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Reaching People Who Are Far From God:

Implications for Church Planting

By David Kinnaman

My friend, Chris, started a church about 2 years ago. His vision is to connect with people who are far from God.

At first the church worshiped on Sunday mornings in a theater. Aside from sticky floors and the rush to leave before movie showings began, that venue worked. Then Chris realized that teaching and singing in a theater were no longer working. The set up and tear down each week, as well as finding space for kids in the Century 16 theaters, left them searching for new space.

Some of the church’s evangelism also caused controversy. When the church launched, Chris and other members visited bars and pubs to start conversations with patrons. It has been hard work for Chris, his family, and the other members who have stuck around. The church is doing well today and has reached many young adults. Yet, Chris admits it has been hard to get people who are far from God to visit, much less participate.

Context for Church Planting

Chris’ story illustrates a larger reality that research at Barna Group is uncovering: Even though the proportion of non-Christians is rising in America, it is harder than ever to plant a church that reaches non-Christians.

People — particularly young people — express more hostility, doubt, frustration, and skepticism toward Christianity. They perceive Christians to be judgmental, hypocritical, and political activists. They also believe Christians have singled out homosexuality above other sins. They conclude that Christianity is old-fashioned, boring, and unintelligent, and that Christians are insincere and too focused on getting converts. The think followers of the Prince of Peace are unable to live peaceably among others.

These statements may sound harsh, but they spring from extensive research done with Americans, ages 16 to 29. These negative views are front and center in the minds of young people in our culture. In a decade, the perception of evangelicals has become eight times less favorable among young non-Christians when compared to the image held by boomer non-Christians.

One common reaction young people have about the faith is that present-day Christianity is no longer like Jesus intended. Or, as Dan Kimball’s book suggests, “They like Jesus but not the church.” This is where we initially came upon the term unchristian. In our research we heard things like: “Christians go about things in an unchristian manner.” “They have forgotten the point of what it means to be a Christian.” “The faith has gotten off track with the teachings of Jesus.” “Present-day Christianity has become a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy — it is distorted from its original intent.”

Put Off by Criticism?

When Gabe Lyons of the Fermi Project and I first encountered these attitudes, we were surprised. Are young people right? Did not Jesus promise we would be persecuted and hated for following Him?

Yet, the question that nagged for several years was: What if they are reacting — not to our righteous lifestyles — but to our self-righteousness? What if we are not following Christ the way we should? Would that change the balance of culpability?

As we wrestled with this, Scripture passages became vivid reminders that, while we may be misunderstood, Christians do not get a free pass to offend their neighbors. We meditated on Romans 2:24: “The world blasphemes the name of God” (NLT)1 because of hypocritical faith. And Colossians 4:5,6: “Live wisely among those who are not Christians” with “gracious and effective” (NLT) conversation.

While those outside Christianity may not always perceive us accurately, those of us on the inside of faith also have assumptions that undo our witness. Here are three unexpected, yet fascinating insights we learned. First, most non-Christians in America today have much experience in Christian churches and with Christians. Most non-Christians are actually de-churched.

We found that young non-Christians often communicated nuance and profound insight. They mentioned that sometimes someone who provided an entirely different, vibrant picture of what it means to be a Christian confounded their negative views of Christians. One comment was: “I know all you Christians are not bad, because I have had conversations with Christians I respect. Basically, I respect them because they respect me.”

These were exceptions to the rule of unchristian Christians.

Understanding People Far From God

Let me describe five research-based insights about those who are far from God, those looking at Christianity from the outside in.

First, we need to articulate that the idea of being far from God is not entirely accurate. It is probably a helpful way to describe our intent as church planters to reach people who are not just recycled Christians. We want to cultivate the spiritual lives of people who have little experience with or understanding of following Christ. This is a laudable motivation. Except, we need to keep in mind that all of us — pastor or not, Christian or not — are both infinitely far from God and at the same time incredibly close to Him. This theological tension reminds us that many of those outside the church are closer to God than we might think; just as many of us in the church may just be playing the part.

