The Evangelism Conversation No One Is Having

I was listening to a podcast recently that confirmed what many of us have intuitively known for a long time.

People are having spiritual conversations every day…they just never think of turning to a preacher or the church for answers.

I’m not talking about people who have other religious backgrounds. I’m talking about your neighbours, your friends, maybe even your family members as well as cultural leaders and thought leaders in our cultural context who are unchurched.

It’s not that people aren’t interested in spirituality; it’s that they don’t think the church can help them.

It’s completely worth the 45 minutes for you to listen to this conversation between Lewis Howes and Prince Ea. (The direct iTunes link is here). Lewis is a pro-athelte turned podcaster and Prince Ea has dedicated his life to fitness, inspiration and music.

As you listen to this conversation, you’ll see how much the dialogue has completely shifted. Lewis is clearly looking for answers to spiritual questions, and Prince Ea is giving them, but the conversation is completely different than any conversation I’ve ever heard in any church.

Jesus comes up once, but they quickly move on to having dinner with Buddha instead.

Truthfully, most of the people they reference in this conversation are people I’ve never read…or even heard of.

The dialogue is moving, friends, and we preachers and church leaders are increasingly not a part of it.

A Shrinking Audience

If many preachers and church leaders were musicians, I’d say we’re increasingly cutting records nobody’s listening to, let alone buying.

Yes, that’s a bit harsh.

And I write this in a year when our church is seeing a year of encouraging growth—mostly from unchurched people.

But I’m painfully aware that we have over 250,000 people within a 30 minute drive of our locations who are completely unchurched.

Who’s talking to them?

I think that’s crickets I hear.

I say this not so much as criticism as I do out of a sense of burden.

I just think we need to get better at this. need to get better at this. We all do.

6 Steps Toward Having the Conversation No One is Having

So how do we get better at this?

Here are 6 steps that I think can lead us toward the evangelism conversation far too few of us are having.

1. Listen to voices that don’t simply affirm what you already believe

Look, it’s great to listen to people who believe what you believe…to have your faith strengthened or your skills sharpened.

But don’t stop there.

Listen to people who disagree with you, people who think differently than you, people who don’t believe what you believe.

And I’m not talking about people who watch Fox News watching CNN or MSNBC as an alternative. Or people who listen to John Piper checking out Rick Warren for radically different views.

I mean just listen to people who don’t share your faith system at all.

Podcasting makes this so easy.

I love creating my podcast for church leaders every week (you can subscribe for free here, btw) and I love listening to other preachers and Christian leaders, but I make it a discipline to listen to other, non-Christian voices.

I have to get better at this, but simply listening to people who agree with you doesn’t make you a better thinker or preacher.

2. Listen to Top 40 radio

My personal music preferences don’t tend to lean toward Top 40 anymore. I like current music, just not the stuff the people I’m trying to reach are buying.

You might find yourself in a similar position as a Christian leader.

Making yourself listen to music your unchurched friends are listening to helps you get into their world.

Yes, you’ll find the music morally objectionable. And you won’t like the beats. But I’m not asking you to like what unchurched people are listening to…just to listen to understand it.

Music contains so many clues to the value system of our culture, the struggles of our culture and the hopes of our culture. A culture that I assume you’re trying to reach with the ultimate hope of Jesus.

If you want more on music and approach to church, Rich Birch and I talk about how even contemporary church music isn’t contemporary anymore in Episode 8 of my leadership podcast.

3. Read what your unchurched neighbour is reading

So this isn’t an excuse to dive into 50 Shades of Grey, but when was the last time you checked out the Amazon Top 100 bestsellers?

Or the New York Times Best Seller List?

The spiritual dialogue has moved, and the clues to what it looks like are found all over today’s best seller lists.

4. Understand the culture’s vocabulary

Even one listen to the conversation between Lewis Howes and Prince Ea will show you how much the dialogue has shifted.

Their conversation sounds nothing like anything I’ve heard from any church platform lately, but they’re asking all the questions Christians ask.

This doesn’t mean you should start talking street if you’ve got no street in you. You’ll come off as inauthentic, awkward and even weird. Avoid that.

But people will be able to tell if you’re trying to connect with them where they’re at.

Ask yourself some tough questions:

Would any message I’ve preached be easy to understand by anyone who had never been in church?

Am I answering questions people are actually asking?

Do I even know the questions people who have never been to church are asking?

Can I convey the answers in language anyone can understand?

