Craig Springer: Belonging Is a Precursor for Belief—Part 2

“We need to be intentional about building spaces for people outside the faith to feel like they belong with this community, even if they don’t yet believe.”

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Craig Springer explains why our typical evangelism methods have become less effective, why a large percentage of millennial Christians believe evangelism is wrong, and a better method of evangelism that Jesus modeled.

You maintain the church should be a place of belonging, not just welcoming. What do you mean?

In our current church culture, we’ve leaned heavily toward creating spaces of welcome: come in, you’re welcome here, welcome home. We’ve learned from good customer experiences and from the Bible how to intentionally craft welcoming spaces and warm smiles. Welcoming, though, can be quite shallow. Belonging engages radical hospitality. The Lord instructs us to treat foreigners as the native born, outsiders as part of the family. We need to be intentional about building spaces for people outside the faith to feel like they belong with this community, even if they don’t yet believe—to ask honest questions, live broken lives, share thoughts and disagreements, and explore faith together.

Give us an example of how belonging led to faith.

A church we work with started delivering groceries. Through this ministry, one Christian family got to know Tammy, who was pregnant and homeless. They invited her to come live with them and to belong with their family for a season. This was an example of radical hospitality. Tammy continued to struggle with drugs, maintained her relationship with her boyfriend who was in jail and did not respond to Christianity. Yet, they continued to invite her into belonging—eating together around the table, throwing a baby shower, listening to her dreams. Often evangelism is focused on a notch of conversion and not the fullness of love. Over time, Tammy felt safe enough to start believing, not so much because of a doctrinal statement, but experiencing a community of love. She was baptized and now attends church; God has redeemed her life.

How do we create spaces for belonging during a time of pandemic?

We never thought Alpha would work in a digital-only environment because we lean heavily on face-to-face and community gatherings. We create spaces around meals. But COVID limited our options. We launched online, and I’ve been blown away. We’ve had over 300,000 go through Alpha, 13,000 courses, about 2,000 churches running Alpha right now. Ironically, we’re finding people are more willing to open up more quickly online than in person. I think there’s a safety of being in your own home. They find comfort in the “end call” button; they can bail easily or turn off the video. People have had to learn how to do community and their work on video calls, so I think it’s here forever. We’re committed to doing both online and in-person Alpha groups. We’ve seen more non-Christians attending our groups online than in person, and we’re seeing thousands of people saying yes to Jesus.

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You’ve established the point that when it comes to evangelism, people prefer experience over explanation. But why?

As a pastor in two very large megachurches for years, I focused on outreach centered on explanation. I began to wonder why I was believing there would be a tidal wave of new believers but only seeing a trickle. One day I was reading Romans 1:16 and it hit me: The gospel is the power of God to those who believe. At that moment, I realized my focus on evangelism failed because I had unintentionally rewritten that verse to read: The gospel is the power of man for the salvation of those who believe. My focus was to explain God instead of unleashing him.

Non-Christians report they’d be far more open to faith if they had an eye-opening spiritual experience. How much are we introducing people to the experience of God’s presence as part of their journey in discovering Christ rather than just an introduction to the doctrines of our faith? Mere explanation will not satisfy someone who is wrestling with all the pain and suffering in this world. You study the book of Job and, in the end, there is no explanation. We lean very heavily on explanation in Alpha but only through a space of safety through listening and belonging—and time.

Why are so many people, especially millennials, so distrustful of church?

The Barna research revealed that many nonbelievers would be more open to faith if Christianity had a better reputation. The knee-jerk reaction of many Christians is to point to bad press and remind ourselves of a history of doing good—the creation of hospitals and universities, the abolitionist movement, advocacy for children and women, being lovers of outcasts. But we must own our failing, immorality and disunity. Can we increase our concern not just for the factuality of faith, but our fruitfulness? We will not win the attention of the world unless we demonstrate love, goodness, peace, patience and understanding. If we want to create an evangelism movement, we need to look through the lens of the world and objectively ask ourselves: “What fruit?”

Young people are engaging with questions of significance and justice. More than anything, they want to know: Is Christianity a living good? Does it create a better world and better people? If you look at current controversies in the church and a lack of engagement it’s easy to imagine why culture is running in the opposite direction.

Jesus did most of his ministry around a table and not at a temple. What does that tell us?

The first table I think of is the one at Levi’s tax collector party. What does Jesus do? He gathers sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes and other outcasts. Can you imagine what that table conversation would have been like? These rough-edged dudes, wine flowing, dirty talking and boasts about the money they weaseled out of people. In Alpha, we often pull together groups where the majority are non-Christians with Christians who don’t have all the answers about faith. The desire is to create a space of listening and belonging. You might think secularism and atheism would compound on itself, doubts beget more doubts, but it’s the opposite. It’s because the Holy Spirit is at work. It’s the hunger that people sense in others; it’s the discovery that others are asking the same questions and there’s a space that’s OK to honestly share doubts and hopes. It’s a shift from a me-based to a we-based evangelism. What we often see is that when one nonbeliever says yes to Jesus, many others do as well.

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So, in order to listen better, we need to ask better questions?

In much of current evangelism strategy, the questions involve proving the tenets of Christianity. I think there has been a recent shift to questions of significance and purpose. But I think it is shifting again. Tim Keller, former pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, believes the issue of justice is critical. The individual’s question of, “How do I live with purpose?” moves to the communal question, “How can we fix this mess we’re in?”

I believe we must ask questions to absorb hurt and hostility. For so long, we have approached evangelism as an intellectual transfer of information instead of an embrace of the wounds of the heart. We talk about the Black Lives Matter movement. I know a lot of pastors are making statements and giving sermons, but are we creating space for people to ask questions, to share and process their stories and pain?

Can we work together with nonbelievers for the cause of justice?

Social justice activities and evangelism can be powerful when churches involve themselves in the demonstration of the gospel in the world, inviting non-Christians into the experience of the works of Christ in this world by feeding the poor, fighting for justice and caring for our planet. Demonstration and conversation and proclamation—when all three unite, evangelism is unleashed.