Somewhere between the “churched” and “unchurched” classifications is a neglected and overlooked group. In some communities, the largest group of people that the church will engage with the gospel is made up of persons who, in the past, attended, joined, or were active in churches. Yet, for some reason, they are no longer connected to or active in a church. It has become common to classify such persons as “de-churched.” This terminology is not an attempt to create a third category of persons who are halfway right with God. Instead, I’m using this classification as a missiological category in order to assist churches in strategic gospel engagement.
An effective missional strategy consists of two fundamental components: 1) An absolute commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and 2) A contextualized approach to missions, whether local or foreign. (For more information on the gospel, check out my posts on the Book of Galatians.) This article is dedicated to the second element and seeks to provide an overview of missionally engaging of the de-churched in your community.
THE LOST ART OF LISTENING
1. Start by Listening: Making assumptions about why a person is not connected to a church is the quickest way to close the door to meaningful gospel conversations. Although some are quick to declare that such a person is not a believer, I disagree with this “works-based” evaluation. Is it possible that the person was hurt by someone in a church? I know, just tell them to toughen up and get over it. Wrong! You are on a mission and the person is worth the time you spend listening to why they are no longer active in a church.
Here a few of the reasons that I’ve heard people give for not being part of a church:
a. The church is only about money. This excuse is terrifying because, in many cases, the way we communicate budgetary needs can come across the wrong way. Frankly, pastors and church leaders need to consider the way they talk about finances, church budgets, tithing, etc.
b. The church is full of hypocrites. Although churches are made up of imperfect people, some people have suffered serious abuse at the hands of so-called “Christians.” Although it will take time to earn someone’s trust, they are worth it. Persevere in modeling Christlikeness and pray that God will provide you and the church the amazing opportunity to walk with this person as he makes his way back into a community of believers.
c. I work on Sundays. We live in a rapidly changing culture that requires professionals, tradespeople, service-industry workers, etc. to work on Sundays. Thus, the church must consider providing strategic alternatives to Sunday morning worship.
d. I’m a member of _________ church. “Although I haven’t been in years, I’m still on the membership role.” In my experience, this excuse is the byproduct of failed church leadership.
e. My kids play sports on Sundays and/or on a traveling team. The tendency here is to attack the parent’s credibility or spirituality. However, there must be a better way to engage the person without attacking his love for his children. Although I don’t endorse the modern obsession with sports and trying to live vicariously through your child’s athletic accomplishments, I’m not prepared to just write off these families.
I’m certain that you could include several other excuses that people give for not being connected to a church. Thus, my list is only illustrating the plethora of barriers the church faces when attempting to engage the de-churched with the gospel.
As you begin a ministry to the de-churched, I’d recommend that you do not start by making unrealistic claims about your church being the “one-in-a-million” congregation that has no problems or challenges. Not being honest will only make it more difficult to minister to the person. Instead, you should initially invest your time listening and learning.
BUILDING BRIDGES FROM THE CHURCH TO THE PEOPLE
2. Build Bridges: Our first reaction may be to clear a path for the person to return to church. However, the church (as an organization) may be a hindrance to the person listening to the message. Therefore, we start by building bridges from the church to the person. That is, we take the gospel to them. What would this look like in practice? Here are just a few ideas:
a. Informal Bible studies: Schedule a day and time each week when you can meet with the person and/or family to teach an informal Bible study. I’d recommend providing Bibles, study guides, etc. Furthermore, a question and answer approach may be very helpful to assess their knowledge of God, Scripture, and the gospel, or lack thereof.
b. The Third-Wheel Approach: Invite the person and/or family to dinner, a cookout, or to hang out at the park. Then invite another person or family from the church to attend as well. I don’t recommend overwhelming the “de-churched” person with questions about why he or she is not in church. Instead, just spend time getting to know them and allow them to get to know you. If you want to influence people, which means they are more likely to listen to you when you share the gospel, then you will have to be vulnerable and let them get to know you. Having a third-party attend is a great way to multiply your efforts and provide the de-churched person with an opportunity to connect with another Christian.
c. Sports Chaplains: Although I don’t agree with families neglecting worship for sports, I realize that we have been called to take the gospel to them, wherever they are. I’d recommend training church members to serve as sports chaplains. They can serve in local youth leagues as coaches, with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or just volunteer at the local middle or high school. The opportunities to impact kids and parents will be endless.
d. Sunday Afternoon Servants: What if several families from the church dedicated one Sunday a month to minister to people who work on Sundays. That is, instead of going to lunch after church, they take lunch to a local hospital, police station, realtor’s office, etc. If you are looking for an open mission field, you’ve found it.
e. Organize Alternative Worship Gatherings: In the Islamic world, many churches meet on Fridays. They do so because this is both the normal day for worship in that culture and most of the people are already off work on Fridays. Whether or not you agree with this approach, it does demonstrate a contextualized approach to missions. While I am not suggesting that Sunday morning worship should be moved to Friday nights, I do believe that churches must organize alternative times for people to gather to worship. This approach may also require the church to consider alternative locations for these worship gatherings. For example, what if a hospital allowed the church to use its chapel, or a local business granted permission to use the breakroom to hold informal worship gatherings? Alternatively, what if a local coffee shop allowed the church to provide live music and biblically-based discussions on Sunday nights? The need is great, but the laborers are few. We must begin to think outside the box (literally, outside of the building) when it comes to community engagement.
f. Recovery or Support Groups: Churches must consider the countless people in the community who have been abused, suffer from addictions, or face other emotional and mental struggles. This is a big step and churches will need to invest time in training people to serve in these ministries. Furthermore, the church may need to bring in outside help to carry out this ministry with integrity. If the church is willing to minister to hurting people, it will never lack an audience.
TRUST GOD TO OPEN HEARTS AND CHANGE MINDS
3. Trust God: Only God can change hearts. Therefore, I must not trust in my efforts but in His power to change lives. Our job is to go to where the people are and make Christ known. Thousands of de-churched people live and work in your community. Many of these people are unbelievers who have misunderstood the gospel. Yet, others are believers who have been genuinely hurt by the church. There is a significant number of people who are providentially hindered by their jobs from connecting with a church. Finally, there is an ever-increasing number who put sports above everything else. Regardless, they are worth our time, energy, and love.
In response to some obnoxious videos posted on youtube by a pastor ranting outside of a youth sports field: A missional pastor doesn’t have time to post videos outside of a sports complex complaining about how America has forgotten God. Instead, he is quietly leading and training believers to engage the people at those fields (parents, kids, coaches, referees, etc.). Ironically, the unnamed pastor posting these videos is gorging himself at a local restaurant after worship on Sundays and wondering why the employees weren’t at church! God has called us to go to where the people are and to trust Him to open their hearts and minds to the gospel.
Concerning one’s standing with God, there are (biblically) only two categories: believers and unbelievers. Churches are filled with both groups. Therefore, pastors must not neglect to preach the gospel to the church. Likewise, pastors have been called to lead the church to proclaim the gospel to their community, which is made up of both believers and unbelievers who are no longer connected with a local body of believers.
Salvation is a gift from God. Christians are saved only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We are not saved by works but by the substitutionary and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.