A couple of weeks ago, Kevin Bussey asked those who read his blog, and are not professing Christians, to respond to some questions related to their attitudes and opinions about Christianity and the church. (http://kevinbussey.wordpress.com/tag/un-churched/)
I thought that was an excellent idea. One of the biggest difficulties I have in teaching and training the people in my church with regard to outreach and evangelism is getting them to understand that the people they will encounter aren’t going to be easy to reach, simple approaches will have little effect, and there aren’t very many people out there who are moving into the neighborhood that make it a priority to find a church.
The 11th Street Cafe is not too far from the church I serve. It’s in the middle of a neighborhood full of restored Victorians and trendy new homes built to match the architectural style, within a stones throw of downtown Houston, and full of young to middle aged professional adults who are moving back in to this restored neighborhood in droves to avoid hour long commutes to work. The area, known as The Heights, is dotted with small business communities at the intersections of the main streets, and the 11th Street Cafe is located in a historic building at 11th and Studewood. It’s a hangout for people who live and work in the area, and the front porch is sort of a philosophical “conservation pit” where the subject matter varies from politics and religion to real estate development and property values. I discovered it as a good place to meet people who live in the area, and have been hanging out there on occasion for about a year now. It was a great place to ask some of Kevin’s questions. I hope what I discovered will be helpful in getting people in the church to understand why their approach to evangelism needs to change.
This is certainly not a scientifically balanced poll. I’ve tried to organize the information into categories. But I’d bet that if I went back and asked the same things of a different group of people, they’d be quite similar. Here’s what I found out.
Differences in beliefs and philosophy of life. “Humanity moves forward, accumulates more knowledge, and in spite of setbacks, makes progress in its thinking,” said one man. “Why should I accept a religious belief requiring a ‘conversion’ experience that is largely based on the interpretations of the teachings of a major ancient philosopher written by his closest followers 2000 years ago? How is that relevant to a twenty-first century man in a modern, technically advanced culture?”
That was the main objection of most of the people I questioned. Most of them believed that God existed, but had trouble accepting what they considered to be an ancient interpretation and observation of who he was as being relevant for people today. The belief that the Bible is the sole authority for the faith and practice of Christianity, and that Christianity is the only way to believe in God, is a major sticking point. Believing that God exists wasn’t a problem for all but one or two people with whom I talked. Believing that his nature is limited to the descriptions of what they called a few ancient writers with a clear bias, is a major obstacle to overcome.
The idea that humans require “conversion” or “redemption” is also a difficult point for most people. Humans, within their own community, determine what is acceptable behavior, and from within their own thinking and life experience come laws that govern society so that we are accountable to each other for creating a community of relatively equal opportunity that respects individual rights and choices (I wasn’t there to argue, so I had trouble not touching that one!). The idea that individuals are free to determine their own course in life, make their own choices, and draw their own boundaries with regard to “morality” is a strong and powerful one. One fellow pointed out that he was in a stable marriage and had obedient, well-adjusted kids who avoided alcohol and drugs by choice, in contrast to his “Christian” neighbor, who was recently divorced and had a son that drove his car through the fence and kept half the neighborhood up on weekend nights with his loud, drunken behavior .
Observations of inconsistency in Christians and Churches. “The churches can’t even get their own act together. I have enough trouble keeping my family straight. Why should I drag them into all that divisiveness?”
The fact that Christianity is fragmented into segments which teach “different” things, and which fight with each other over who is more “right” and who is closer to God is an observation that most of these people didn’t miss. One person noted that a sermon he had heard on an occasion when he was visiting a church with a friend was nothing more than a “litany of condemnation” of specific doctrines in other churches that were, according to this particular pastor, “wrong.”
Then there were those who had been part of a church when they were younger. Most of them complained about practices and attitudes of church members that rubbed them the wrong way, or abuses they had to endure.
“Church was just a waste of time and it was flat out boring,” said one fellow. “I never got why we had to waste half a day at a place that was more boring than school and didn’t seem to fit anywhere else in life.”
The church is too political. Of course, we couldn’t get through this discussion without a reference to the involvement of conservative evangelicals in right wing politics. There were a couple of people who had experienced what they considered to be “shunning” from Christians they knew who grew cold and distant upon engaging in political discussion or activity and discovering that the people they were speaking with didn’t share their favorable opinion of a particular candidate or issue. One man pointed out that his neighbor, who had been inviting him to church and church-related events for the five years he had lived next door suddenly wouldn’t speak to him when he put a yard sign up in support of a particular congressional candidate, and hasn’t spoken to him since.
The other objection raised in this category was a complete lack of understanding of what these people perceive as the church’s “militant” stand against homosexuality.
“I always thought the church was supposed to minister to hurting people. So why is it that some Christians, particularly the ones who think of themselves as the most righteous, reject the people that are among those who are hurting the most? And why should someone who is hurting like that be forced to change completely before they are accepted by the church?” (At this point, I couldn’t resist jumping in with an explanation about God’s acceptance of us, and that it is He who makes the changes, not us.)
So, is there anything that could be done to get you to consider Christianity as an option for yourself? Here’s where the reality of evangelism in today’s culture and society in this country sinks in. Out of a group of eight or ten people involved in a semi-casual, semi-serious discussion with some directed questions about faith, maybe one would give it a second thought. From their own perspective, at least, there isn’t anything that could get these people to consider the claims of the Christian faith. I suggested some possible things, such as tragedy, or a health or financial crisis, or other such events. That didn’t seem to generate a response. One person said that if it took tragedy or crisis to cause someone to turn to God, then once the crisis was over, wouldn’t it be just as easy to go back to the way things were.
Their perception of the church, for the most part, is that it is an outdated, antiquated institution that bears little relevance to the culture and society we live in today. It was noted that there are several large monuments to the church’s irrelevance, in the form of large, aging buildings scattered around The Heights where once-large congregations have given way to small gatherings of a mostly elderly remnant that resists change and does the same thing they’ve been doing for years. It was noted, for my observation, that at least four of these monuments to ineffectiveness belong to my denomination, and why is it that even these four groups who share common beliefs and practices cannot get together to share one facility, any of the four of which would be well able to accomodate all of the remnant and then some, just for the sake of preserving resources?
I’ll wait a few days, let these thoughts sink in a bit more, now that I’ve written them down and can look at them, and post some solutions and approaches to sharing the gospel with a culture that thinks like this. In the meantime, please feel free to share your own insights and solutions to reaching people like this. I think we all need help in this area.