5. Explore all the language of scripture

Most of us get stuck using only a few of the metaphors for God and faith that the scripture uses.

We might love preaching about the blood of Jesus, but to our culture, that seems increasingly weird. I’m not saying you should never use it, but if you do, try to explain why it matters.

And look for other metaphors. The Apostle Paul was masterful at this, engaging and quoting Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in front of a group of Greeks who had never read the Hebrew Bible.

He started with their language, rather than his. And culled from scriptural metaphors that would make the most sense to them as outsiders before getting to the resurrection.

So what are you favourite metaphors? Just listen to your last 20 messages or conversations and you’ll figure it out.

Then as you read your bible, get ready to get surprised at how many different ways scripture describes God or even salvation.

The metaphors Scripture uses to describe God are far richer than most Christian leaders realize.

6. Get around some people under the age of 30

If you want to hit the deep end quickly on understanding culture, this is it.

I was talking to Perry Noble recently and he completely surprised me by telling me he meets monthly with a group of high school students just so he can stay current. And he gives them his cell number so they can stay up to date.

This is a leader who leads one of the largest, fastest growing churches in America who finds the time to meet a dozen times a year or more with students so he can stay fresh.

If Perry can do it, you and I can probably find the time.

Whether you decide to meet with junior high kids, high school students, a group of millennials outside the church or whomever you choose to meet with, the point is this: meeting with teens or young adults who understand culture, where it’s at and where it’s going keeps you from becoming irrelevant.

I usually do random meetings with young adults, but this kind of structured intentional meeting really challenged me.

The truth is churched people will ask you to meet with them all day long. So will people your age.

Students never will.

Unchurched people never will.

Millennials never will.

So make the time.

The Goal?

Want to know where the hope lies in all of this?

Let me show you.

As most iTunes users will know, if you locate a podcast or even album on iTunes, it tells you what people who listen to that podcast also listen to.

Look at what I found under Lewis Howes’ School of Greatness Podcast.

I found Michael Hyatt.

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 8.58.14 AM

Michael is a giant in the leadership world these days, as are John Lee Dumas, Pat Flynn, Tim Ferriss and other others listed.

But Michael is also a Christian. And he speaks about his faith often and openly in his writings and on his podcast.

The church needs more leaders like Michael who not only respond to culture, but influence it That’s exactly what Michael is doing…largely because he’s so great at leadership.

Wouldn’t it be great to see a day when people who are listening to podcasts on spirituality see a church’s or Christian leader’s podcast come up under the “Listeners also subscribed to…” section of an iTunes page?

What if that was you?

Or your church?

The better we get at understanding and addressing our rapidly change culture, the more frequently this will happen.

Two More Resources

If you want to drill down more on this subject, here are two more resources I’ve put together.

Blog Post: 5 Important Ways Evangelism is Shifting in Our Culture

Podcast: Churchless. Why and How America Is Learning to Live Without The Church: An Interview with David Kinnaman (also below).

Let’s Get Better At This Together

Got books you’ve read that have helped you get better at connecting with the culture?

Music you listen to?

Podcasts you’ve listened to?

Scroll down and leave a comment listing what you’re reading, listening to or discovered.

We can all get better together.

31 Comments

  1. NG'ARAGA JACKSON NG'ARAGA on February 4, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    Thank you very much on this page as to spend some ideas we would like to pose on the page, am writing from Tanzania and I would like to know to whom collaborator will be ready to work with me, I save as an Evangelist in Tanzania under Gospel Alive Ministries Tanzania the head quarter is based in UK under the Director general David Ohin, so my question is how can I collaborate with your organization to use a Radio preaching approach since we need to reach at least some prisons in Tanzania inclusive the hospitals whereby the people need the word of God. Therefore I could think to listen from your views under which sense we can work together.

  2. […] blow us out of the water evangelistically, it is that evangelism flourishes the more difficult and counter-cultural we make the Christian journey, not the other way […]

  3. […] Carey Neiuwhof proposes that we listen to “TOP 40″ music. […]

  4. chad on August 3, 2015 at 2:00 am

    loved the Prince Ea and Lewis Howes conversation; almost too much! i felt myself resonating with so much of what Prince Ea had to say and then asking myself, “How do these ideas line up with or stand in opposition to the Gospel?” there is something inside me that wants his “way” to be correct. in many ways it appears more beautiful, creative, pro-human flourishing than much of which i hear and see evangelicals espousing. what to do?!

