Keep It Simple: Don’t Waste Your Efforts on the Disinterested

Have you ever wondered what life would look like if you were far away from the responsibilities of the pulpit? If so, then you are not alone. The question “Is it worth it to … ?” seems to be on the lips of many pastors and church leaders today. For example:

Is it worth it to talk about the upcoming election? I know everyone in my church is thinking about it. But is the potential backlash I might get worth it? Is it even my responsibility to help them wrestle through the tension of being a citizen of this country and a citizen of the kingdom of God? But if not me, then who?

Is it worth it to respond to a particularly critical email, or should I just ignore it? I want to defend myself, but I don’t know if I will be able to do so in a way that won’t incite another email. 

Is it worth it to talk about human sexuality and gender in today’s climate? If so, should it happen from the pulpit, just to ministry leaders, or on our website? Am I even ready to respond to people’s reactions? Or should I just avoid certain passages when I am preaching?

Is it worth it to terminate a staff member who is detrimental to the church’s mission but who has been at this church longer than I have, and who seems to be either related to or friends with almost everyone? Or should I wait a few more years until they hopefully retire?

If God has called you to be a church leader in the highly complex and constantly changing reality we are living in, it would be ministry malpractice to stick your head in the sand, do what’s always been done, and just hope problems like these go away. So, how are we to approach leadership, discipleship and evangelism in a post-pandemic, post-truth, post-Christian world? 

Unpack Your Assumptions. 

Let’s start by examining why we do what we do. Imagine you are looking for an accountant, and you find one who knows the tax laws inside and out. This person also is cheaper and faster than the competition and has 70 years of experience. Sounds great, right? There’s only one catch: This accountant has been operating based on the assumption that the tax laws haven’t changed for the past 70 years. Wouldn’t it then be foolish to hire this person to do your taxes? 

As ridiculous as this example is, it parallels what church leaders are doing. If we can agree that our world has drastically changed over the last 70 years, then why are our ministries still following best practices that are more than 70 years old and assuming they will produce the same results? It could be that we are operating under wrong assumptions. And because these prevailing assumptions are no longer accurate, the principles that used to work don’t work anymore.

Here’s one assumption: “Of course, church.” This assumption comes straight out of the Church Growth Movement, which began in the 1950s. It goes like this: If you have the right programs, meet the right felt needs, and are in the right location, then naturally people will come. 

Another assumption you might hear is “Of course, growth.” Just like the previous assumption, this one also comes from the Church Growth Movement. The mindset behind the movement is reminiscent of what C. Peter Wagner wrote in Your Church Can Grow: Seven Vital Signs of a Healthy Church: “Lack of church growth is a serious disease, but in most cases, it is a curable one.” 

I’m not here to debunk and tear down all the meaningful work and fruit that the Church Growth Movement has produced. Countless people are following Jesus because of this movement and its later iterations, like the Seeker-Sensitive Movement. However, we would be foolish to expect the same results today by simply copying and pasting all the principles from these movements into our current context. Those tactics were written in a world—and to a world—that doesn’t exist anymore.

We all know it is an understatement to say people aren’t as interested in church these days. Because church leaders are regularly and publicly falling prey to the temptations to be what Henri Nouwen called “relevant, spectacular and powerful,” those outside the church are suspicious of it. Pastoral abuse and sex scandals have happened too frequently to be the exception. One too many power-hungry church leaders have looked more like the world than like Jesus. And love of money seems to be as strong inside the church as it is outside it. No wonder there’s been a steady decline in confidence in the church and trust in pastors among Americans since Gallup started measuring this in 1973.

Considering this truth, we cannot assume our churches will simply grow “just because.” While it is true the global Christian church is growing, the primary growth that has recently been happening in the West is the number of “nones” and “dones”—those who have no religious affiliation and those who are done with church entirely. 

For the last several decades, evangelism and church growth techniques assumed that people held a shared set of spiritual beliefs about such things as the afterlife, moral truth and consequences to sin, as well as a belief that God (or a higher power) exists. Evangelism and church growth used to be as simple as connecting what Timothy Keller called “religious dots” to prove the truth of the gospel. But with the rise of the “nones” and “dones,” a growing number of people believe that the only thing we need salvation from is, as Keller put it, “the idea that we need salvation.”

Have certain assumptions rooted in the past influenced you or your church in today’s post-everything world? Have you seen these assumptions affect the way that you and your staff strategically plan and make decisions about how to disciple your people and evangelize the lost? 

