David D. Durey
Church is no longer at or near the center of our social life; we are living in a secular culture. We can no longer approach secular people with the assumption that they have any Christian background or spiritual memories from church. We must meet them where they are and guide them step by step. Or, as George Hunter writes in How to Reach Secular People, “We must first plow, seed, and water the fields before we can reasonably expect to gather harvests” (36). Research, as well as successful models of evangelistic outreach, demonstrate that people adopt new truth, practice, or life-styles through processes or stages. Hunter labels this the “adoption process.” This process delineates six stages people experience in adopting Christianity: 1) awareness; 2) relevance; 3) interest; 4) trial; 5) adoption; and 6) reinforcement (75-77). So how does the church attract secular people?
David Burnett offers suggestions to Christians who want to communicate the gospel effectively to those from different cultures. First, one must gain an understanding of the other culture and worldview. There needs to be an attitude of empathy where there is an appreciation of the other culture’s perspective without condemnation. Empathy leads to a personal identification with the other person. Secondly, effective communication of the gospel must begin where the people are. It is important to begin by sharing the parts of the gospel story that are readily understood and significantly touch the lives of those who are willing to listen. Often, this is done by identifying a felt need of the society or individual. Thirdly, one must continually adapt the message to the hearers. “The process of communication must work from within the existing cultural forms for them to be meaningful and relevant for the people . . . God is willing to accept people at the point where they are, with the understanding that they have, and transform those concepts” (244-245).
Hunter studied eight “Apostolic Congregations” from various denominations and geographic settings in North America and compiled a list of ten ways that these churches seek to communicate the gospel. 1) They often begin with “active listening.” 2) They begin where the people are. 3) They teach “Christianity 101.” 4) They introduce the Bible in a simple way by emphasizing the gospels. 5) They practice the “ministry of dialogue,” (caring, intelligent conversation). 6) They cooperate with the principle of “cumulative effect.” They don’t expect a non-Christian to understand the message from one exposure. 7) They practice the principle of “creative redundancy.” They communicate the message many times, but in different ways. 8) They assimilate seekers before they are believers. 9) They permit Christianity to become “contagious.” They provide multiple opportunities for secular people to “catch” the faith in the context of the Church. 10) They invite an “experiment of faith.” This means living for a time as though Christianity is true; doing things Christians do in order to discover for oneself whether Christianity is “self-authenticating” (Unchurched 163-167).
A Healthy Climate
These Apostolic Churches illustrate the importance of maintaining a healthy climate in the church (Jenson 97; Logan Beyond 110; Macchia 135). “Incorporation of newcomers may be one of the most identifiable and measurable signs of health in a church. Healthy churches assimilate new people into the life and leadership of the congregation” (Anderson 135). There are three climate factors that relate to attraction. First, growing congregations had a positive personality that demonstrated itself in the church’s energy, belief in inclusion, and sense of having a unique identity. The second factor was a low level of conflict and disunity and a high degree of good feeling among the members. Finally, the Pastor had the ability to generate enthusiasm (Oswald 17, 25-28).
Christian Schwarz has identified eight qualities essential for healthy churches. These qualities are 1) empowered leadership, 2) gift-oriented ministry, 3) passionate spirituality, 4) functional structures, 5) inspiring worship service, 6) holistic small groups, 7) need-oriented evangelism, and 8) loving relationships (15-36). Schwarz states that no quality can be missing and that if every quality is sufficiently strong (65% or higher), the church will experience natural and healthy growth. Schwarz calls this the “65 hypothesis.” This hypothesis states that “whenever all eight values climb to 65, the statistical probability that the church is growing is 99.4 percent” (40).