  5. Jason on July 31, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    I have been going to church for over 40 years. I can count on my two hands the number of times I have heard messages about effective evangelism. I have been told it is my duty and calling to preach the gospel, but have received very little instruction in how to do it. In my zeal and prodded on by feelings of guilt I have hunted down the wayward sinners only to have them run away. I hate to think of how many individuals I have scared away from Christ. After I lost the feelings of self-condemnation and really started loving people, evangelism has become something I enjoy. And those times I get to disciple a new believer are more rewarding still. I tend to learn more from what I teach! Great article Carey. I hope more leaders take up this torch and spread it through their members.

  6. […] The Evangelism Conversation No One Is Having […]

  7. […] The Evangelism Conversation No One Is Having by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  8. Craig Portwood on July 31, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    Carey, thanks for challenging my thinking and helping me reevaluate my influences. I always appreciate your perspective!

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  10. Trending This Week (7.31) | Youth Specialties on July 31, 2015 at 4:00 am

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  11. Whitney R on July 29, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    Such a great article, Carey! Thanks for sharing!

  12. Whitney R on July 29, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    Such a great article, Carey! Thanks for sharing.

  13. Isaac on July 28, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    This is great! Thanks, Carey.

    In response to your question about what I am reading/listening to:

    I’ve found a surprising amount of insight into what people in our culture are thinking about by listening to book club podcasts (Sword and Laser is my favorite) and then adding some of the books they talk about into my leisure reading. These podcasts and the books they discuss often talk about the ethical dilemmas, political issues, etc. that the characters face, and whether the characters responded “well”. When I read fiction, I often find in the stories an attempt to answer those big questions of life, like “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, “Is there a God, and if so, is he/she/it good?”, “How are we connected as a species?”, “Are there objective moral truths?”.

    People are asking these questions, but they are finding the answers–as you said–in other places than the church. It helps to become informed about the answers they are finding.

  14. Lynda Gruen on July 27, 2015 at 11:39 pm

    Hi, Brother Carey. I resonate w/ this post. I was active in various churches for almost 20 years before leaving. At my last church, I was there for almost nine years. I left, because the congregations I had been attending increasingly seemed to espouse extra-biblical doctrines, practices, etc. that would just drive me nuts. No one was ever listening. Eventually, I just got fed up and left. I’m planning on going back later, just to a different type of church — one where I stand a decent chance of healing from my burnout. The thing I appreciate in this wilderness season is that I find myself able to understand, connect with and relate to non-Christians a lot better than I ever did in the Church. I read your blog sometimes. I disagree with you more often than I agree with you — in fact, I often strongly disagree with you. Still, I keep reading, because for all the judgment, lording over and lack of support I have endured from Christians for the last sixteen years, I agree with you that Jesus and His Bride are the real deal.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 28, 2015 at 5:44 am

      Lynda, I hope you take your experience back into the church soon. We need people like you who can connect better. Thanks for still believing.

      • Lynda Gruen on July 28, 2015 at 6:12 pm

        Thanks, Brother Carey. I am currently part of an online community of believers who are recovering from abusive leadership in institutional churches, so it’s almost ironic that I sometimes read your blog. I mean, good grief, it’s like we speak two different languages most days! But you’re right, my brother: I know I need to go back. That’s one of the reasons I still read your blog — ’cause I know you’ll challenge me in healthy ways. 😉 I just gotta find a church that won’t put such a heavy burden on me, that I’d again become ineffective among non-Christians. I have a couple in mind in our local community. I know in time that we’ll find something. = ) Now, in reference to your post: I like Casting Crowns — particularly, “If we are the Body” and “Does anybody hear her?” I also like TobyMac’s “Speak Life”. As for secular music, I like several songs by The Fray, Five for Fighting, and even Katy Perry’s “Firework”. One that really resonates with me as a recovering battered sheep is Des’ree’s “You gotta be”. I know, kinda old-school these days; but it really resonates with me as one recovering from — and standing up against — abusive leadership in the Church, ’cause you gotta be strong to be a Christian standing up against abuses being espoused by churchgoing Christians. But, as for returning to a local fellowship, yes, you are right. In due time, that is my intent. = ) Oh, pardon my rudeness: I meant to ask: you got any faves? 😉

        • Lynda Gruen on July 28, 2015 at 8:21 pm

          Dude! Cindy Morgan — “Make Us One” — from the Michael W. Smith & friends’ 1998 compilation album “Exodus”! John 17! At the end of the day, that’s what I’m passionate about.

