Each year, the Nones in our society (those who check None for religious affiliation) grows at an astounding rate.1 Some have read those statistics and declared the end of the American church. While such doomsday predictions are overblown, the statistics point to a sobering reality. Nones don’t casually make their way back into church because the pastor is funny, the music is cool, or the guest services are Disneyesque. If we want to reach them, we can’t practice business as usual in the church.
A British friend of mine, Steve Timmis, cites a study in Great Britain in which 70 percent of Brits say they have no intention of ever attending a church service—for any reason—not at Easter, for weddings, funerals or Christmas Eve services.2 Seventy percent! Great Britain may be a few years ahead of the United States in the process of secularization, but judging by the rapidly increasing presence of Nones, this is where we are headed, too.
Without a new strategy, the future probably will see a small number of increasingly flashy megachurches, fighting over larger pieces of a shrinking pie of bored Christians.
However, there is another way. We can reach the culture, but we’ve got to be willing to rethink our approach. That brings us back to a debate church leaders have been having for the past half-century: Should our practice of church be attractional (come and see) or missional (go and tell)? We often are told we must choose between the two (and that we must villainize those who choose differently), but churches that want to reach the surrounding culture will pursue both.
Attractional Ministry: De-Cluttering the Court of the Gentiles
Jesus’ anger that we see in the gospels seems to be when He observes Jewish leaders cluttering up the Court of the Gentiles with conveniences for the saved. Just before His death, He went to the temple and saw that the court had been overrun by peddlers selling sacrifices to be used in temple worship. Not only was Jesus angry about the sheer attempt to profit from the ministry, but He also was angry that they had consumed the only space Gentiles had to draw close to God. With the backing of a whip, Jesus exclaimed, “My house was intended to be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have turned it into a den of thieves” (Mark 11:17, paraphrased).
Typically, when pastors preach about Jesus’ exclamation, they focus on the last part only—how angry Jesus was at those who were using the temple to make money. However, don’t miss the first part of His statement: “My house was designated to be a house of prayer for the nations.” Jesus was angry not only about what they were doing, but also about what they were obscuring. They had transformed the only open-access point for the Gentiles into a catalogue of comforts and conveniences for those already saved. They had transformed a porter for the outsider into a butler for the insider.
Why would we think that Jesus feels differently about the way many churches today make no accommodations to make the gospel accessible to outsiders in their preaching, music, language, practice of traditions, children’s programs, as well as parking and signage? By not thinking of the observing outsiders whom God is drawing to Himself during our worship, we are creating the same roadblocks for seekers as the Jews did for Gentiles in Jesus’ day. How must Jesus feel when a church refuses to consider what it needs to change to reach the community and the next generation?
Please understand that when I talk about making changes to attract people, I am not advocating smoke and mirrors (or in our case, laser light shows and subwoofers). The world may be entertained by musical flair, entertaining programs or oratorical skills; it they never will be converted by them. As Paul said, the power that is able to convert sinners comes not from wise and persuasive words, but from the preaching of Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2-4). Christ’s demonstration of love and justice on the cross stands at the center of every worship service.
Having said that, we should make no apologies for doing everything we can to attract unbelievers to our services and make the gospel accessible to them. For one example, I constantly aim to do this with my preaching. I work hard to be interesting, writing every sermon with unbelievers in mind, choosing words and examples that will make sense to them. I address unbelievers directly multiple times in every sermon. I try to be engaging.
My words alone, however carefully chosen, won’t save anyone; but why would I intentionally alienate those listening to me who are currently along the outskirts?
Missional Ministry: Why Sending Capacity Matters More than Seating Capacity
Even in our increasingly post-Christian setting, attractional ministry—the come-and-see variety—still matters. Jesus’ vision for completing the Great Commission never was of platforming a few hyper-anointed megapastors to pack an auditorium with their electrifying sermons. His vision for completing the Great Commission was to empower ordinary believers to carry the gospel with them into the streets. If we really want to see the power of God, it’s not going to be found primarily in the pulpit. I’m all for the pulpit, but the real power will be released as ordinary, Spirit-filled people take the gospel wherever they go, into every part of our communities.
We’ve got to begin focusing on empowering and equipping those in our churches for ministry. Everyone loves seeing attendance numbers grow, but incremental growth won’t make a difference for 99 percent of the people in my city—or in yours. So, our preaching needs to empower our people to multiply God’s power where they already are. As Paul said, God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:11-12). That means that when I became a pastor, I left the ministry. I simply can’t reach everyone where they are, and you can’t either; however, the people in our congregations can.
Get this: Of the 40 miracles recorded in Acts, 39 happened outside the church walls. The main place God wants to manifest His power isn’t through masterful preaching or a musical crescendo on the weekends; it’s through ordinary believers throughout each week. The way we say it at our church is that sending capacity, not seating capacity, is the best measure of a church’s success.
If we’re going to shift our thinking about this matter, it means that our preaching has got to do more than impress people. It’s got to paint the vision for what God is empowering them to do. In many ways, a church service functions similarly to a football huddle. Imagine watching a football game in which the quarterback calls a play in the huddle, the team applauds him, pats him on the back, and then runs back to the bench to have Gatorade and snacks. The quarterback would be right to feel frustrated: “Fellas! The point isn’t listening to me call the play. The point is to run the play.”
As the pastor, my role at our weekend worship gathering is to call the play for the church. I love it when our congregation members take notes on the play, when they repost the play later in the week from the podcast, and when they share that play with their friends. However, my real joy comes when they run the play. The only point of me calling the play is for them to run it.
No matter how good pastors get at calling the plays, if we don’t get people to start running the plays, we’re going to forfeit the game. With each succeeding generation in the West our Sunday services become less and less effective at bringing in the lost. If believers do not learn to carry the gospel outside the church, no one is going to hear us. We might as well be screaming in a closet.
Fishermen who Are OK with Catching No Fish?
I think those of us in the Western church are at a crucial decision point. Will we have the courage to abandon some of our traditions in order to reach people for the gospel? Faithful churches aren’t those that refuse to change, but those that constantly ask themselves what they can do to reach more people. We won’t be content to have our preaching reflect the theology of the apostle Paul. We’ll want to match the evangelistic zeal of the apostle Paul, too.
As Charles Spurgeon—a man not known for shallow, seeker-sensitive preaching—said:
“It is true that a fisherman may fish and never catch any fish, but, if so, he is not much of a fisherman. And so, if there were no souls saved when I preached, perhaps I might find some way of satisfying my conscience, but I don’t know what it is yet.
“If my hearers are not converted, I feel like I have wasted my time; I have lost the exercise of brain and heart. I feel as if I lost my hope and lost my life, unless I find for my Lord some of his blood-bought ones.”3
Faithful pastors, if they are not seeing people saved in their ministries, look to heaven and ask God why He is not giving the harvest that He promised. There certainly can be seasons when we see little to no tangible fruit through our ministries (I’ve had a number of them—including a two-year stint when I only saw two people come to Christ). However, those seasons are not normal, and we never should be OK with them.
Faithful churches seek to reach as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, because that’s what good fishermen and compassionate shepherds care about. If we are not concerned about this, can we really call ourselves disciples of the One who said, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men”?
The bottom line? Faithful churches pursue width and depth, because one is not possible without the other. Depth in the gospel leads to width in the mission.
2 Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 15.
3 Charles Spurgeon, “How to Become Fishers of Man,” Sermon (No. 1906), http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/1906.htm (accessed 12/5/2014).
J.D. Greear is senior pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., which has a goal of planting 1,000 new churches by 2050. His newest book is Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send (Zondervan).