Gospel Engagement -who are we engaging with?

Recently I started to reflect on the different types of people that we could, should and do engage with as a church. I found it helpful to classify them into three Groups.  Here are some notes based on my thinking and on further discussion among our church leaders.

A. Types of engagement


1.People who are Christianised and churched.


These are people who have grown up within a church environment. They may have grown up attending a church. They know the ropes in terms of how churches are meant to function.  When I talk about knowing the ropes, I don’t just mean that they know how a church’s formal structures work but how the informal ones work too. They know how to get involved, influence decisions and find support when they need it.

Many in this category will have remained in church from childhood and into adult life without a major break in attendance. Many will have professed faith, been baptised or confirmed and become active church members getting involved in some form of church based ministry. However, we should not assume that this will always be the case. It is possible to attend church and go through the external forms of religion for years without having saving faith.

Others may have left church at some point.  They may simply have drifted away because it no longer seemed important or because other life circumstances kicked in such as the pressures of family life, work pressure, illness. Some will have moved home and simply not settled elsewhere. Others will have left because they reacted to something, they may not have liked something that was said or may have felt badly treated. And then there are those who stopped believing. It no longer made sense, answered their questions, fitted with their perception of who they were or the world around them. Sometimes they come back, often they never do.  Many would say that they have not given up on God just on the church. However, even in this case, their understanding of God and faith still has church based Christianity as its reference point even if it is in reaction against it.

Most churches are geared up to reaching the Christianised and churched.  This is really what churches are geared up for.  Most church growth is through this route as Christians transfer church either because they move or because they go looking for something that fits their preferences better.  Churches gear their programmes to attracting and retaining.  It’s seen as the “low hanging fruit”

There are however challenges even with discipleship here

First of all, people who go through the system can become quite hardened to the Gospel message.  So they are resistant.  They can even sit in the congregation without engaging. Because they have been around for so long and know how to behave, others engage with them as though they are believers meaning.

  1. Christians miss the signals and so miss the opportunities to proclaim the Gospel
  2. Non-Christians who attend a church gathering may encounter someone like this and think that they are representative of the church and the message.

Secondly, Churches often respond to people in this category by trying to find ways to help them belong.  The way we usually do that is by trying to give someone a job to do.  They are often very good at doing the job and because they know the ropes, fit in well. The problem is that we have completely by-passed the deeper questions about why they are here, what they are really looking for and their real need for a life changing encounter with Jesus.

Thirdly, many people get absorbed into a mind-set, even though they are professing faith. They either end up burdened with legalism or they opt out mentally and emotionally even whilst attending physically. They become fringe consumers. At some point they rebel and kick out against what they perceive church to be about or they burn out and drop off.

2.People with a form of folk Christianity or messy faith


Our own experience as a church is of increased engagement in this area. In this group I would include people who believe in God and Jesus but don’t really know what this means. It’s mixed with a lot of superstition. They instinctively know that churches are places they can go to get help when they get into trouble in life but don’t know what they are looking for. Often their expectation is that you will give them what they think they need rather than what they really need.  They may look for handouts and practical help. I think we can make the mistake of assuming that this is all that they are looking for.  There will be in some cases a genuine search for “something more.” In fact, Christians and churches often react to the cry for help in unhelpful ways. By supplying the perceived need, we actually fuel habits and dependencies and distract from the core message.

Some of the people we spend time with and who attend our meetings will have some engagement with churches and/or with Christian type sects.  Some of them have experienced liberal or catholic Christianity and some of them have been involved in prosperity type churches. They may have had very negative experiences of these and are reacting to them. However, they will still see salvation as being located somewhere within the church.

As you can see, this sort of grouping seems particularly to reflect a multi-cultural context where many people are from Christianized countries. However, it still equally reflects many white British contexts where families have been de-churched for years but still relate to the now badly distorted Christian heritage in the culture (they may have learnt hymns, prayers etc. through school assemblies first hand or second hand from parents and grandparents. They may still go to churches for marriages, christenings, funerals and carol services).