This raises a second observation about non-Christians: In our American culture, the idea that most people have little or no experience with Christianity is patently false. While young people have less exposure to Christianity than did their predecessors, most young non-Christians have been around the Christian block at least once. The typical non-Christian young person says he has five friends who are Christians; two-thirds of them have had a recent conversation with a Christian about faith matters; half have been approached by someone in the last few years to consider becoming a Christian; and roughly four out of every five young non-Christians have been to a church in their past.

Despite the fact most non-Christians have been exposed to Christianity, a third research insight reveals that young non-Christians come from diverse backgrounds and faith views. It is important to consider that perceptions of Christianity are most negative among those who are atheist or agnostic, compared to those who are from other faiths or who are syncretists (i.e., people who mix and match spiritual views and identities from various religious traditions). This means you need to work hard to understand people’s personal history to minister most effectively to them.

A fourth insight about young non-Christians is that, while many are spiritually minded, they are certainly less so than most of the young Christians we work with. In fact, while three-quarters of young Christ followers (73 percent) say their spirituality is a major or one of the most important priorities in their life, the same is true for just 30 percent of young non-Christians.

Still, many young non-Christians and young Christians seem to overlap in their spiritual preferences. For instance, 67 percent of Christians say they look for faith that feels right to them personally; the same is true for 69 percent of young non-Christians. Similarly, there was overlap when it came to wanting forms of spirituality that “makes sense,” that “makes them stronger,” that can be “experienced,” and that “makes their life easier.” Of course, just because this is the type of faith people aspire to have does not necessarily mean this is the type of individualistic faith we should cultivate. In many ways, we should aim for quite the opposite.

Yet, we discovered one big area of difference speaks volumes about the gap between young Christians and non-Christians: 72 percent of young Christians said they want a faith that “helps them to connect with God,” yet only 26 percent of young non-Christians craved a similar experience. This striking difference suggests that the one thing churches have to offer that transforms lives — a place where people can experience a living and loving God — inspires skepticism among the people we most want to reach. This is just one of the conundrums in trying to reach those far from God.

Notwithstanding their comfort with experiencing God, a fifth insight about young non-Christians is that their lives are not much different from young Christians. Our research consistently shows that young Christians are often more like young non-Christians than they are like older Christians. There is more that unites young people across faith groups than divides them.

What does this mean? Young people, regardless of faith affiliation, often share camaraderie, life challenges, language, experiences, heroes, and expectations. I believe this is why it is rare to see pastors in their 50s and 60s able to connect with the generation of those in their 20s and 30s. Older communicators can have a hard time connecting with the language and lifestyles of a generation who are members of a different tribe. This is also why many young people say they would rather hang with their peers who may not be Christian than to hole up in a Christian bubble with people they do not know well.

One perspective to take away from this research is that, while you do not have to like or welcome these changes, as a leader you do have to deal with these trends. The church is experiencing significant intergenerational tension, and this is affecting our collective ability to reach young people who are far from God.

Implications for Church Planting

What can be done to initiate new congregations and minister effectively to a new generation? Here are some practical steps to consider:

1. Develop a mindset that your vision is to serve and grow people rather than build a church. Young non-Christians are not looking for an expert on the Bible that they come to hear once a week. Yet, many church leaders believe the most important way they can serve the discipleship needs of young adults is to get them to sit through the Sunday sermon once a week. As a son of a pastor, I understand and value transformational teaching. It’s just that we have to keep first things first. Your ability to communicate is secondary to the way you invest in young people.

2. Invest in young Christians and young non-Christians through vocational discipleship. Help them see and live out their skills and strengths in the realm of career, workplace, and vocation. More than 7 of 10 adults in America believe they are fulfilling their calling in life. The idea of calling cuts across religious lines and frames the idea that people want to make a difference. Your church plant can help young people connect the dots between their personal calling and God’s kingdom.

