On Mission explores how Christians and churches can strike the
balance between getting people into the church and keeping them there while
sharing the essential elements of the gospel.
ometimes the world surprises us.
It turns out that doctrine is what matters most to the people some of us
call "seekers," those unbelieving friends, family members, neighbors,
co-workers and acquaintances we want to reach for Christ. Researchers call them
the "unchurched," and we are learning what draws them into our midst, what
makes them come back, what theyre seeking when they return and what makes them
stay to accept Christ and eventually join the church.
Sure, many of them are drawn by our lively presentations, our relaxed Sunday
morning dress codes and our sunny dispositions. But research shows that many
unchurched people who eventually come to faith in Christ and join our
membership rolls were primarily attracted by our theological beliefs, our
conviction that the Bible is true, our intense teaching about salvation and our
high standards of discipline in areas such as tithing, service and
In other words, they have high expectations. They seek a standard that is
high enough to challenge them. They are attracted to a fellowship of believers
with the strongest of convictions. They can only serve a God Who is big.
Research shows doctrine matters
The number one reason given for the choice of a particular church among
people classified as "formerly unchurched" is the doctrinal beliefs of that
church, according to Thom S. Rainer, Ph.D., who writes on this conclusion in
his next book (Almost) Everything Youve Heard about the Unchurched Is
Wrong, due from Zondervan in 2001. Rainer is dean of the Billy Graham
School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth, Southern Baptist Theological
Seminary, Louisville. He defines "formerly unchurched" as people who have not
been in church, except sporadically, for at least 10 years (most of them for a
lifetime) but who have recently become active in a church. Also, they recently
have become Christians, so they are not merely church attenders. The importance
of surveying this group, he says, is to learn what magnets drew them, convinced
them, made them stay.
In his upcoming book Rainer tells about "Donna," a recently divorced mother
of two, who decided to fill the void of her former lifestyle by giving church a
try. Noticing the strong, satisfying relationship her mom had with her
Bible-study friends, Donna chose to attend her mothers church, eventually
becoming a Christian and an active church member.
Factors in Donnas story which are common to others who seek, join and stay:
1) A crisis in her life and a relationship with someone who was active in a
churchparticularly a family member or relativeprompted Donna to "try" a church.
Donna and many others said that the relationship was more of a factor than the
2) The church [denomination] was hardly a factor in her decision to attend.
The fact that her mother attended was the key issue.
3) Ultimately, Donna was attracted by strong leadership and biblical
preaching, by high expectations for belief in Christ and by high standards for
"People want to be a part of something that makes a difference," Rainer told
On Mission. "When doctrine is diluted, watered down, sugarcoated, the
seeker senses this and doesnt come back. Or, if the seeker does return, maybe
even making a commitment to Christ and joining the church, he soon is history
when he realizes the meat isnt there. If seekers see that little is expected of
church members, that translates to little is expected of me. The result is they
feel diminished, and they perceive God as diminished. Its unsatisfying and
Lyle Schaller, a prolific researcher and writer for half a century, writes
in The Very Large Church (Abington Press, 1999) that high expectations
both attract and retain members.
The retention rate is low, according to Schaller, for churches that make
commitment to Christ or membership only a matter of raising a hand, walking an
aisle or signing a card.
Denominationalism rarely matters
A trend, especially among newer churches, is to de-emphasize the name of the
denomination by using a generic church name that emphasizes community. While
this often proves effective to draw in visitors, including many seekers, they
dont return if the message is soft on the gospel, according to research.
"The genius of Saddleback Community Church [Lake Forest, California] and
Rick Warrens ministry is not that the church name doesnt reveal its Southern
Baptist affiliation but that the gospel message is uncompromisingly strong and
direct, never hidden," says Rainer. "Rick makes clear that the church is
purpose-driven and sets high expectations for membershipinvolvement in
ministry, Bible study and personal evangelism." He adds: "The closer people get
to the cross and the more they become involved in the church, the less
denominationalism matters to them, even if they were attracted by a generic
church name in the first place."
Experts agree that a sugarcoated image, though tasty-looking, is like false
advertising. Commenting on Christian retail industry trends, Baylor University
marketing professor Marjorie Cooper said: "I think that, to some extent, were
trying to peddle a popularized God in sound-bite mentality so that Hes
palatable for the masses. But God has never presented Himself that waythis is
our idea." (World, July 1, 2000)
The open back door
"I hear leaders talk about back door problems. While the front door refers
to new members or gains in attendance, the back door means losses. I have
spoken with leaders of numerous denominations and independent churches, and the
problem seems to be alarmingly common. People are leaving our churches by the
thousands each day, and others are quietly becoming less and less active,"
writes Rainer in High Expectations, The Remarkable Secret for Keeping
People in Your Church (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999).
