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Use these 14 tactics to meaningfully engage those who have left the church behind.
July 16, 2019
Every pastor wants to know how to reach the lost.
In America, people who are ensconced in a “Post-Christian” worldview.
Any Christian can tell you how many times their unbelieving friends have told them: “The Bible is so outdated.”
Any Christian who has practiced chastity in public school can tell story after story about how they were ridiculed by their friends.
Any Christian who has gone to a secular university can attest to the antagonism toward Christianity in freshman college classrooms.
And, the older people get, the more “lost” they often seem to become.
The more satisfied and enchanted they are with the idea that they don’t live in God’s world, that Christianity is an oppressive system, and that religious institutions are composed of a bunch of self-serving hacks.
Many of these opinions are rooted in difficult—even negative—experiences of the church.
And so, untangling intellectual objections from experiential objections is nearly impossible in the 21st century.
In this article, we are going to break down 14 methods of reaching people who are enchanted by our Post-Christian culture, and how these methods can best be practiced by you (pastors and church leaders) in the context of the local church.
It’s easy to get caught up in the moment—especially when someone is airing their grievances about truths that have helped you so much in life.
This is especially true if you’re a pastor. You saturate yourself so often in the beautiful truths of God, it’s hard to see through another person’s eyes who can only see the ugly side of theology, church, and Christianity.
But it’s impossible to put a relational premium on listening. Most people in America pay hundreds of dollars an hour just to be heard—just to be understood.
There is no faster way to build relational credibility with another person than to listen to them criticize your belief system—whether from logic, evidence, or experience—and choose to put the relationship before the argument.
Defensiveness is rooted in insecurity. Don’t be insecure. Be interpersonal. Each opportunity is rarely your last opportunity. Listening gracefully can often earn you more credibility in someone’s eyes than a grip of academic degrees.
Everybody knows what it feels like to be hurt by someone they love.
But not everyone knows what it feels like to be hurt by the church, and to retain those wounds for a long time.
The best thing you can do when someone tells a story of church hurt is legitimize that pain hurts.
That may sound boringly basic, unproductive, and unhelpful.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is no quicker way to gain credibility back for the church than to listen, as a pastor, to someone who has been hurt by the church and respond: “That is terrible. That’s not how the church is supposed to treat people. You deserved better.”
Non-Christians know that you know they don’t believe in prayer.
I was having lunch with a pastor the other day who put me to shame in this regard. He asked our waitress: “How can I pray for you?” I was embarrassed by him at first, but then I felt a bit embarrassed by my own bashfulness regarding the gospel.
She responded with a story about her son. She was a single mother. So the pastor responded: “Well I’m going to give you a major tip, but you have to promise to spend it on your son’s Christmas present.”
When he said that, her whole body seemed to release 1,000 pounds of tension.
It looked like nobody had done anything nice for this woman in a while, and this pastor, who she’d likely never see again, added credibility to the kingdom of God in post-Christian America with a simple question: “How can I pray for you?”
Some Christians believe that it is unbiblical to argue with non-Christians (or post-Christians) on the basis of worldly philosophy. But Paul was more than happy to utilize the pagan ideas of those to whom he was speaking, flip them on their heads, and reveal the God who sustained them, even in their unbelief. Luke records Paul’s speech in Acts:
So Paul stood in the midst of the [a]Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and [b]exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
There is a very good conversational book on this issue by a philosopher named James Anderson, called: What's Your Worldview?: An Interactive Approach to Life's Big Questions. This is a conversational apologetics book in the style of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel.
Here are a list of more advanced apologetics works that will equip you to better engage philosophical post-Christianity from an intellectual perspective:
In the work of the church, this is often referred to as “mercy ministries.”
James writes: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”
Suppose a person talks to you about their problems, but all you do is try to convert them to Christianity. James expresses their rebuttal quite succinctly: “What good is it?”
90% of apologetics is building the kind of credibility your listener takes seriously.
In on-stage contexts, the most easily demonstrable form of credibility is intellectual credibility.
But in personal evangelism, when it shifts into an apologetics-oriented conversation, most often the concerns of post-Christian America have to do with personal negative experiences of the church.
Some hurts can’t be undone.
But that doesn’t mean that God can’t work through you to grow a new kind of faith in those you talk to by sharing the gospel in the context of helping people in pain to resolve their pressing issues.
We are sinners, saints, and sufferers. This means that there are real pathological elements to mental health that can’t be reduced to high-handed rebellion against God.
Not all experiences of anxiety and depression are a failure to trust in God.
This will be an increasing concern for future generations.
Millennials are more likely than any other generation to express mental health concerns.
When surveyed about mental health, over 91% of GenZ reported symptoms of depression when asked about stress.
