The better way is to consider that my authority isn’t with the unchurched people in the room, it’s with Christians. So, what do I say instead? “Hey, if you’re here today and you’re not really a religious person, I advise you not to date a Christian. Here’s why. Christians are going to do a bait and switch on you. They’re going to try to change you. If you marry a Christian, they’re going to want you to raise your kids in church, and …”
You see where I’m going. My point is that there is a way to talk about anything with the unchurched people in the room in mind, that is apologetic in nature, as long as we’re careful about unearthing assumptions that at times cause us to talk about “them” and “they” in terms that would be unnecessarily offensive. A simple rephrase can get your point across without devaluing them.
Another example—justice. Everyone, believer or not, longs for justice to be done. So what if we turned to the unbelievers in the room and said—“Hey, whether you believe or not, you should want Christianity to be true! Why? Because if what Jesus said about the end is true, perfect justice wins.” It’s a different angle, but a productive one.
Let’s go deeper on the justice point, which is the theme of one of your messages in Who Needs God. How do we address justice honestly, when Christianity’s history is seen as (and is) tarnished on that point?
Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation is a little 90-page book. Pastors should read it for two reasons. First, if you can keep your own faith after reading it, good for you [laughs], but second, if you want to have some assumptions dispelled as you relate to a post-Christian culture, this book will help, especially on any of our assumptions related to the authority of Scripture in nonbelievers’ lives. He goes for the jugular regarding the assumptions Christians make in a world where, he argues, our faith has created pain and suffering.
The simple answer (but it’s not very satisfying) is that the truth that empties into the bucket is different than the bucket. We’re the bucket. The truth is truth. We are not perfect buckets. Christians have the best answer in the world for why there is pain and suffering and evil.
But with that said, there is no justification for our own injustices of history. We must own that, especially since so many current voices are so quick to point out our faith’s historical failings. But back to the apologetic question—which worldview does not have the same kind of stuff in their history? None that I know of. Welcome to the real world.
Our promise is that someday God will make all right. That’s the promise of Christianity as punctuated by a resurrected Savior.
You encourage those outside the faith that “you belong at church before you believe.” Tell us more.
This goes back to Jesus’ invitation to follow. When I say that with Christian leaders or folks looking for “gotcha” moments, they immediately spin into, “Oh, but what is the church? A fellowship of believers. And now you’re saying that people belong to the church without being Christians,” and so on.
No. That’s jumping way ahead. I’m not talking about joining the church necessarily. I’m not talking about everybody playing every role in the local church. This is a front-line message to people who have shown up nervous, and are wondering if these people are their people or not. Will they like me? Can I bring my kids? Can I try a small group? There are multiple circles in every church for a person to belong before they believe. So let’s state that clearly.
It’s our conviction to even let nonbelievers serve in many capacities. One of my favorite stories out of the Who Needs God series was of a woman who wrote me a letter after her second week there. She’s an atheist in the medical profession. She told me about how she responded to the content. I met with her, and a couple months later she signed up to go on a medical missions trip with our church. She’s still an atheist. But she’s going to go with our group to China, to an orphanage outside of Beijing to give the nationals working there a break because they’re there 24/7 with disabled kids. Get this—she’s going to spend 10 days with a group of wonderful Christians serving in an orphanage. She already feels like she belongs. Even though she does not yet believe.
There are concentric circles of inclusion and involvement. We’ve worked hard to find excuses to say “yes” to getting people engaged and involved, and in the community. “Where two or more are gathered, there I am in the midst of them,” Jesus said, and I think we see that in our worship and gatherings. When people see the “one anothers” being lived out, the obstacles come down, amazing things happen and they meet Jesus.
Are you hopeful for the future of the church in our culture?
Absolutely. The challenges are real, but we don’t have to freak out at the demographic research or any other points that might discourage. We do have to change our approach to ministry, though. There are huge signs of hope across the globe for Christianity, but even here where the nones are on the rise, there is hope. People get methodology and theology confused all the time, and then get upset when you start changing methodology. They’re two different things. Theology should inform ministry, but if it limits whom you minster to, then you have the wrong theology. Just ask Jesus.
The good news is that there are other approaches that will create traction and reduce tension with culture, but our current evangelical approach is becoming less relevant because it makes too many assumptions that we don’t even need to make. The only thing that is discouraging to me is not what’s happening in the broader culture, but seeing so many Christian leaders who are so dug in to a version of faith, methodology and apologetics that they feel that they’re losing something essential. Consequently, they’re going to lose influence.
There are so many cool things happening with church planting, so many young entrepreneurial leaders who are wanting to make a difference and give up what is nonessential to make an impact on their community. The next 10 to 15 years are going to be exciting. But a lot will change. A lot must change. But there is so much hope for the future of our faith.
Honestly? I’m so excited about it. I wish I were 35 again.
Paul J. Pastor is an Outreach magazine contributing writer and the author of The Face of the Deep: Exploring the Mysterious Person of the Holy Spirit (David C Cook, 2016).