This might all feel discouraging, but there is a clear and biblical way to lead, disciple and evangelize in today’s society, and it starts by looking at who we are trying to reach.

Focus on the Interested.

For the last several decades, two different types of churches in the West have come to the forefront: ones that prioritize evangelism over discipleship, and others that prioritize discipleship over evangelism. Or to put it another way, there are churches that primarily focus on reaching non-Christians, and others that primarily focus on reaching Christians.

The problem with this framework is that it’s too linear and basic. We don’t have just non-Christians and Christians in our communities and churches. There are some Christians who are deeply interested in the things of God—they are disciples who make disciples. And there are also some Christians who are very consumeristic. While they might occasionally go to church or watch services online, they are uninterested in being the church, taking up their cross and following Christ. 

In the same way, some non-Christians are interested in faith, church and spirituality. They occasionally attend church, but have not made a commitment to follow Jesus. And there are some non-Christians who are uninterested in anything to do with spirituality.

If you were to plot all these people onto a matrix, there wouldn’t be just two types of people in our communities and churches. There would be four, as seen in the Interested/Uninterested Matrix from my book The Discipleship Opportunity: Leading a Great-Commission Church in a Post-Everything World.

When Jesus taught about the different types of soil in his parable of the sower (Luke 8:4–15), I believe he was pointing out that there isn’t just one type of person in our communities and churches, and subsequently, that there isn’t just one way to disciple and evangelize. 

Here’s how my matrix and Jesus’ parable relate to one another:

Sleepers are spiritually asleep. They’re non-Christian and uninterested in both Jesus and the church. They are like the seeds that fell along the path, got trampled on and then were devoured by birds. At one point in their lives, sleepers might have attended a Christmas Eve or Easter service and heard the gospel, or a friend might have talked to them about Jesus, but none of it took root. They are like “those who have heard and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved” (v. 12). For our work to be effective, the Holy Spirit must loosen the soil of their hearts and open their minds to the things of God.

Seekers are beginning to wake up. They haven’t yet decided to surrender their lives to Jesus, but they are interested in Jesus and the church. They engage in spiritual conversations with you. They come when you invite them to church—and sometimes on their own. And they occasionally pray. The spiritual seeds that you have planted and watered are beginning to sprout, but we don’t yet know what soil they landed on. Seekers could be like the seeds that fell on the path, on the rock, among the thorns or on good ground.

• Consumers are disengaged Christians. At some point in their lives, they decided to follow Jesus, but for one reason or another, they’re not that interested in Jesus or the church anymore. They are like the seeds that fell on the rock and grew up, but later withered away because they lacked moisture. They are like “those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy. Having no root, these believe for a while and fall away in a time of testing” (v. 13). Alternatively, consumers are like the seeds that fell among the thorns and grew, but got choked by the “worries, riches and pleasures of life, and produce no mature fruit” (v. 14).

Disciples are Christians who are actively growing in their relationship with God. That is because they are interested in Jesus and the church. They are like the seeds that fell on good ground and grew up—so much that they are now producing fruit a hundred times what was sown. They recognize that every disciple is called to be a disciple maker, so they are intentionally walking with others. They are “the ones who, having heard the word with an honest and good heart, hold on to it and by enduring, produce fruit” (v. 15).

What this boils down to is, in order to better disciple our people and evangelize the lost today, we need to expend less energy trying to attract uninterested non-Christians and uninterested Christians to our churches. 

We need to focus on the interested instead.

How to Reach and Disciple the Interested

In our post-everything world, non-Christians won’t go to your church because you are putting on a substandard musical, because your band is playing a Taylor Swift song as an opener, or because you’re giving a TED-style talk. Felt-need talks no longer attract seekers into the church because non-Christians don’t think of it as a center for knowledge and community anymore. And they won’t be going to the church for entertainment, either. If they want any of that, they’ll just buy tickets to a performance (or watch it on YouTube), stream a docuseries or listen to a podcast.

In other words, you don’t need to zero in on attracting non-Christians to your church. If they’re uninterested, then they are sleeping, and we need to cultivate friendships with them while praying that God would awaken them like he did with the dry bones in Ezekiel 37. On the other hand, if they are interested, then they are seeking, and they will come to your church, so you need to focus on helping them encounter the One their souls are longing for. Help them meet the living God instead of dumbing down your services and preaching.

For Christ