The first big challenge here is that we are connecting with people whose lives are often chaotic and disordered.  They are also likely to put hope in the wrong places.  For some of them, the need to come to a church for spiritual comfort will be met by irregular attendance. Church and the pastor provide an almost magical function.

There’s also a risk of being misunderstood. We think we are talking the same language but are in fact saying very different things.

3. The un-churched, un-Christianised, unreached.


In our own neighbourhood, there are increasing numbers of people from other ethnic groups where there is a strong religious community identity other than Evangelical Christianity

Punjabis and Sikhism

Various ethnic groups (Pakistani, African, Arabic) and Islam

Additionally we see increasingly secularised Western Europeans including

Working class estates

Alternative lifestyles

In some cases this will include a strong atheism however, often contemporary secularism is not about being a devoted following of Richard Dawkins. Rather people simply have no religious faith and no felt need for faith. It’s not that they don’t believe in God, they just don’t believe in anything particularly.

For some, they will find hope, comfort or perceived healing in alternative forms of spirituality. Unlike with the first two groups, the centre point of their world view is not Church and Christian faith as we know it.  Even if they are disaffected or disillusioned, their frustration is expressed in relation to a completely different reference point.

The challenge here is that in reality we are simply not scratching the surface when it comes to reaching these groups of people. We still sit back and wait and hope that people will come to us. But they are not coming and if we sit and wait, they will never come.

Our friendship evangelism models work on the basis that friends will share the Gospel but this depends on people having a type of friendship which enables deep connections and a shared conversation about faith. However, any friendship here may well depend on keeping faith out of the equation. When the big questions come up, we don’t know how to engage.

Our attractional models of evangelism work on the basis that if we make our churches attractive enough then people will come. So we change our churches by singing some new songs and introducing a band. Our preachers change their style of oratory and dress down. However these are only surface changes and the underlying culture of how we operate remains exactly the same. We meet at the same sort of time in the same sort of buildings in the same sort of way as we have always done. Worst still, for many churches it is actually the message that gets changed in a hope that a softer message will be more appealing. But who wants watered down bland food when something meatier and tastier is on offer elsewhere?

Our programme based models of evangelism will work on the basis that if someone attends a club, toddlers group, social event and this will provide a bridge into church life. The problem is that people already have their clubs and events which they attend and so many won’t come to a church event if they think it’s really about smuggling the gospel in. Those who do come don’t think “Oh I like your toddlers group, I’ll come on a Sunday as well.” Why would they? That’s not how normal people outside of churches think is it! They join a group because that group provides a useful service but they don’t expect this to lead to a whole life commitment. That jus sounds like the small print catch!   Guess what the parent does who brings their child to your Toddlers group? They go to another Toddlers group on another day. The child who loves your Kids Club goes to Brownies on another night, Karate on another, ballet on Saturday morning and sport on Sunday.  We are kidding ourselves that we are doing evangelism and it is time to wake up.

B. Where next

I want to suggest that we focus on how we reach this third group. It’s where we need to learn the most (and quickly). I also have a sneaky suspicion that understanding outreach in this context will flow back and bear fruit with some of the challenges in the first two groups.

Why do I say this? Well very simply this. The specific challenge with Group 3 is that people are very overtly looking to another reference point for the centre of their world-view. The result is that even if they are not always happy with their belief system, they will re-interpret things in the light of the existing belief system.  This makes them different from people whose world view is essentially Christian or a reaction to Christianity (even a negative one). However, once we start to think about what people really believe, even many of those who have an officially Christian worldview believe something that is different to the Gospel.  So their worldview needs challenging just as much as the Muslim, Atheist or Sikh. Those present on November 8th will notice that I linked the rituals of attending the mosque, temple, synagogue and church in the same diagnostic sentence.

So here are some initial thoughts (including some of the suggestions raised by our  elders when we started to discuss this recently).

1.We need to be praying


In our church, we have prayed consistently that God would bring people in so that our ethnic mix increasingly reflected the diversity in the community around us. We are seeing that prayer wonderfully answered at the moment.