His studies show that approaches which sugarcoat the gospel mislead people
into a false sense of what the Christian lifestyle requires. The implication
that commitment and involvement are not necessary may be attractive in the
beginning, but the softened message ultimately produces an exodus out the back
Churches effective at evangelism teach that acceptance into the church is
accompanied by clearly established expectations.
"You read nothing about inactive or watered-down church membership in the
Bible," Rainer added. "Everyone is sold out."
Carolyn Curtis is editor of On Mission
Points from High Expectations, The Remarkable Secretfor
Keeping People in Your Church, by Thom S. Rainer (Broadman & Holman
Dr. Rick Ferguson, senior
pastor, Riverside Baptist Church, Denver, Colorado; author of The Servant
Principle and founder of the "Hope For Today" TV, radio and Internet
broadcast ministry; former first vice president of the Southern Baptist
Its wrong to sugarcoat Gods truth to make it more appealing. In todays
environment, we have to contextualize our ministry without compromising the
We can do this without offending our listeners, making them feel like a
project, like a notch in our evangelistic belt. The goal is not to immediately
give them a gospel presentation but to form a relationship with them and begin
to build a bridge. That will lead to a comfortable but direct discussion of how
Christ has worked in your life, how you have changed as a result of committing
your life to the Lord. We can make more inroads by inviting non-believers to
Starbucks and showing them who we are by our day-to-day lifestyle than by
in-your-face evangelism which can sometimes hurt the presentation of the gospel
more than help it.
I see similarities between our culture today and the culture the apostle
Paul was speaking to in Athens on Mars Hill in Acts 17. Todays culture is
philosophically curious, especially people like the Gen Xers and the Echo
Boomers. They dont even know a society in which there were moral absolutes.
Theyve never experienced that, and they dont have the same mental grid through
which to process the concept of sin. Most postmoderns dont really see
themselves as sinners, because they are functioning from a convoluted
Many will come to Christ inch by inch, not mile by mile. In other words,
they have to process the gospel, and so while there will always be a place for
confrontational evangelism, the best opportunity is for incremental movement in
their under- standing of the gospel through ongoing dialogue with Christians.
Postmoderns are processors; they want interaction, which is why dialogue, at
their own pace, is so effective.
So we have to form relationships and earn their trust and confidence. And we
have to be willing to answer their questions and be good apologists.
Postmoderns are not won by emotion. They are attracted to reason and rational
thinking. The good news is that the gospel makes sense. What doesnt make sense
is the worldview that leaves out God, like the big bang theory. The mind of
God, though hard to comprehend, certainly makes much more sense than the chaos
that modern theories put forth. Our job is to articulate our worldview.
So, first, we have to learn to communicate. At Riverside we teach dialogue
skills on how to get conver- sations going, how to maintain them, how to
express your points in a personal and not argumentative way.
For example, you dont have to understand and articulate the intricacies of
DNA to explain the concept that everything we know from science supports a
cause-and-effect universe. So if you talk to a postmodern who believes in the
big bang theory, then he or she is talking about an explosion that supposedly
ignited from nothingthere was no cause for it, which makes no scientific sense.
And this leads to God, the "uncaused first cause," whichthough hard to
comprehendat least makes rational sense because God explains a mind and a
meaning behind our existence.
These are hard truths, not soft, told in a contemporary way.
Fred Luter Jr., senior pastor,
Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, New Orleans, Louisiana; former second vice
president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Our presentation of the gospel has to be balanced, particularly because we
live in a very different society today from the one in which I grew up when
most of us didnt have a choice about attending worship services on Sunday or
other church activities.
Today its not unusual to have teenagers and even adults who have never
attended church. We need new methods to reach out to them, and yet we have to
make sure our central message remains Jesus Christ, His death, burial and
resurrection. Were not sugarcoating the message if we use a more appealing
methodology and as long as we make sure our presentation is pointing the people
we bring in to the Lord.
A fisherman will tell you there are many ways to catch fish. You can use
different kinds of bait. Some fish bite on this kind of bait, some on that.
Some bite on live bait, some like all bait. The bottom line is to get the fish
out of the water and into the boat.
Its the same thing with evangelism. Our main goal is to attract the people.
Of course, weve got to be honest with the people we attract. The best way is to
have honest friendships with them outside the church building. That way we have
high credibility, so when we invite them to worship they trust us.
