Tag Archives: Evangelism

Some Thoughts on What Unchurched People Want in a Church

Matt Pinson

Ultimately the question of what unchurched people want in a church is very unimportant compared to what the Bible says people need in a church. But over twenty-five years ago, some church growth experts started telling pastors that the main impediment to their growth was their lack of consumer orientation or cultural relevance or, for lack of a better word, “coolness.” This advice was associated with what was known as the “seeker-sensitive” or “attractional” movement. Many pastors began to engage in an extreme makeover of their churches to rid them as much as possible of any vestige of Christian tradition. While a small minority of these churches experienced growth, most did not. And recent data shows that most of the growth that is occurring, in churches of all sizes, is in transfer growth, not conversion of the unchurched through evangelism.

From Attractional to Missional

This phenomenon has led many ministry practitioners to question the received wisdom of the church growth movement, and refocused the emphasis on church health. Some have labeled this as a shift from an “attractional” church model (“How can we best attract customers?”) to a “missional” one (“How can we best embody the mission of God?”). It has also coincided with the preferences of members of the Millennial generation and Generation Z, many of whom prefer the authenticity of a boutique shop or locally owned restaurant over Wal-Mart and Red Robin.

This growing dissatisfaction with the same old answers of the church growth movement, which most pastors of typical churches have tried to no avail, surfaced in several things I read and listened to recently. This included a book by Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace. Wilson started his ministry in the seeker-sensitive megachurch world, but got burnt out on it. Since then he has written several books that present a more “gospel-driven” approach (characteristic of Mark Dever’s 9Marks and other increasingly popular church health ministries) to other leaders of large churches who seem to be getting burnt out a little on the seeker-sensitive or market-driven approach to church life.

Some of my reading coincided with some seminars presented at the recent Free Will Baptist Leadership Conference by Gordon Penfold, an expert in turnarounds and revitalizations of what he calls the typical “neighborhood church.” What was interesting about Dr. Penfold is that, while he (rightly) stressed that we don’t need to keep doing “business as usual” in dysfunctional churches that have lost their desire to evangelize and grow, he did not outline the same old “seven steps to achieve quick growth in your church by stylistic tinkering” that we have grown accustomed to hearing.

His focus was more on church leaders understanding themselves and the dysfunctional systems that most often cause churches to stagnate and decline. He suggested the need for a more holistic, church health model rather than the corporate and consumer-driven models so often heralded as the silver-bullet solution for the plateaued church—“If you just make your church more marketable to your customer base and their consumer tastes, more people will come and the church will explode. . . .” In his own way, Dr. Penfold was echoing what we’ve been hearing more and more by church health advocates—pastors like Mark Dever, Harry Reeder, Mike McKinley, Jared Wilson, Colin Marshall, Tony Payne, and Brian Croft, who are experiencing growth in all sorts of demographic settings while utilizing the ordinary means of grace found in the Bible.

The Studies Show . . .

Reading and hearing these things caused me to think back over some of the studies that have been done over the last two decades of the unchurched, and what they look for in a church. It has always puzzled me that the actual studies of the unchurched have almost always shown that what is important to them is not the style of a church or the way a church appeals to the consumer tastes of its “market base.” Yet, despite these studies, over and over again, I would repeatedly hear pastors in our denomination who were discouraged because they did not think their churches were “relevant,” “cool,” or “entertaining” enough, and that that was what was needed to bring about growth. The studies consistently showed that, while these characteristics were important for some transfer members who grew up in evangelical churches, they were not generally important to the unchurched.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to matter to many what the studies showed. People were in such a panic mode because of our rapidly changing, secularizing culture that they were willing to throw whatever trendy method they could against the wall to see if it might stick. Yet they never really knew (and still don’t know) what the long-term consequences would be of all these tactics that had never before been tried in the 2,000-year history of the church.

In view of this ongoing problem, I was prompted to reflect back over the studies I’d seen over the last couple of decades. Here are the major ones:

Barna

 The Barna Group, in the late 1990s, pretty close to the beginning of the seeker-sensitive movement’s influence in the Free Will Baptist denomination, studied what was most important to unchurched people when they visited a church. Out of the 22 most important things that attract people to a church, the study found that the top five things were:

  1. The theological beliefs or doctrine of the church
  2. How much the people seem to care about each other
  3. The quality of the sermons that are preached
  4. How friendly the people in the church are to visitors
  5. How much the church is involved in helping poor and disadvantaged people.

Things related to worship, style, and music ranked only 12, 13 and 15. (Source: “Americans Describe Their Ideal Church,” Barna Research Online, October, 1998.)

Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched

 Thom Rainer and Lifeway have studied this over and over again, always with the same results: Substantive things are what attract people to church—things the Bible talks about, done with excellence, not cultural trends and targeting consumer tastes. This is summed up in Rainer’s book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, which studied the “formerly unchurched”—those who were unchurched but then joined a church. Here are the top ten reasons listed for why they joined:

  1. The pastor and his preaching (90% said this)
  2. The church’s doctrines (88%)
  3. Friendliness of the members (49%)
  4. Other Issues (42%)
  5. Someone from the church witnessed to the individual (41%)
  6. A family member attended the church (38%)
  7. Sensed God’s presence/atmosphere of the church (37%)
  8. Relationship with someone in the church who wasn’t family (25%)
  9. Sunday school class (25%)
  10. Children’s or youth ministry (25%)

Worship style, music, and other stylistic or consumer-oriented factors were named by only 11% of the respondents as having anything to do with why these formerly unchurched people joined a church. (Also interesting is that  Rainer says it is a “myth” that “the unchurched are turned off by denominational names in the church name,” and “only 4 out of 100 formerly unchurched indicated that a denominational name had a negative influence on them as they sought a church home.”) (Thom Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, 21, 38).

Rainer, Ham, Kinnaman on Why Young People are Leaving the Church

The same basic insights found by others holds true for the question of why young people leave the church, as seen in Thom Rainer’s Essential Church, Ken Ham’s Already Gone, and David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me. Young people are leaving all sorts of churches at the same rates—large and small, urban and rural, contemporary and traditional, charismatic and liturgical. As with the more general surveys like those of Barna and Rainer above, these studies show that the reason young people are leaving the church has nothing to do with stylistic factors and everything to do with the lack of solid teaching, the lack of intergenerationality and mentoring across the generations, the lack of love and community, and what they see as hypocrisy in the church. Church style is way down the list and usually is not listed as a factor. These studies are also undergirded by more serious sociological studies by scholars such as Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton, whose results undergird David Kinnaman’s conclusion that:

“After countless interviews and conversations, I am convinced that historic and traditional practices, and orthodox and wisdom-laden ways of believing, are what the next generation really needs.”

—David Kinnaman, CEO, Barna Group

Millennial Preferences in Church Architecture

A few years ago the Barna Group conducted a study for one of the largest church architectural firms in the country, which wanted to know what style of church architecture Millennials preferred. When shown pictures of the “stage” or “platform” as well as the outside of traditional and modern church buildings, two-thirds of Millennials preferred traditional structures over modern ones. This is not to argue, of course, for a “sanctified” architecture; it simply shows that many of our assumptions about what “the young folks” will actually prefer have been overturned by the Millennial generation, and similar preliminary reports are coming out of the even more secularized Generation Z. This confirms an earlier study by the Cornerstone Knowledge Network and Christianity Today, and another by Lifeway Research that said that the new church buildings most evangelical  pastors wanted to build were the exact opposite of the more traditional structures that two-thirds of unchurched people said they were most comfortable with.

Fuller Youth Institute, Growing Young

These same sorts of considerations continue to be borne out by the research. For example, the Fuller Youth Institute’s latest study, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, lists the top ten qualities churches don’t need to “grow young”:

  1. A certain size (young people don’t care whether a church is large or small)
  2. A trendy location or region
  3. An exact age (young people don’t care whether a church is old or newly planted)
  4. A popular denomination . . . or lack of denomination (young people aren’t negative on denominations)
  5. An off-the-charts cool quotient (“For young people today, relational warmth is the new cool.”)
  6. A big modern building
  7. A big budget
  8. A “contemporary” worship service
  9. A watered-down teaching style
  10. A hyper-entertaining ministry program (“We don’t have to compete. . . . Slick is no guarantee of success.”)

Conclusion

We have many dysfunctional churches, and many that have lost interest in evangelism and are more about internal dynamics than reaching out with the gospel. They need the sort of revitalization that is being talked about by Eddie Moody and Danny Dwyer in the Refresh church revitalization program of the National Association of Free Will Baptists. This program is built on rich, biblical church revitalization strategies.

I also talk with lots of Free Will Baptist pastors who are seeing steady, if modest, evangelistic fruit and gospel growth in their churches. But so many of these decent, faithful pastors are utterly discouraged because they’re comparing themselves to celebrity pastors and consumer church growth methods that don’t and can’t work for most churches and most pastors. What these pastors need to compare themselves to is the New Testament, not to contemporary trends that are more concerned about consumer marketing than the solid biblical teaching, zealous evangelism, and rich community and koinonia we see in Scripture. But if they look at most of the latest studies, they will find that those things are what the unchurched in our increasingly secularized communities say they really want when they get serious about finding a church.

