That’s one question my kids weren’t used to hearing. But one morning, a boy who lived down the street knocked on the front door to play with our sons. Because it was a Sunday, our young neighbor was informed that they’d have to take a rain check because they were headed to church.
Not long before this event, our family had arrived in Denver to start a church. We were surprised at how little common knowledge about Christians could be found on our street.
It won’t be long before streets all over America — even in the Bible Belt — are filled with children who don’t know “church.” Their parents have never taken them to a worship service or even mentioned the word.
While this reality is frightening for us as Christians, it’s also a wake-up call for relationship evangelism. The outward-focused church will have an enormous opportunity to reach the non-religious — and religious, for that matter — in the season to come.
The idea of traditionally faith-friendly contexts becoming post-Christian seems daunting, but there’s some encouragement. According to Lifeway Research, 79% of unchurched people agree with this statement: “If a friend of mine really values their faith, I don’t mind them talking about it.”
In order to grow in the future, local churches must foster a “here-for-the-community” mentality. As we adapt our ministries to reach the post-Christian people of America, here are four groups to consider:
The Searching Skeptic
While some unbelieving people are staunchly against all organized religion, many of them are not. Because God “has placed eternity in the hearts of people” (Eccl. 3:11), human beings cannot but crave an encounter with God. As C.S. Lewis remarked: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
In planting our church in post-Christian Denver, we discovered that there were scores of people in the community who were still exploring the concept of faith, but were confused by the multitude of messages coming through their devices and TVs.
Like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, they needed help de-coding the message of the Bible and understanding how it could be reconciled with today’s strong headlines from people deemed experts.
Reaching soft-hearted skeptics is the most enjoyable aspect of ministry. Pastors and church leaders must continue to model an effort for building relationships with those who are searching for God — and having a hard time finding Him.
The Religion Runaway
Unfortunately, “de-churched” is a real term. Many people have a wounded-by-the-church story that prevents them from darkening the doors of another one. It seems as though the only way to get them into the sanctuary is to put someone they love on stage. People will go to great lengths to show loyalty to their loved ones.
At our church in Denver, we discovered that children’s ministry was by far the most effective way to reach this group. Following our kids’ camp (our term for VBS), we would train the kids to sing a song in “the big room” and invite their family to come and see.
These Sundays may not have been our highest overall attendance days, but I do believe we had more unchurched people in the room than ever — including Easter.
According to Lifeway Research, our communities are filled with church dropouts — people who used to engage regularly but have gotten out of the habit or given up on God for various reasons. It will take wisdom and strategy to reach these types in future, and kids’ ministry is one of the most winsome ways to interact with them.
The Cultural Christian
The task before the church isn’t just to reach the unchurched. There are people sitting within an earshot of our ministries who haven’t been captivated by the gospel.
While this type is harder to find in the Northeast and Western portions of America, the South continues to experience the veneer of Christianity which Paul described as “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5).
In The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity With the Gospel, pastor Dean Inserra writes:
A troubling reality in much of evangelical life is that convincing someone they are saved seems to take precedence over making sure someone actually is saved. This must change. Somehow questioning another person’s salvation became taboo in evangelical culture, when it could possibly be one of the most loving things you can do for another; it could mean the difference between seeds that sprout and bloom and seeds that are snatched away.
Of all the groups, this one may be the most difficult to truly reach. They’ve conflated local culture, patriotism or morality with Christianity. Not only does some deconstruction need to happen so they can get on a true path to discipleship, but they’ll also need help adapting to societal realities.
A work of God must happen in a person’s heart before they can see the kingdom of God that is at hand. Until then, religious games are readily available and always easy to substitute.
The Jaded Jesus Follower
In Romans 8, when speaking about food being sacrificed to idols, Paul specifically addresses the Jews, the Greeks and “the weaks.” The weak in the church were a source of great concern for the apostle because he knew that the root system had not grown deep for these precious people, and the enemy could easily intervene and steal the seed that had been sown.
Effective churches in the future will speak gently to the weak. People can become jaded and lose their focus on Jesus along the way. It happens to all of us on some level. The challenge before the church is to continue to lead people back to a fresh hearing of Christ.
Dallas Willard, in his classic The Divine Conspiracy, writes: “A popular saying is ‘Take time to smell the roses.’ What does this mean? To enjoy the rose it is necessary to focus on it and bring the rose as fully before our senses and mind as possible. To smell a rose you must get close, and you must linger. When we do so, we delight in it. We love it.”
God’s kingdom is full of people from every tribe, tongue and nation. And it’s also full of life-long believers, prodigal children who have returned home and once-seemingly angry atheists. There’s room for all.
You and I have been put on planet earth for such a time as this. Let’s steward our ministries and our preaching in a way that opens our doors wide to a post-Christian America.
This post originally appeared at Lifeway Research.
Published March 5, 2021