Also, we should tell them what to expect. We can say: "Listen, were going to
have praise and worship, maybe even drama. But the central message is still
going to be Christ as Lord and Savior." Our services can be appealing and
relevant, but there should be a noticeable difference between the church and
the culture. We dont have to look like the world to win the world. We can be
salt in a saltless society and light in a dark world and not lower our
standards to the point that visitors cannot tell if they are in a worship
service or some sort of concert in a civic arena or another secular venue. Its
a fine line, but churches and music ministers and worship leaders have to
distinguish where to draw that line.
Beth Moore, Bible study author
and teacher; lives in Houston, Texas. Her latest book is Praying Gods Word,
Breaking Free from Spiritual Strongholds (Broadman & Holman,
No, I dont think were sugarcoating the gospel. I dont think a casual
atmosphere with contemporary worship is a softer way to present the gospel.
Im pleased with what Im seeing. For example, this year more than 30,000
college kids gathered in a huge field in Memphis in the name of Christ. I
called it Godstockyou know, a play on Woodstockonly it was reverent in a
youthful way. The music was loud and energetic and powerful. And Ive never
heard in all my life a more radical call to the gospel. The call was to come
and die to self and live for Christ. It was expressed in a contemporary way,
and yet the message was pure.
I love both traditional worship and contemporary, as long as Im hearing the
gospel, as long as the rhythm doesnt override the message. If our hearts are
pure, then we dont mind being held in check in our worship, being accountable
for keeping the gospel above the other culturally appealing aspects of our
What Im seeing is not something to worry about, its something to
celebrateits an uprising of the truth of Gods Word expressed in a contemporary
way, a very radical message to come and live the crucified life. Its an awesome
work of the Holy Spirit. Im seeing people awaken to the Word of God in ways I
never dreamed Id live to see.
Dr. Ed Young, pastor, Second Baptist
Church, Houston, Texas; the author of nine books, the latest, Everywhere I Go;
seen weekly on "The Winning Walk" TV broadcast; former president of the
Southern Baptist Convention.
The Bible clearly teaches were to be all things to all people to win some. I
think we have to do that without compromise. If we name all the characteristics
of Jesus, we say words like gentle, kind, loving, and then we use descriptive
phrases, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
But theres another characteristic we often forget: He was a friend to
This is direction for those of us who want to be effective
evangelisticallywe must meet people where they are with their needs. I think
anything we can do to identify with them, to listen to them and to love them
will help us to establish a relationship that can lead to our telling them
But to attract people, its manipulative to act like their friend in order to
get them to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord. Thats illegitimate. Instead, we
have to be a genuine friend, with all that entails; we have to genuinely seek
to identify with these people and meet those who know Him not, right where they
are. This means always being truthful with them, never manipulating them,
always making clear that Jesus is Who motivates us and leads us.
As far as seeker-friendly services are concerned, I think all worship
services should fit the best definition of seeker friendly, whether or not they
include contemporary music and presentation.
Pastor Miller Zhuang leads Richmond
Chinese Baptist Church in Richmond, British Columbia. Zhuang is first vice
president of the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists and an influential
leader in the church in Canada.
We cannot copy where the modern world is going, but we can go in front of
them using tools that they have. If we dont, we miss this generation. As we use
these modern methods, we can be sure that the message itself has never changed,
no matter what tool we use to tell it.
I think probably Im not against new things. Im the one myself learning new
things. That could be said of all Chinese people and others who speak languages
besides English. We try new things. Just because they are new does not mean we
should suspect them. New can be effective. We of other cultures are testimonies
Chinese are very reserved. If you invite them to church, you get a
percentage. But if you go to them you have a chance to reach all. So thats what
we need: a gospel with many colors, many machines, many tools. Whatever works.
But the message stays the same.
Jaye Martin, family evangelism
associate (for women), NAMB; compiler of HeartCall, The Call to Prayer book and
study materials (NAMB, 1998).
Statistics say that 90 percent of people can do "inviter evangelism"thats
the most theyll ever do. But that can be effective and legitimate if the
inviter keeps faith with the invited by matching the event to their friends
"Inviter evangelism" can be incremental. It may be easier to get a friend to
attend something at a ball field or a hotel than at the church, so this may be
a good way to get started: "Come to our softball game." Next, invite them to
something specific that interests them. My neighbor might attend a seminar on
stress, or wearing too many hats or learning to be a good parent. This could
bring them into the church during a non-worship hour, or it may take them to a
neutral location like a conference center. Either way, the key at this step is
introducing them to other people, so they begin to form relationships and
interact with church members.