Phillip Jensen on Apologetics & Evangelism

by J. Matthew Pinson

Recently I listened to a podcast by Phillip Jensen, the evangelical Anglican pastor from Sydney, Australia. Despite the obvious doctrinal differences between Free Will Baptists and Reformed Anglicans, Jensen and the Matthias Media folks down in Sydney are interesting people to watch. They demonstrate what it means to have aggressive, growing, evangelistic churches in the highly urban, post-Christian setting of Sydney. Yet at the same time they show how to do this by relying on the sufficiency of Scripture and not giving in to gimmicks and depending on attractional, market-driven, or seeker-driven approaches to get churches to grow.

Continue reading Phillip Jensen on Apologetics & Evangelism

The Gospel & Cultural Identity

by Jackson Watts

Recently I was perusing an older edition of Integrity, the theological journal which the Commission for Theological Integrity occasionally publishes (back issues available in PDF form here). I especially enjoyed reading an article written by Dr. Jeff Turnbough on culture as a missiological concept.

Turnbough remarks that in recent years he has given a lot of consideration to the biblical imagery of Christians as pilgrims, and the implications that has for our life in the world. As I was reading his discussion of this, simultaneously aware of his missionary background and the recent celebration of Memorial Day, I thought his piece provided a helpful caution about syncretism. Syncretism, from a religious perspective, is typically understood to be a problematic attempt to amalgamate different religious, cultures, or ideas, thus compromising the core substance of the original truth.

He warns,

While we must immerse ourselves in local cultures in order to communicate eternal truth effectively, we must be careful not to mix local wisdom with godly wisdom. This is probably most difficult when we stay in one culture all our lives, especially if the nation claims to be a Christian nation. We must pledge our allegiance first and foremost to God and heaven and treat our present location (as ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom) with diplomacy and respect, without betraying our loyalty to our eternal homeland. If we fall in love with a specific earthly and human sociocultural system, that love and allegiance will tend to distort and skew our perspective of eternal values. That is dangerous for the Christian pilgrim. Divided allegiances usually lead to varying forms of syncretism. Ultimately, in order to avoid this problem, we must follow the biblical exhortation to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen; for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18) [1].

Such words of caution have significant import for not only missionaries, but national church planters, pastors, and all Christians who are serious about communicating the Gospel wisely.

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[1] Jeff Turnbough, “Understanding Culture: From a Missiological Perspective,” in Integrity 3 (2006), 65-89.

Eschatology for the Now

by Kevin Hester

I was not the student to whom my fellow commission member, Rev. Randy Corn, referred in his recent post The First Word on Last Things, but I could have been. My attitude about eschatology was one that saw it only as an intramural Christian debate over the interpretation of a number of vague Biblical references in apocalyptic literature. The National Association of Free Will Baptists has wisely chosen to allow significant freedom on this theological doctrine, so I resolved not to make it an issue myself. In reality it may have been more of a copout. The theological openness on this point meant that I could remain open on it myself, and I therefore limped along with a malnourished, milquetoast panmillennialism. I have since repented.

This repentance was slow in coming. Jaded as I was by television preachers, Y2K, and the First (and then the Second) Gulf War, it was not until a class at Covenant Theological Seminary with Dr. Gerard Van Groningen that I first began to see that eschatology was more than dire predictions of the sky falling. Van Groningen was an Old Testament scholar who looked the part. Adorned with the most patriarchal beard I could imagine, he walked his students through the covenants of the Old Testament in a way that demonstrated the consistency of God’s progressive revelation in His program of redemption. It was in this class that I began to see that a truly biblical theology was a theology that refused to artificially separate the theological categories of creation, redemption, and consummation, but saw all three as summed up in the works of a personal God whose love overflowed in all His acts.

I began to realize that God’s work of redemption was cosmic in nature, and not confined to the internalized, individualistic experience of salvation bequeathed to me by the Protestant revivalism of my tradition. My experience of God in the present was an effect of God’s redemption in the past and was causally connected to God’s purposes in the future. As Paul demonstrates, my experience of salvation is the outgrowth of God’s promise to Abraham (Galatians 3:29) and Moses (Romans 10:4) and is itself a harbinger of the hope of a renewed creation (Romans 8:22-24).

