By: Elmer Towns
Why is it that some churches just don’t grow? Part of the answer to that question is found in recognizing the barriers to evangelism. According to Donald McGavran, “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.” McGavran’s statement is not a normative statement but rather a descriptive statement. This is not the way it should be, rather, it is the way it is. God made man a social creature, and barriers that interfere with social relationships may have a profound spiritual influence on him. The more barriers that are placed between a person and Christ, the more difficult it is to win him to Christ. If our churches are going to grow, we need to remove as many barriers as possible to make it easier for people to become Christians.
COMMON GROWTH BARRIERS
E-0 Spiritual Barriers
E-1 Stained-Glass Barriers
E-2 Cultural and Class Barriers
E-3 Language Barriers
Of course there will be some barriers which can never be removed, i.e., the offense of the Cross. Some will never be saved because the message of the Cross, which is an intricate part of the Gospel, is offensive to them. Grace is also a barrier to some for they want to do good works to be saved and resist being saved by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9). We cannot remove these primary barriers. The barriers we can remove are secondary and are not related directly to the root of Christianity.
The E-1 Barrier has been called “the stained-glass barrier.” Church growth writers speak of E-1 Evangelism which is evangelism that overcomes the barrier that relates to the church building. “Stained glass” reflects more than windows or church sanctuaries. It is a symbolic word for those things that stand between those on the outside of the church and getting them inside to hear the Gospel. These barriers make it difficult for a person to attend a Sunday School or church service or continue to attend. The stained-glass barrier includes such things as poor location, inadequate parking, and unkept or poorly maintained facilities. When the parking lot is full, it is a barrier for the visitor to find a parking place in the street. Some think that adequate parking or eliminating other barriers will cause church growth. No! There must be a dynamic that draws people to Jesus Christ. The church must have warm services and the pastor must preach with power. A barrier just makes it harder to reach people; it does not make it impossible to reach people.
Eliminating barriers makes it easier to reach people. Stained-glass barriers also include perceptions, such as a lost person’s dislike for a denomination’s name or what an unchurched person remembers about a particular church. Some have had a bad experience with a church member from a certain denomination, hence the church name is a barrier. A church split becomes a barrier to the neighborhood, making it harder for both halves to reach people for Christ.
The E-2 Barrier is a cultural and class barrier. It hinders the evangelistic outreach of some churches. This principle recognizes members of certain cultures who may not wish to attend a church which is predominantly made up of members of another culture. It is not a matter of liking the people of another culture or class, it is being comfortable with their different values. While the church must be the church of the open door willing to admit all, normally, members of a culture different from the members of the church will have difficulty becoming assimilated into the social life of the congregation.
At a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Los Angeles, a pioneering church planter to West Los Angeles (Hispanic) explained cross-cultural ministry to a group of Anglo evangelical theologians. He explained that when Anglos tried to pioneer a church in his community, he knew they would probably fail when he saw them roll a piano into the new church. “A piano is an Anglo musical instrument, not a Mexican one’ he explained. Further he noted, “What reaches the heart of a Mexican, doesn’t always work with Anglos. There are few pianos in Mexico. A guitar plays on the heart of Mexicans, and a young man woos a young girl with a guitar because it is heart music. “If you want to reach the heart of Mexicans with the Gospel, use the guitar, not the piano,” he concluded.
Related to cultural barriers are also class barriers. The difference among classes is not primarily money but rather the values that surround their background. Music expresses the heart worship to God. Just as music divides the cultures, so it expresses the different values of different classes. Just as members of the lower classes do not usually like the “long-hair” music of the classics, so upper classes often fail to appreciate the twang of “Country and Western” even when the words are biblical. Never make the mistake of concluding that the music enjoyed by the “lower class” is inferior to music enjoyed by the “upper class.” Music affirms the soul and is the person’s way of magnifying God. Since “the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (John 4:23), then God enjoys the “Nashville” type Gospel music of a hillbilly church, just as much as He enjoys the anthems from a church with a full pipe organ if the music comes from the heart of the worshiper. Linguistic barriers are perhaps the most obvious barriers to evangelism.
E-3 Evangelism is that which overcomes language barriers. People like to hear God in their heart language (the language in which they think) even when they themselves speak a second language. Al Henson began the Lighthouse Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee intent on reaching greater Nashville with the Gospel. When he learned many Laotians were moving to his city, he sent his people out into the streets to reach them with the Gospel. Soon the church had a preaching service which about 200 Laotians were attending. They worshipped in the Laotian language and a layman preached to them in English as a Laotian translated the Gospel into their mother tongue. When they learned English, Henson canceled the Laotian service and brought them into his English service. But only about 50 made the transition. When Henson realized the problem, he began the Laotian service again. The church was able to continue reaching Laotians with the Gospel. The pastor learned that even though the Laotians could speak English, they preferred to hear God speak their “heart language.”
My church, Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, has a Friday evening service in the Korean language for the area residents not fluent in English. They sing, pray, and preach in Korean. They are even baptized in Korean. The first step in overcoming barriers is to identify those of different cultures, classes, and languages. The Christian leader has the responsibility to make the first step. Paul said, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). In the treatment of any physical sickness, the first step is always diagnosis. This process may require days and even weeks of testing, but it is essential to proper treatment. Viruses are treated differently than bacteria, and even among viruses, one particular drug may be more effective than another. So it is with the barriers to evangelism.
It is needful to identify the classification of the barrier (E-0, E-1, E-2, or E-3). Remember, people are all different, and the barriers standing in the way of each are different. The key is to identify the specific barrier and tear it down. If it is one the prospect has erected in his own mind, you have to take the initiative and cross the barrier. If the barrier is in your church, again you must take the initiative to change it. You may not have erected the barrier, but you must remove it. Do not let your fears keep you from being a witness. The task begins with gaining victory over fears. While the world, the flesh, and the devil are the enemies, they are not to be feared. Jesus prayed that believers (John 17:5-26) should not be taken out of the world but that they should be insulated against it. His petition was “that You should keep them from the evil one” (v. 15). Victory is available to the believer by his walking in the Spirit rather than in the flesh. “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).
For the believer, the key to victory over fear is faith in God and His promises. Once Christians have overcome their own fears, they are free to begin tearing away the fears of the unsaved. This is done by establishing redemptive friendships. This exposes them to Christians, the Christian lifestyle, and the joys of the Christian life. In Luke 14:1213, Jesus suggested that when believers give a dinner they should not invite only friends and relatives, because they will only feel obligated to return your hospitality. Instead, he said, invite the poor, maimed, lame, and blind. (This means those who are rejected by others.) When they begin to see that Christians are people much like themselves, the stained-glass barrier begins to dissolve. We must not be judgmental. Christ alone is the righteous Judge, and Paul indicated that He will judge His own servants (1 Cor. 4). Our task is to accept the unsaved man as he is, win him to ourselves, so that we can lead him to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Once he has become a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), the Holy Spirit will work through the Word of God to bring about the needed changes in his conduct and lifestyle.
The above article, “Barriers That Prohibit Sunday School Growth” was written by Elmer Towns. The article was excerpted 154 Steps To Revitalize Your Sunday School by Elmer Towns. Liberty University, 1988.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”