Eventually, you tell them what you believe, how Christ has changed your
life. Now you are getting more personal. As you talk, God may open doors of
trust and understanding so that they share their own needs. This is when you
can tell them directly that Christ can meet their needs.
I think the key to authenticitywhich is the opposite of going soft and
sugarcoating the gospelis the personal approach. Christianity is not about a
religion, its about a relationship with the living Lord of your life, Whom you
want to share with others. But its legitimate to adjust your presentation to
their comfort level as long as you make certain they learn your beliefs and the
Source of your commitment.
When my pastor had a sermon series on marriage, it attracted large numbers
of unchurched people. We advertised the series with fliers in the neighborhood
and yard signs. People came because they wanted to make their marriage better;
this subject was personal to them. What happened was that they came in the door
to hear about marriage. They did and this led to our telling them about
Rick Warren, founding pastor,
Saddleback Valley Community Church, Lake Forest, California; his classic, The
Purpose Driven Church, has been translated into 15 languages. Without a
traditional altar call, Saddleback has baptized more than 1,000 new Christians
a year for the last six years by assisting its members to be on
mission through seeker services.
When I was growing up, I frequently invited my friends to church. But there
always seemed to be one problem: I never knew from week to week if the pastor
would be preaching an evangelistic message or an edification message geared to
believers. Whenever I brought a lost friend it seemed the message would be on
tithing or some other growth issue. But on the weeks I didnt bring someone, the
message would be about salvation! I never knew which week would be "safe" to
bring an unbeliever with meso I eventually gave up.
Today, this problem is repeated over and over in churches. Next Sunday
morning glance around the worship service and estimate how many visitors are
there. If your church is average, there probably wont be more than a handful of
lost people in attendance. Even when the sermon is evangelistic, we are most
often speaking to the already convinced.
When I started Saddleback Church 20 years ago we decided to specialize our
services, having one targeted for the purpose of growing Christians and
planning another one specifically for reaching our non-believing friends. We
call our evangelistic service a "seeker-sensitive service." A seeker service is
an evangelistic service specifically designed for two purposes: 1) so that
people without any religious background will understand everything that takes
place, and 2) so that members are proud to bring their non-believing friends to
Our members are constantly on mission to bring their friends and
neighbors to these weekend seeker services. As a result, we have baptized more
then 7,000 new believers in the past six years.
You might wonder if weve attracted all these visitors by watering down the
gospel, but we havent. Being seeker sensitive doesnt mean compromising the
messageit just means you communicate it in words that non-believers understand.
Jesus drew enormous crowds (called "multitudes") without ever compromising His
message. He was just clear, practical and loving.
Seeker-sensitive also doesnt mean shallow preaching. Whenever I hear someone
say that the felt needs of unbelievers are shallow and superficial, it just
tells me they havent spent much time lately talking to unbelievers. If you
really listen to lost people youll discover that their felt needs are quite
deep. They have the need for meaning, the need for purpose, the need for
forgiveness, the need for love. They want to know how to make right decisions,
how to protect their family, how to handle suffering and how to have hope in
our world. These are deep issues.
Another common criticism against evangelistic seeker services is that they
cater to consumers. But the truth is that every style of worship service caters
to someone: a traditional service caters to those who grew up in that
tradition, a formal service caters to formal people and emotional services
cater to emotional people.
If you want to know which consumers your church is catering to, just try
changing your worship service next week and youll discover very quickly who
they are. So then it really comes down to whom youre targeting. We should not
be surprised that most members never bring lost friends with them to church
when everything we do in our services is geared to the long-time Christian who
understands all the phrases and knows all the tunes. Even in churches with
evangelistic sermons, you often find that every other part of the service is
geared for members. When we send mixed messages we get mixed results.
I believe the most overlooked requirement for starting an evangelistic
seeker-sensitive service is spiritually mature members who are unselfish.
Youll never be able to start an evangelistic seeker service until your
members are willing to limit their own preferences and worship style in order
to reach lost people for Christ.
So, if you have an evangelistic seeker service, where do the needs of
members get met? At Saddleback we offer a strong midweek service, small groups
and an extensive class program geared for the deepening and training of our
church members. My advice to traditional churches is not to throw out your
existing service but instead just add a seeker service that members can bring
their friends to. This will assist your members in being on
Prayer of commitment to become a ChristianDear Jesus,
I know that I am a sinner. I believe You are the Son of God and died to forgive
my sins. I invite You into my heart to be my Lord and Savior. I willingly turn
from my sins and give You my life. Thank You for saving me. Amen.
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