With this realization, Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God took on new meaning. The universal promise of God’s blessing to all the nations made to Abraham (Genesis 12:3) is fulfilled in the eternal worship of the heavenly state when those from every tongue, tribe, and nation gather in worship (Revelation 12:9). The means of this fulfillment is the Church’s present proclamation of Christ and his Gospel to the world (Matthew 28:19-20). The missional purpose of the Church, my own justification and ongoing sanctification, were a part of God’s eschatological plan. Eschatology was about the “now” just as much as it was about the “not yet.”

Eschatology, therefore, has a number of practical applications for the present. These applications touch on how we view the world and how we interact with it. The model of interaction gives us a plan for engagement.

Impact on the Present

Eschatology teaches us that at this moment we are living in the midst of God’s activity. God is sovereign over history and is working right now in our lives and in His church. This hope is not dependent upon our feelings or even the apparent general course of this world or our country.

               Sovereignty

God gave John a vision in Revelation that was meant for a small, persecuted group of believers in Asia Minor that is, by extension, also for us. The message was one of His presence and His promise. Christ is present among us in the midst of our difficulties (Revelation 1:13) and God rules in complete control from his throne (Revelation 4). God’s sovereignty means that He is working out His purposes in the world. God will manifest His lordship in time and space in this world. No heavenly or earthly powers will be able to ultimately frustrate His work (Revelation 6:15-17).

               History

Eschatology also tells us that history is significant; both individual and cosmic history. History is a record of God’s engagement with humanity. It is purposeful, having a telos or goal. History therefore gives meaning and purpose to our lives and our relationships. Even our trials and tribulations lie under His sovereignty and He works through them to accomplish His purposes (Romans 8:28). It is at the consummation of all things that we will come to understand and God will wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4).

               Hope

Eschatology gives Christians a reason to hope. The divine rule of Christ has been inaugurated in the Church and in the lives of Christians. The kingdom is within us (Luke 17:21) and will come about through us. This gives us a foretaste of what God is going to do universally. In the midst of a highly technical eschatological discussion of the resurrection, Paul makes the following practical application of hope in 1 Thessalonians 4:18, “comfort one another with these words.” With this hope we are called to face any and all situations. We can be assured of God’s ultimate victory in this world.

Impetus to Action in the Present

               Evangelism

I realize that there are some millennial perspectives which raise questions about the imminence of Christ’s return. Scripture, however, couples the offer of the Gospel with the entrance of the kingdom. God’s truth is for the present. We often miss the eschatological link between the Great Commission passages and coming of the eschatological kingdom seen in references to Jesus’ authority (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8). But the eschatological link is made especially clear in Jesus’ original commissioning of the twelve (Matthew 10:7 and 10:23).

Eschatology also promises that we can proclaim the Gospel in confidence. God’s Word and work is always accompanied by His power (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus’ response to Peter’s affirmation of faith was that the Church would be built on this faith and that as it advanced Hell’s gates would not withstand the onslaught (Matthew 16:18).

              Courage

The eschatological promise means that we can have confidence in the success of the Gospel, but it also calls us to courage. We have a promise of victory, but that does not mean that the battle will be an easy one. Jesus reminded His disciples that they would be opposed as He had been opposed and prophesied tribulation (Matthew 10:16-25). The primary burden of Paul’s eschatological teaching in 2 Thessalonians was a call for the church to remain loyal regardless of persecution and trial (2 Thessalonians 2:13-7). Eschatology teaches us to keep our lamps trimmed and burning (Matthew 25:1-13).

              Holiness

Though Christians do not know the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36) we are assured that Jesus is returning to judge the living and dead (Revelation 22:20). We too will be judged at His return. This truth encourages us to live lives of holiness and consecration to God. As Peter reminds us, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?” (2 Peter 3:11).

              Justice

Eschatology invites the church to initiate the life of the kingdom in the world. We are called to redeem the world and take everything captive to the Gospel of Christ. The church exists as God’s hands and feet in the world. The doctrine of the keys of the kingdom means that what we do, God does (Matthew 16:19).[1] This includes evangelism, but it also includes living out the kingdom ethic in such a way that our light and salt promotes a world that is characterized, inasmuch as we are able, by righteousness and social justice.[2] We are to fight for and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This likely means that we will be forced to ask the kinds of questions and give the sorts of answers that are broader than our political parties. If James tells us anything he tells us that a true Christianity, and by definition, a true eschatology will be known by its works (James 2).

