table, I dishonored my wife and neglected persons, sent to my home to receive hospitality and love. Fifteen years later, I’ve improved my dinner table conduct considerably, but face a similar temptation with the Smartphone. Dislocation is now socially acceptable. Our children may suffer the most from our disengagement with the present. While we may scoff at the hippies who escaped parental duties in pursuit of a high, our substance of choice may actually take us further away from our children. Certainly, the substance varies from person to person. For some, it is accomplishment. Kierkegaard writes, “Let us never deceive youth by foolish talk about the mater of accomplishing. Let us never make them so busy in the service of the moment, that they forget the patience of willing something eternal.”
Of course, the lure of accomplishment can be cloaked in the eternal. “Ministry” is not immune from our disease. What then is the cause of our illness? Dislocation from God. Jeremy cautions that “soul dislocation is terminal.” This is true not only for us but also for those around us. Our diversion not only impedes communion but also disengages us from mission.
We desperately need relocation.
The Gospel Relocates us in the Present
The Christian faith possesses rich resources to remedy this crisis. EverPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present transports us to those resources with fresh language and focused practice. It signals profound hope in the incarnate Christ who affirms place, and in the dying-rising Christ, who relocates us back into the all-satisfying presence of God. We do, after all, have a God who is omnipresent, with us and for the world in every moment. Jeremy sensitively and prophetically calls us to join God there, in the present, for our flourishing and the sake of the world.
According to statistics, there are a lot of “unchurched” people in the U.S. No county in the US has registered a greater percentage of church persons over the past decade. Church attendance has declined over the past few years by 10%, and the US is the only continent where Christianity is not growing. People aren’t going to church like they used to. So, we refer to them as “unchurched.”
What Does “Unchurched” Really Mean?
Over ten years ago, Robert Fuller made three major distinctions among the so-called unchurched:
- Secular Humanists
- Religious but Not Church-oriented
- Spiritual but not Religious
These distinctions, alone, are helpful in clarifying who our neighbors might be. Yet, I rarely hear church planters and missional organizations explain the unchurched in this way. Instead, “unchurched” remains an amorphous and imprecise term. Why, then, do we continue to use it?
Maybe part of the reason is we call them “unchurched” is based on a hidden, faulty ecclesiology–church equals getting people to attend a Sunday service. In many of the statistics I have examined, this is often the primary criteria for characterizing someone as unchurched. Is the mission of God to get people “into a church service”? The New Testament gives us a much thicker view of God’s mission. It runs deeper and goes further.
Why We Need Deeper Thinking on a Term
We need to go deeper before we go further in reaching the unchurched. We need to ask: “What do they (secular humanists, religious but not church-oriented, or spiritual but not religious people) think of Christianity?” Gabe Lyons & David Kinnaman’s book UnChristian was a popular step forward in taking this humble, missionary posture. To take the conversation a couple steps further, we need to understand what people think Christianity is. Truth be told, they often think of something altogether different than what we think of. As a result, a lot of gospel communication communicates something other than the gospel. For instance:
- We say “have faith”; they hear “anti-science.”
- We say “Christ”; they hear “moral example.”
- We say “cross”; they hear “arcane human sacrifice.”
- We say “Christianity”; they hear “Republican and anti-gay.”
- What are people in your part of the country hearing you say?
If we are to love people estranged from Christ and distant from the church, we need to get into their skin, listen to their stories, and begin understanding who they are. To do this, I recommend we view parts of our culture as resistant peoples.
What are resistant peoples? Missiologist Michael Pocock writes: “The resistant are those who have or are receiving an adequate opportunity to hear the gospel but over some time have not responded positively (Pocock, “Raising Questions about the Resistant”). This means that the resistant are not unreached, though they are often uninterested in church. At least two of Fuller’s unchurched sub-groups could be considered resistant.
To be clear, I am not suggesting you start calling your co-workers “resistant peoples!” Though some would consider it a compliment!
Not unlike the term unchurched, defining the resistant is has its problems; however, Dr. Timothy Tennent helpfully points out that peoples can be resistant in at least four ways: culturally, theologically, ethnically or politically (Tennent, “Equipping Missionaries for the Resistant”). Depending on which area of the U.S you live in, or what sub-cultures you are ministering to, any one or a combination of these four areas may apply. A good missionary will take each one as a lens to discern what obstacles are in front of the gospel.
As I see it, a major challenge to reaching the resistant is to approach our Christianity with redemptive suspicion. We need to question Christianity wherever it places political, moral, and cultural obstacles in front of the gospel. For example, some Christians would insist on that a person change their political views before becoming a Christian. Or that they need to change their sexual orientation before putting faith in Jesus. We need to wisely discern which objections are legitimate among resistant peoples. Then, deconstruct defective cultural views and reconstruct biblical, gospel-centered views in areas such as politics and sexuality.
By rethinking who we are relating to (unchurched or resistant), and how we relate to them (areas of resistance and the gospel), we can remove stumbling blocks to Christ and move the mission forward. To begin, I recommend we take Tennent’s four areas–political, cultural, ethnic, and theological–and begin filling them out with specific reasons, from our contexts, as to why people are not interested in church or the gospel.
“Since the world isn’t perfect, why would we need a perfect being to explain the world or any feature of it?” This question was asked of premier Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, in the New York Times Opinionator. I interacted with Plantinga’s most recent work on science and faith in a post called, “How Christian’s Can Affirm Evolution.”
Here is Plantinga’s response to the original question, “If the world isn’t perfect, then why do we need a perfect creator?”:
I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.
Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might – e.g., having them boiled in oil – God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures. I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better.