“Per capita, the cities are really underchurched, and they’re getting more underchurched all the time.”
Do you think we as Christians have not done that so well because we’re just afraid of culture?
No, we don’t listen. I don’t think we listen. I mean, an awful lot of people who are died-in-the-wool evangelicals move into a new city or a place where they see a lot of very secular, un-Christian people, and they look at the trappings. They look at Starbucks. They look at the way people dress; they look at the movies they watch and that sort of thing. And they actually create a church community that mirrors those things on the outside, but it’s very clear when you listen to the sermons, when you listen to what’s being said, that they actually haven’t listened very well to what’s different about the new culture. They actually haven’t listened at all. They’re just actually putting a package on an older way of communicating. So I think it’s mainly not so much that we’re afraid.
There are people who are afraid, and they’re the ones who just stay away completely and make no changes at all. And then there’s ones who don’t listen, and they make too many changes very often, or superficial changes.
How do we bridge the gap between those who are evangelical, believers in Christ and firm in their faith and the atheists and agnostics on the other side?
I think what’s happened is we still know how to talk to the nominal Christian, the generally still conservative. My parents were evangelical Christians. My in-laws were not. In fact, they were definitely people who just went to a mainline church, and I’m not sure where they were spiritually. I’m not speaking about their spiritual growth, but they were pretty nominal, especially my father-in-law. They had all the same beliefs, basically—that you shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage, you shouldn’t get divorced, homosexuality was wrong, people shouldn’t live together—they had all the same views. These are folks in their 80s and 90s—some of them are not with us anymore—even though they were very different in their understanding of what it means to be born again and all of that, they had the same views. The kind of person my in-laws were are extinct. If you don’t have a pretty strong view of some kind of orthodoxy—whether it’s orthodox Judaism, Catholicism, evangelicalism, and all—you no longer have the basic understanding of there’s a God, there’s a heaven and hell, you ought to live a good life, and you shouldn’t have sex outside marriage. That’s just gone. Our problem is evangelical churches do not know how to talk yet very persuasively—in fact very often they talk very offensively—to anybody who’s not already got a kind of general, conservative Christian ethos about them even though they are not born again. Now in parts of the South, there are still lots of people who have that ethos—they’re not born again, but they still have that kind of general Christian way of thinking about things. But that’s just not true on the coasts anymore, and increasingly it won’t be true anywhere. And evangelicals do not know how to reach those folks.
You talk in the book [Center Church] about conversion increasingly being a process that occurs through a series of small decisions and the importance of developing personal relationships.
Part of it’s common sense. If people don’t have a general understanding of God or moral absolutes or sin, in other words if they don’t have the mental furniture, you can’t go through a brief Gospel presentation because right away you say, “God is this, and man is this, and sin is this,” and these people have no idea what you’re talking about. So it’s common sense that you can’t do the quick Gospel presentation when the cultural institutions no longer are Christianizing people’s intellect. They’re not giving them the basic furniture for understanding these things.
Secondly, however, the reason why that process thing is so telling is that most seeker-secular-non-Christian people do need multiple touches, and they need to kind of slowly be brought into a community where they can ask questions and be respected, and it’s very hard because most Christian communities are pretty tribal. They use a lot of jargon. Even the way people pray is off-putting to non-Christians because they feel like, “Oh, my gosh, all these words; this isn’t the way you usually talk to somebody.” They’re afraid. Even by the way people pray in conversational prayer. So it’s very hard to find a place where non-Christians can come and not feel necessarily culturally alien.