Eschatology refers to the future, but if we confine it to that sphere alone, we have missed its relevance for ministry today. The verses I have referenced above are all eschatological in nature, but they all speak to what the Church is doing and should be doing in the world right now. Eschatology isn’t for arguing about the future; it’s for living in the world today.

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[1] While the reference to the “keys of the kingdom” most directly applies to the proclamation of the Gospel which has been entrusted to the Church and the entrance to the kingdom through its acceptance, the overall meaning is broader. The link between the work of God and human participation is seen in the connection of “binding” and “loosing” in heaven and earth. These terms have primary reference in rabbinic tradition to what was permitted under the Law and what was forbidden thus speaking to the ethical ramifications and demands of the Gospel. This is why this passage is also paralleled in Jesus’ discussion of church discipline in Matthew 18:18. The parallel is also expressed by John in his gospel in a different way. John links the work of the Father, the work of the Son, and the work of the disciples (John 14:12-14). It is in light of this agreement which is led by the Holy Spirit that believers can ask and receive from God (c.f. John 16:23-24).

[2] This term has become a “buzzword” that is often associated with particular positions and programs. My use of the term here is not meant to advocate for such positions but to indicate its earlier (primary) usage of the application of justice to the social sphere of influence held by the Church. Aristotle defined “justice” as giving to people those things to which they have a right. The law of love discussed by James is to be broadly applied in the Church and as the kingdom of God continues to break forth it calls the Church to greater cultural engagement in its application.

Bumper Sticker Theology

by Randy Corn

Does the name Piotr Mledozeniec ring a bell?  If you are anything like me, it doesn’t, but I would bet you have seen some of his work.

Mr. Mledozeniec is a Polish graphic designer who came up with a design for a traveling exhibit from a museum based in Jerusalem back in 2001. It incorporated a Muslim crescent, a Jewish Star of David, and a Christian cross.  This eventually morphed into the bumper sticker we are all familiar with that proclaims a one-word worldview: Coexist.

Recently, I came across an editorial in The Daily Beast written by Michael Schulson about this ubiquitous bumper sticker.  He rightly observes that this is the bumper sticker equivalent of Rodney King’s statement, “Can’t we all just get along?” made while Los Angeles burned.  I assume that people with this bumper sticker mean well, but I wonder if they have seriously thought about what they are suggesting.

Isn’t it naïve to think there is a compromise to be found in any conflict, especially when you consider the blatant force some exercise? Shulson writes, “ISIS is marauding across the Middle East. China is squeezing Tibet in an anaconda grip of cultural homogenization. Buddhists are causing violence in Sri Lanka, far-right Islamophobic parties are on the rise in Scandinavia, and Muslims and Christians are slaughtering each other in the Central African Republic.” Perhaps the Coexist folks assume that religious-based conflicts are about things that don’t really matter.  From a secularist perspective that might be true, but what about those of us who are seriously committed to certain core beliefs?

Some Christians do seem to relish the idea of minimizing what those core beliefs are, but there is an irreducible core to the Christian faith. An earlier generation called these the fundamentals.  While I have not discussed this with a Muslim, I am sure the same is true of Islam. What is the sincere Christian (or the sincere Muslim for that matter), supposed to do when they are in direct conflict either with one another or with other forces that might ask them to deny the fundamentals of their faith?

One area where this conflict surfaces is in evangelism, or what might be more broadly called proselytism. The logic seems to be that if all religions are equally valid then what gives anyone the right to “impose” his faith on anyone else?  To be sure, there have been some who would spread their belief at the point of a sword.  Christianity is not exempt from this. The Inquisition and later the forced “conversion” of native populations in the New World is a dark page in the history of Christendom. It should be pointed out, though, that while forced conversion is an aberration to Christianity, it is a tenet of Islam. Among many other examples, Qur’an 8:39 states, “So fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief, i.e. non-Muslims) and all submit to the religion of Allah alone.” The philosophy of our bumper sticker would certainly condemn forced conversion, but what about the free exchange of ideas?

Evangelism, in the Christian sense, is not about imposing our faith on anyone; it is human persuasion working in tandem with the Holy Spirit’s conviction.  To be sure, some Christians have been obnoxious about this, but the knowledgeable evangelical realizes he can’t argue someone into the Kingdom of God.

Are religious people simply supposed to keep their convictions to themselves?  Is it offensive for a committed Christian to tell an unbeliever that he is praying for the lost man’s conversion?  If advocating coexistence leads the Christian away from any concern for the Great Commission, then it must be rejected out of hand.

It may be that I am overstating the implication of a one-word slogan, but at the very least Coexist is an appeal to minimize differences and be silent about any distinctions.