In the past few weeks, I have talked about some recent church planting shifts that I have noticed, both through the lens of research and some through anecdotal observations.
The world today is still reasonably familiar for church planters; yet the scene is changing as secularism grows, presenting a new challenge to the mission and ministry of our churches.
The truth is, we are seeing more “nominal” Christian people self-identify as no faith (“nones”) instead of Christian. Since nominal Christians have been a key part of the church planting strategy for most Christians, it’s a shift that’s both new and challenging.
If we are to succeed in this new, more secular space, we need to do more than simply acknowledge this shift. Instead, we need to prepare for it, and this includes preparing our church people for the paradigmatic shift to come.
So, how do we prepare the mission force for the new mission field?
It begins with teaching our people to engage in ways that they’re not now accustomed to engaging. This is easier said than done, but it is essential for new church plants and movements of Christianity in the years to come.
In today’s culture, it’s easy to compare church experiences and allow people to decide which church they would like to attend. Our job is to invite them to a good church. In the secular context, however, having any prior exposure to church life should not be taken for granted.
The shift from invitation to engagement
The shift is from an approach that says, “Would you like to come to my church? It’s a great church!” to, “How can I answer questions you have about life, spirituality, good and evil?”
This shift is paradigmatic and would automatically make many Christians feel uncomfortable. One of the reasons Christians are uncomfortable relates to their view of the church and Christian leadership. Evangelism is weak where pastors do not equip and release their members into missional engagement within their contexts, but instead see the role of church people to just invite their friends to church.
In a sense, church members rely on their pastors to do the work they themselves are called to do. Unfortunately, these same people are not doing it because they are either complacent or complicit in sharing the gospel.
So, it’s a perfect match (for bad): disengaged people, pastors doing the job for them, in a world that is less likely to come to church.
Instead, our call is to help all Christians more faithfully and fruitfully share the gospel in a society that is less nominally Christian, and more intentionally secular.
I recall one conversation I had with a secular person. We talked about why the world is broken. I started with the fall, redemption and restoration. His reply was, “That’s a fascinating story, but what makes you think it is true?” I explained that Christians have been changed because of that narrative and mentioned that the community itself is an apologetic for the gospel. I then answered questions about all the evil that Christians have done historically and what led to those actions.
This conversation went on for hours. It wasn’t controversial or argumentative. He had genuine questions. I had to have an open heart, an open mind and a varied and authentic approach.
I think those kinds of conversations will become much more common in years to come.
As such, Christians must prepare our people for a world in which they are going to have to contend for their faith earnestly, with respect and love at the core.
Sure, Christians have always had to do this, but it’s been in a more Christianity-friendly environment. We had a home-field advantage, but that’s shifting.
Engaging our neighbors and sharing the gospel with them requires relationships, apologetics and more. Our first step needs to be a genuine interest in people and a commonality in culture that gives us sufficient authority to speak on matters of life, faith, eternity, truth and the church.
It’s going to take longer to reach people effectively, and it’s going to take relationships. And it starts with good leadership in church plants that elevate people to reach their full potential in gospel witnessing.
For a more comprehensive discussion on church planting, don’t miss the July/August issue of Outreach, landing in mailboxes in June. Subscribe today.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.