3 Keys to Preaching to the Unchurched: Storyline Fellowship

For our From the Front Lines series, we asked several pastors to share the stories of their church plants. These pastors will be checking in online with regular updates on their churches and experiences, allowing readers a front-row seat to the ins and outs of church planting.

Storyline Fellowship: Update No. 3

According to Barna, the city of Denver, Colorado, sits at No. 14 on the list of the most post-Christian places in America. Since my previous 12 years of preaching took place in Tennessee, I had my suspicions that a move to the Mile High City would require shifts in my communication style. My days of preaching to the choir were over. (People out here don’t even know what a choir is.)

Of course, one of the most thrilling aspects of church planting is getting to see unchurched people show up—families who tell us upfront, “This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this!” These “church freshmen” come in with a clean slate, and while it feels exciting and fun to me, the challenge also brings with it a sense of gravity. How can I include them, inspire confidence in them, and avoid insider talk that alienates them?

I still have a long way to go, but below are three small adjustments that seem to making a difference.

1. I don’t start with, “Open your Bible to …”

Church people relish those words. A few minds even flash back to the days of Bible “sword drills,” and the game is on! An inner sense of confidence floods over them as they flip open to Isaiah. Unchurched people feel awkward. A visiting, unchurched friend told me that one of his most embarrassing moments was watching my 6 year-old son rifle through that strange book to the correct page while he sat there feeling ashamed. As a result of that incident, I now do something I never thought I’d agree to: I tell people to open their Bible or simply follow along on the screens.

2. I acknowledge the skeptic.

This is a gentle practice, but I strive to say things like, “If you’re new to the Bible, this may be the first time you’ve thought about this,” or, “Perhaps you see this issue in a different light, but the Scriptures suggest …” These kinds of comments take mere seconds but send the message that we like having skeptics in the room and appreciate their presence. This is safe place to explore faith.

3. I embrace the culture where I can, and I oppose it where I must.

I’m fairly certain I stole that line from someone else, but the principle has really helped me. People in Denver enjoy talking about their favorite forms of recreation, the latest Broncos headlines and the unbelievable weather. Any time I can tell a story in the sermon that illustrates my appreciation for these things, I build a bridge of trust. Conversely, it’s those brotherly moments that also create relationship, and grant me the green light to speak out on controversial issues when the Holy Spirit leads me there.

I’m sure other church planters figured these things out faster than I did, but the learning curve continues in my preaching ministry. Each week, I explore new ways of sharing the gospel with the unchurched. It’s more fun than I ever imagined.

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Ben Mandrell
Ben Mandrell

Ben Mandrell is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Prior to joining LifeWay, he pastored churches in Colorado and Tennessee.