“What really attracts large numbers of unchurched people is changed lives—a lot of changed lives. People want to go where lives are being changed, where hurts are being healed, and where hope is being restored” (Warren Purpose 247). Jesus attracted crowds and established an open door for ministry by meeting the felt needs of the people (Warren Purpose 219). This is “presence evangelism.” Through need-meeting ministries the unchurched sense the warmth and acceptance of Christianity (McIntosh Finding 25; Comiskey Explosion 91-94). Pastor Steve Sjogren of Vineyard Community Church of Cincinnati presents a refreshingly simple but effective approach to evangelism. He calls it “servant evangelism.” He defines it as follows: “demonstrating the kindness of God by offering to do some act of humble service with no strings attached” (17-18). He states that servant evangelism is effective in the following sequence: deeds of love before words of love plus adequate time (22-24). Evangelism is not a one-time event, it is a process. People need to be touched by the love of Christ several times in order to soften their hearts. Sjogren states that Christians and non-Christians have one thing in common; they both hate the traditional confrontational style of evangelism. Servant evangelism, however, is easy for the majority of Christians to do and it is a delight to those non-Christians who receive the acts of love (50).
Lutheran Church historian Martin Marty says that one word defines the difference between churches that grow and those that don’t. When a church isn’t growing, its members are not “inviting.” “Invitations are the way churches open their doors” (Miller Magnetic 31-32). Many people think of assimilation simply in terms of getting the unchurched Christian fully churched. Yet Logan suggests that assimilation may be a valuable tool in bringing non-Christians to a point of commitment. “Involve someone in your church and give him ownership, and his heart will follow. Assimilation precedes commitment (Beyond 107). In the ministry of attracting first-time worshipers, a personal invitation from a friend or family member is by far the single most effective method. Consider the research conducted by Church Growth, Inc. of Monrovia, California. Over forty-two thousand laypersons were asked, “What or who was responsible for your coming to Christ and your church? Responses included the following:
1. A “special need” brought them. 1-2%
2. They just “walked in.” 2-3%
3. Some listed the “pastor.” 5-6%
4. Some indicated “visitation.” 1-2%
5. Some said the “Sunday school.” 4-5%
6. An “evangelistic crusade or television show. ?%
7. A church “program” attracted them. 2-3%
8. A “friend/relative” 75-90% (Arn 45-46)
George Barna studied the success stories of two dozen churches from around the nation that he labeled “user-friendly” churches (16). In these churches, members realized that inviting people to church was just part of their responsibility. They also were expected to accompany their guests to the church activity. Then they were to provide the follow-up. “It was not the task of a ‘visitation team’ or an ‘evangelism team’ to make the visitor feel welcome.” It was the responsibility of the person who invited to provide the “on-site hospitality” and the “post-visit debriefing” (100).
Even though personal invitations are the most effect, non-personal methods of attraction should be used as supplements, but never as substitutes. An attractive, visible building and sign are important. Use of the Yellow Pages, radio, television, newspaper and direct mail advertising cannot replace personal invitations but it can support them (Miller Magnetic 40-43).
Even churches that are presenting seeker-sensitive services succeed primarily because of personal invitations. Pastor James Emery White states that having a seeker-service is not what attracts a secular person even though it is designed for seekers. Rather, what attracts them is a personal invitation from a friend. The seeker-targeted ministries enable a Christian to invite his or her non-Christian friend to explore the faith in a way that is relevant and comfortable. The dilemma is that Christians in most churches intuitively know that their non-Christian friends would not understand or enjoy the worship services that are provided because they have not been designed with seekers in mind (50).
Seeker churches often “target” the specific type of person they are trying to reach. Warren states, “No single church can possibly reach everyone. It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people” (156). Define your target group geographically. What is a reasonable driving distance? Define your target group demographically by age, marital status, income, education, and occupations. Define your target group culturally (lifestyle, mind-set) and by spiritual backgrounds (161-168). Once you have collected all the information on your target community, create a composite profile of the typical unchurched person you are trying to reach and make that profile into a mythical person such as “Saddleback Sam” or “Unchurched Harry” (Warren Purpose 170; Towns 46). You will best reach those you most easily relate to. “Explosive growth occurs when the type of people in the community match the type of people that are already in the church and they both match the type of person the pastor is.” Like it or not, “you will attract who you are, not who you want” (Warren Purpose 175-177).
This article “Newcomer Attraction” by Dr. David D. Durey was excerpted from: www.aog.com/assimulation website. June 2009. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
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.”