What if we prayed that God would save and gather people from Muslim, Sikh and Atheist backgrounds?

2. We really need to get to understand the people we are seeking to reach


This includes reading and researching into religious beliefs and values. It will involve reading about those beliefs and listening to Christians who have taken time to investigate and interact. It may also mean that some of us need to take time to read things written by those who hold to other beliefs. But we also need to take time to get to know people individually. We should not assume that because someone holds to a particular world view that they will hold the official view consistently.

3. This is really about everyday church


The people we are seeking to witness to are not going to have any real reason for coming to churches and to their clubs and groups. However these are going to be people who we live next to, go to work with or buy from their shops.

So we will want to equip Christians in the church to be able to share their faith in their everyday lives.  I want to suggest two major areas of change/reformation that might flow from this.

First of all, Everyday church will result in a deeper understanding of every member ministry. Every member ministry does not simply mean that each church member does something in the church service or is part of a chapel based ministry. Rather, it means that we see every member as being part of the corporate responsibility we have to share the Gospel. Every member ministry happens in daily life. It happens in the workplace and the neighbourhood. It means that we want to see church members having greater confidence about Gospel intentional friendships and conversations. This is important because, as much as I value the importance of having a number of paid staff, there are things that paid staff cannot do – just as there are things that we can do that are necessary. Most of my relationships with people are very quickly in the context that I am a church pastor and that affects the dynamic of conversations. It’s very different to the conversation and openings that someone has with a colleague or client.  I want to suggest that one of the great benefits of having unpaid elders/bi-vocational elders is not just that they model how to volunteer their spare time to church life but how they can model being a believer in day to day life.

Secondly, one of the questions we began to talk about was whether or not we’d be comfortable bringing someone in to an existing meeting. In some cases, the answer was “yes” but a lot of the time it will be “no.”   So what do we do? Well, what if we didn’t feel compelled to bring someone to an existing meeting? What if the natural response was to invite someone for a meal and begin to talk more about the Gospel? What if that person asked if other friends could join the conversation?  Now that might lead to someone becoming a Christian and wanting to attend an existing Bearwood Chapel but it might not. It might end up with a group of people gathering in a home regularly. In effect a new congregation begins to evolve. It would have all of the support of Bearwood Chapel. It would be accountable to the elders but it would be responding naturally to the real needs of the people coming along.

One of the things we are just starting to try is to find ways of opening up lots of conversations.  This might be through events at the Chapel or through conversations in pubs, homes, cafes etc and through social media (look out for our #WhatStopsMe hashtag on twitter). Basically giving space for people to speak, ask questions, listen and engage, wherever and whenever they are comfortable to.

4. We need the right type of Apologetics


When engaging with the third group, we often find that our apologetics simply don’t cut through. There are three problems:

  1. Our apologetics are reactive. We wait for someone to come and show an interest and then we get ready to give an explanation or defence
  2. They are defensive. It’s about defending Christianity against attacks. But if all we do is show that we can defend our beliefs, we give no good reason for someone to abandon their own belief system
  3. They fall short. Classical apologetics gets us to defend propositions about a generic deity and then to move to defending evidence for the Bible etc. The problem is that so often you don’t get past stage 1 because there isn’t a natural bridge across to talking about the Gospel.

The good news is that there are other ways of doing apologetics. One method is called Pere-suppositional apologetics. This is the approach modelled by people like Tim Keller.  It starts from the assumption that we cannot just deal with surface evidence but need to get to the root of what people believe, the presuppositions which underpin their worldview.

P.S. Some suggested Further reading

Tim Chester: Unreached: Growing churches in working class and deprived areas

TimChester: Everyday Church

James Emery White: The Rise of the Nones

JH Bavinck: An Introduction to the Science of Missions

John Frame: Apologetics to the Glory of God

And Two slightly more heavy weight volumes but worth the hard work!

Dan Strange: For their rock is not as our rock

Charles Taylor: A Secular Age