Do you want your church to be a New Testament church? Most people would unequivocally say yes. If so, then after which New Testament church would you like to model your church? The one in Ephesus? Corinth? Galatia? What about the church of the Thessalonians?
Let’s face it, the early church had its challenges. In fact, believers in the first century could have invented the term dysfunctional. The early churches experienced racial and ethnic strife, sensuality and immorality among members, doctrinal divisions, and heresy taught by charismatic personalities.
The early churches also had difficulty assimilating new members into the body of Christ. Conflict among church leaders occurred on a regular basis. In many ways, things haven’t changed in two thousand years. People and churches still experience the same problems the early church encountered.
When we say we want to be a New Testament church, I believe we mean this: we desire for our church to be characterized by a vibrant, evangelistic spirit that witnesses the power of God transforming lives. What would your church look like if it patterned its ministry after churches in the New Testament? Should we not expect God to transform those who are enslaved to immorality, addicted to drugs, or enmeshed in difficult relationships? Or does God only work in the lives of good people who just need a little “tweaking”? If ours is to be a healthy church, a New Testament church then it will include dysfunctional people who are being transformed through God’s grace.
Unfortunately, many of our churches are not reaching the unchurched. The reason? They do not have a church culture that encourages intentional efforts to bring the lost to Christ.
How Can We Create a Climate for Reaching the Unchurched?
Several positive steps can be taken. Once taken, they also may reveal information that can lead toward other strategic actions.
Pray for the unchurched.
Prayer should permeate all of our evangelism efforts. Jesus wept over the spiritual condition of the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). Scripture assures us that God is at work redeeming the world. He wants us to be sensitive to His activity around us.
In Sunday School/Sabbath School classes and departments, pray for neighbors, family members, coworkers, and acquaintances in the marketplace. Pray for the lost by name. Pray for your class to be sensitive for opportunities to share the gospel. Prayer time should not be a one-minute brief acknowledgement, but instead should provide opportunities for members to pray earnestly for the evangelism efforts of the church.
Establish prayer groups that meet for the sole purpose of praying for the lost of the community and for such evangelism efforts as FAITH ministry. Make the midweek prayer service truly a time for the church to pray for God’s activity, not just to read a list of those who are sick.
Commit to develop relationships with the unchurched.
Before inviting the unchurched to church, it is important to develop a relationship with them. While it may sound like a cliche, a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is this: Don’t invite persons to your Sunday School/Sabbath School class until you have invited them to your home. In other words, get to know your unchurched friends and neighbors over a meal or dessert. Find interests you share and can enjoy together.
Spend time getting acquainted. Find out where they come from and what their spiritual background has been. Pray for these new friends daily. Look for ways to minister, such as mowing their yard while they are on vacation or working on house projects. Invite these friends to attend sporting or cultural events with you.
Winning the lost and assimilating them into the body of Christ is not a quick-strike operation; it requires a long-term commitment to relationships.
Become a hospital for the spiritually wounded.
Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. . . . I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12-13). Churches that reach their communities embody the doctrine of grace. People’s lives have been changed and they share that good news with others who are seeking hope, help, and healing.
Examine your Sunday School/Sabbath School and church records. Are you only baptizing your own, or is your church reaching unchurched families and adults for Christ?
Recognize That Ministry Can Be Messy
Reaching the unchurched is messy. The unchurched are not familiar with the language or acceptable behaviors of Christians. Unfortunately, many churches follow this formula: Behave, Believe, and then Belong. With this thinking we are implicitly saying, “First, you must behave the way we behave. You must talk and dress like us. Then, once you behave like us, you must believe what we believe. Then, if you believe what we believe, you can belong to our church.”
To reach the unchurched we must reverse that formula. Postmoderns are looking for a community in which to belong. Once they feel accepted for who they are, they begin to change their values and beliefs. After they understand what God is calling them to be and do, they will change their behavior. Focus your Sunday School/Sabbath School on developing an open-group strategy in which everyone feels that they belong.
Teach for spiritual transformation.
Whether it was the woman at the well or the leper by the pool of Siloam, Jesus always spoke to the needs of the individual. He met people where they were and gave them hope for the future.
The unchurched may or may not be concerned about the doctrinal stands of your church. Many don’t care what version of the Bible you read or how your church is governed. While they are open to spiritual things, experiencing faith in a church setting has been a stumbling block.
Their concerns are more pragmatic. One out of three will struggle with finances. The issues in their lives are to find a well-paying job, meet the mortgage payment, put food on the table, get out of debt, and maintain job security. Unchurched adults often are concerned about personal health issues.
Family matters occupy their attention. They want help with child-rearing: discipline, school events, dating, and allowances. Single parents worry about how to carry the parenting load alone. Unchurched adults want close personal friendships and a clear purpose for living. Median adults are concerned with the challenges of meeting the needs of aging parents. Most of the unchurched are drowning in the whirlpool of life’s realities and don’t believe the church has anything that can help them.
Bible study must go beyond what happened thousands of years ago among a group of nomads wandering in the desert. Bible study must be directed toward life application so that God’s transforming work can take place in people’s lives. Do your teachers apply Scripture to everyday life? Are lives being changed by applying the truth from God’s Word?
Sometimes your culture is consumed by a secret of deception of Sectarianism and Schisms. Partiality towards a bigger tither or individuals who have influence within the social sector who portray being supportive of church visions can destroy or split a church.
Tell the Unchurched How Jesus Makes a Difference
The unchurched want to know, “Does following Jesus make any difference in your life?” “Does the Bible have anything to say about my problems?” Address the hot buttons of the unchurched. Provide learning opportunities outside the walls of the church to address these issues.
Consider starting community family groups that meet in apartment buildings or in homes. Use these groups to address life issues from a biblical perspective. Provide parenting tools and seminars in community clubhouses or conference centers. The unchurched are more open to meeting at a neutral site until they get to know members of your church.
Be willing to change.
In the movie Sister Act, Whoopi Goldberg plays the part of a nightclub singer. She finds herself incognito as Sister Mary Clarence, a nun in a faltering Catholic church in an urban decaying neighborhood. The church on Sunday morning is comprised of the “few but faithful” older members. The streets are filled with bustling activity while the church quietly goes about its traditions.
Sister Mary Clarence pushes to assume leadership for the choir and changes the special music to a more contemporary style, drawing the wrath of her superior. However, the teenagers and young adults begin to walk in off the street because they hear (described by the priest) this “heavenly music” calling them.
The Mother Superior is angry that such raucous music is being sung. It is blasphemy. She loves the traditions of the church.
What traditions in your church are keeping you from reaching the lost? What true changes (not superficial ones for the sake of change) do you need to make to reach the unchurched?
The pastor and key Sunday School/Sabbath School leaders must be committed to change.
A crucial factor in changing the church’s culture is the leadership of the pastor and Sunday School director. Unless the pastor and key church leaders are committed to changing the culture and are involved in reaching the lost, the church will not reach the unchurched.
Do you need to teach a class on friendship evangelism, start a new class, or develop a prayer ministry for evangelistic efforts in the church? What Sunday School issues need attention? Are you involved in FAITH; if so, how can you better support that evangelism strategy?
Make specific and strategic plans to be a New Testament church that reaches the unchurched for Christ’s glory.