3. Offer learning opportunities and courses that go beyond Bible classes. This is a generation that despite having access to tons of information and content, has not learned as much as we would like about how to live. Churches can teach the next generation about everything from history to finances, from relationships to political engagement, from science to cultural exegesis. Consider how you can transform your congregation into a learning center so that young people can no longer say that Christians are uninformed and unintelligent.

4. Provide young people with pathways to serve the poor and experience the world. A young Christian said she was worn out with her church. When we asked why, it was not at all the self-indulgent, consumerist perspective one might imagine. She said, “I want to do something.” Pastors need to be sure we do not let this moment of global awareness and activism pass without opportunities to serve the poor and to dispense justice through Christ.

5. Do not be afraid to tackle tough, controversial subjects. Research shows many churches shy away from subjects like environmentalism, animal care, injustice, human trafficking, science and scholarship, political and cultural issues, technology, or even the gospel because they are afraid people in their church will misunderstand. Yet, this generation is asking tough questions and demanding transparent answers and leaders. Some churches addressing these issues are finding it difficult to retain some longtime members. Yet, these are churches that are also some of the most likely to reach young non-Christians who are far from God.

6. Consider ways to deepen the life-on-life connections people make, particularly between generations. Pastor, you can help your congregation by cultivating interpersonal connections between older and younger people. You can create an environment in which relationships flourish, where you do not hoard control, and where the Holy Spirit has permission to work. Pray for ideas that connect the generations. Much of this starts in the way you, as the leader, model this. Are you honoring those older than you? Are you giving space and permission for young leaders to grow and share the stage?

Implications for Communicating

If it is harder to reach non-Christians, it is also more difficult than ever to teach and preach to them. How does a teacher of the Bible help point people toward a holy God, without creating the opposite effect of putting up barriers to Him? Here are suggestions from our interviews with the type of people who listen to your teachings week after week:

1. You have one responsibility: maintaining the healthy balance of truth and grace. Without truth, this generation continues to slip into moral and spiritual hyper-individualism. Without grace, the unique message of Jesus’ unconditional acceptance is lost to a works-based regimen. At the most basic level, your preaching and teaching need to provide both elements of Jesus’ character (see John 1:14).

2. A related theme is self-absorption. People cannot see themselves clearly, and they also cannot empathize with how other people see the world. Consequently, the church often perpetuates us-versus-them thinking, even though it is the only place in the universe where such categories should not exist. Christians need to be cultivating hearts for outsiders, just like Jesus did. Are you motivating people to fear the world and to condemn it? Or are you helping them catch a vision to lay down their lives — figuratively and literally — to save people?

3. In reorienting people’s perspectives, it is important for people to feel the weight of their everyday conversations and mundane relational choices. How do their words and attitudes affect the people around them? Did you know, for instance, that one of the most common reasons that people become unchurched is because of the hypocrisy of churchgoers? While not always accurate, their critique has some merit. We need to help people understand the consequences of their unchristian behaviors, but also communicate that Jesus still loves us, despite our flaws.

4. One theme of the New Testament that seems rare is the insider-outsider dynamic. This is hard for Americans — a Christianized people with a rich Christian tradition — to fully comprehend. But Paul, living in a clearly non-Christian context, never defends his rights as a Christian. Instead, Paul accepts a sinful and broken world, while holding the people of Christ to account. He is constantly writing in this dual role: an apostle (a leader of churches) and missionary (an apologist and evangelist to outsiders). He calls the Christian community to high standards and yet reaffirms that these standards do not apply to those outside Christianity (1 Corinthians 5). Since your preaching is heard by both Christians and non-Christians, you are both a leader of Christians as well as a missionary to unbelievers.

We have just scratched the surface of what it means to plant churches for people far from God. This endeavor may be harder than ever, yet it is also among life’s most fulfilling activities. Just ask my church-planter friend, Chris.

Neil B. Wiseman

DAVID KINNAMAN, Ventura, California, is president of Barna Group. Check out more about the firm’s research and cultural insight at www.barna.org.

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