A pastor’s ability to engage mental health concerns sensitively will be the golden key to unlock much of the hurt and pain that tangles and drags faith to the bottom of the emotional ocean.
The pastor can play an active role in liberating this faith from its entanglement if he is patient, winsome, and informed enough to untangle it well.
Millennials are socially desperate. They are isolated. They don’t know how to find community. They are starving for group support, friendship, and a community that helps each other face the problems of life.
Nothing like this really exists outside the church—and if it does, it’s incredibly hard to find. One of the great assets of the church is that it wants people to join. Most in-groups, friend groups, and cliques want to remain unmovably exclusive.
This results in a common experience of getting stonewalled out of close-knit friend groups. Show people a different side of friendship—God’s inviting side, rooted in the love of Jesus.
Whatever it is—Christians who only fill their time with “church culture” things often struggle to find a point of connection to be human with another individual. This can often be a barrier to building the kind of relationships that allow the opportunity to share the gospel.
“How lovely on the mountains Are the feet of him who brings good news, Who announces peace And brings good news of happiness, Who announces salvation, And says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7)
God’s truth is liberating.
Some people will be offended by your religious claims.
They will call you a bigot.
Sometimes, there is no amount of empathy, listening, or love that will turn someone to Christianity—all you can do is pray for them and love them well.
But God calls us to bear true witness to his deeds on earth:
“Oh, give thanks to the LORD, call upon His name; Make known His deeds among the peoples” (Psalm 105:1).
This doesn’t mean we have to be glib about the goodness of God, never admitting doubt, struggle, or questions.
But it does mean that of whatever truth in Scripture God convicts us by his Spirit, we speak it without apology.
The Apostle Paul asked the church in Ephesus to pray for this very thing:
“Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:19).
Engaging a post-Christian culture can be a scary thing.
Paul faced the same fears when facing a pre-Christian culture.
Martin Luther faced the same fears when facing a Christian-Christian culture.
Here’s the truth:
The love of God in Christ, crucified and risen, will always be scandalous.
There will always be a reason to be afraid to share it.
There should always be a reason to be afraid to share it, because the lost will always exist, and the gospel was not given to be preserved in hallowed halls, but to treat the sick, as Jesus said:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
It’s easy to forget to pray for those with whom we share the gospel.
Engaging a post-Christian culture isn’t just about winning an argument.
It’s not even about showing the most love.
It’s about being ambassadors of God until God shows up and does something miraculous.
We are not the lords of the kingdom of God. The gospel is not about our system of ideas. It is about expressing the truth about God that he has used to change us and establish his kingdom on earth through Christ.
Prayer is our very best recourse for success in engaging a post-Christian culture.
In other words, don't become a social media "culture warrior" who posts every day about how immoral and uninformed non-Christians are.
It’s not inappropriate to hold public moral standards as a pastor.
In fact, part of a pastor’s duty is to publicly stand for the truth—even the moral truths—of Christianity.
And yet, we all know the kind of keyboard warriors who write enough for Facebook to put a “Read More” button to look at 10 paragraphs of a holier-than-thou rant.
This may feel cathartic for pastors.
I’m surprised how many pastors do it. I think that many people are likewise surprised.
But the pastor’s job is not to angrily rant on social media.
If anything, it is to “speak truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), opting for a gentler tact when dealing with real-life problems that people face.
People can sense when they are being treated as potential converts, rather than as human beings.
It’s the same sense you get when you’re being advertised or sold to.
Something in our brains can sense when someone starts rehearsing a speech, or trying to hook us on the line for some kind of scam, sale, or pitch.
Relate to people for the sake of relationship, and not to get some tally or new church member.
King David sings: “I will not die, but live, And tell of the works of the LORD” (Psalm 118:17).
He tells of his seasons of struggle.
He passes on to the next generation: “The life of faith is not always easy, straightforward, or simple.”
For many in post-Christian America who have the sense that pastors “have it all figured out” (which is part of what turns them off about Christianity), hearing a pastor come clean that the Christian life is not as neat, tidy, or mountain-top as it can seem can be a welcome breath of fresh air. And, it adds an air of truthfulness to what you say about Jesus.
In other words, if you can be honest about how hard it is sometimes to follow Christ, then your claims about Jesus might have the same experiential credibility.
Above all, remember that God loves both you and the people to whom you talk more than you could ever conceive.
Pastor, it doesn’t all rest on you. Conversion doesn’t all rest on you. Church growth doesn’t all rest on you. Holding up the moral integrity of the church against the attacks of a post-Christian culture that want it to recant and apologize for its belief in the gospel doesn’t all rest on you.
You can confess boldly the truth about Jesus, love authentically in the way of Jesus, and walk faithfully in this path each day as a humble minister.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
As you engage a post-Christian culture for Christ, do so as you rest in God for your energy, effectiveness, and eloquence.