    • Peggy on July 28, 2015 at 8:54 am

      Since we, people, are the church, I don’t think you can “leave” the church. You are either church or you are not. Attending worship services may be a choice. But when you take on Christ you are part of the church. I pray you find a family where you can worship and participate in the encouragement and support needed to face the world.

  15. Jeannie on July 27, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    I appreciate your post very much. I’m not a pastor or church leader, just a mom who attends a church. Point 2 is definitely one I agree with. I have found lyrics like (ahem) “she’s nothin’ you can compare to your neighbourhood ‘ho” and “All the other kids … better outrun my gun” and “It’s all the same love” (among others) to be catalysts for many significant conversations with teens.

    Thanks again for making us think.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 28, 2015 at 5:40 am

      You’ve got some street in you Jeannie. Thanks. 🙂

  16. Zachary Verbracken on July 27, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    Lots of good truths here. As a Youth Pastor, I’m asking students questions all the time trying to understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Sadly the longer I’m a Christian, the easier it is to get caught in my Christian bubble…and I have to work hard to combat that.

    I know the word “relevant” is a bit overused, but it’s unfortunate that many churches remain irrelevant because they don’t put enough effort into trying to understand their culture. Like you’ve said here: we often answer questions that people outside of the church don’t care about. And worse than that, we don’t even know what questions they are asking because we don’t engage with them.

    Although I still have so much room for growth, I’ve had the opportunity to mentor a student at a school here (sometimes called a big brother or big sister). I just meet with a student that has had some issues once a week and talk with him over lunch. I don’t go into it as a pastor, but just a regular person, and more than once he has brought up spiritual things without even knowing my religious beliefs.

    Many schools and organizations offer opportunities like that and it helps me just as much as him because it helps me to understand a regular unchurched teen growing up in today’s culture.

  17. Jeremy Martin on July 27, 2015 at 1:52 pm

    Thank you for sharing this Carey. It is a passion growing in my heart daily. I’ve recently moved to Downtown Las Vegas to plant a church. But first I am working on a blog/podcast for the community to share our story of faith and discuss faith with others. I’m learning who people are reading and listening to podcasts that address spiritualism, atheism, and faith. It’s not a discussion I’m familiar with but I’m trying. This is spot on! Thank you for speaking into my passion with this post.

  18. Paul on July 27, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    I volunteer in my community (Humane Society and Soccer Coach) and encourage my staff to do the same as part of their ministry. I can learn about Canadian culture generally through reading, listening to those who don’t share my faith but volunteering gives me the local cultural pulse. My conversations are more natural as well and not forced. I do like your idea of the Top 100 best sellers with Amazon Carey. Thanks for the post.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 28, 2015 at 5:41 am

      Thanks for being in the front lines in your community Paul!

  19. stevenkopp on July 27, 2015 at 11:16 am

    Hi, great post! I too am burdened by how poorly we as a church (and I as a pastor) are connecting with the unchurched. Briefly re #5: Our church has an After School program which primarily connects with otherwise unchurhced youth. I volunteer there weekly and whenever I have a spiritual conversation with the kids there it is always a major eye opener to see how far my worldview is from theirs. Praise the Lord many of those kids have come to faith but their starting point, and their questions, are a lot different from mine.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 28, 2015 at 5:41 am

      I love leaders who volunteer. Way to go Steven.

  20. greg walker on July 27, 2015 at 11:13 am

    GREAT advice here. I was pretty good at practicing this in my last community, where I held a secular job. I’m on the other side of the continent now, and my only connections in the community are at the church I work at… What have you and others found as effective methods to connect into totally different cultures in new communities?

    • Lynda Gruen on July 27, 2015 at 11:45 pm

      Start by meeting people, talking to them. Hang out with them. Find out what they value, what they enjoy, what they think, what they dislike, etc. It isn’t that hard. We don’t like to be preached to. We don’t like folks forcing their pet doctrines onto us. But, we do like to be loved and respected as you would yourself.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 28, 2015 at 5:43 am

      Lynda has some good advice. I think you have to work twice as hard when you’re in ministry to connect with those who aren’t. It helps when your kids are young and you’re in school and sports with other parents, assuming your kids aren’t only in Christian or church run schools and leagues. Otherwise, even then, you have to work harder to get into the community you’re trying to reach. Hobbies can be a bridge too.

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