Three Counterintuitive Ways to Reach the Unchurched in Today’s Culture

This post is written by Mark Clark, author of The Problem of Jesus, founding pastor of Village Church and co-creator of the Art of Better Reaching course with Carey Nieuwhof. 

It is no secret that the world has experienced a shift over the last few years. We feel it. One of the things across the board people are seeing is that physical attendance at their churches is half of what it used to be before COVID.

Leaders are scrambling to figure out what to do about that.

There are other shifts though—philosophical and behavioral ones that we must keep in mind as we lead in this new world.

Carey and I lay out a number of them in The Art of Better Reaching course to try to help us all navigate how to be effective in ministry today.

I will let you delve deep into those there, and for now, I want to layout three ideas, likely a little counterintuitive for us, that we need to let guide us in this cultural moment if we are going to not just survive but thrive in the task of reaching and discipling the world around us as individuals and churches.

1. Give Up.

Discouragement is at an all-time high among Pastors, leaders, etc., We know this. I talked to a pastor the other day who is quitting: “COVID-ministry just sucks,” he said. “It’s not why I got into this, everyone is miserable and divisive and my soul just can’t stick it out any longer.”

Now, for some of you, this may be the right call for your own emotional and spiritual health. If it is, you are not a second-class citizen. God still loves you and will use you mightily in life. For many though, this is a weird season, and the temptation is to give up the dream, give up the vision God has placed on your heart, and it’s just that, a season, and I beg you to give up! Wait, what, is that an editing mistake? Nope. Give up.

Let me explain.

Years ago I read in a devotional the story of some climbers climbing up Mont Blanc, in the French Alps. The guide said it’s going to be a tough climb, only bring what is necessary, no unnecessary accessories allowed.

One of the climbers had this grandiose vision though of himself at the top, eating special cheese, drinking his favorite wine, and taking beautiful pictures, so he brought all of that – cameras, lenses, bottles of wine, a wheel of cheese, and shoved it in his bag.

As they climbed he got slower and slower, and the guide told him, he has to leave all that behind, he refused and kept climbing, until finally, he couldn’t go on, so he made a decision. But it wasn’t to leave all his stuff behind, it was to stop climbing.

To set up camp where he was, and enjoy the wine and cheese and see the others later as they returned from their journey. The writer of the devotional then said this: “So many people, when they find they can’t make it to the top, with all their accessories, let the top go, and pitch their tent in the plain.”

This to me is a tragedy.

I think, however, that this is exactly what many are doing today. They are letting the top go and settling. The reason isn’t that they are bad leaders, or not called, but because they are not willing to let go of the accessories. The extra, added things, we all were doing as churches and ministries and leaders before things changed so dramatically.

We aren’t willing to adapt that budget, close that campus, or change that annual conference we work so tirelessly to pull off, to fit the new reality. We feel the pressure to keep all the stuff we had; so instead of shedding it and re-thinking in light of the new normal, we feel overwhelmed, give up, and let others keep going. We sit down, and let the top go. Some of us for a season, even let God go, because we are so spent.

May I suggest, that one of the solutions to our leadership crisis is to do that instinct – give up – but to do so with the right things for a season. In order to re-organize, get healthy and strong so we can continue climbing. To not mistake accessories for the actual goal itself and give up because of their weight on us, as individuals, or as organizations.

Give up, just don’t give up the top.

Give up the accessories that are hindering your climb.

Push through. Anything in life worth doing has times of pain and agony, but we know they make us better. Every person of influence in the Bible had a terrible time of it for a season: Moses, Joseph, Job, David, Jesus, Paul – I don’t need to go on, it’s literally all of them.

But, as Paul would later write: “suffering produces perseverance” (Rom. 5:3).

We need that today. But have grace on yourself. Your staff. Your outcomes. Your results. Adapt them in light of the new realities of the world and let those new expectations lead the way.

Give up. Not God, or church, or people, just what was in the exact way it was.

There is a kind of freedom in it that may sustain you in this hard season.

2. Be Complex, Not Simple.

I was on a plane flying back to Vancouver from San Diego recently. The woman seated next to me started asking where I was going and why. For the next two hours we chatted about politics, and vaccines… wait, no we didn’t. About re-doing our kitchen cabinets and how important getting some new flooring in our house is… no, not that either.

No, we talked about our souls, our identity as human beings, her way versus mine of connecting to the transcendent, and experiencing salvation: my version, believing in Jesus, hers: eat mushrooms and tripping out to ‘connect to the divine-Christ consciousness in all of us.’

There was a lot she had been thinking about that needed debate and discussion: the legitimacy of the Gospels, Jesus as a historical figure, the power-grabs of the church through history, the hypocrisy of the church in today’s world, the need for humanity to use drugs to really understand the divine and the divine inside of us all, etc.

By the time we landed, she admitted that maybe some of her ideas about the Bible, Jesus, and history had not been fair, and weren’t so much based on facts as much as what she had assumed, and I admitted that I had too quickly dismissed people’s drug-induced approaches to spirituality; not that I thought this approach was legitimate (I don’t), however mainstream it has become, but that I hadn’t thought deeply enough about why people take that route.

But something else struck me that I think we all need to pay attention to: during chaotic moments like these, culturally the temptation is to over-simplify our message. Our temptation is to give people sound-bite theology or self-help sounding solutions to problems in their lives. But that is a mistake. What we see in today’s culture is, on the contrary, a deep curiosity. A longing for long-form content around heavy ideas of existential reality.

People are thinking deeply about the world and their place in it. Morality, social constructs, sexuality, identity, religion. The popularity of wide-ranging worldview discussions, psychological interest, sociological and political commentary, people’s views on their own spirituality, journeys into deep theological thinking and historical practices of the church, even by many non-Christians, is at an all-time high, showing us that people understand that there aren’t always easy, simple answers to massive questions and they are willing to think deeply about these things.

This means people are ready and interested to delve deeply into the Bible, theology, philosophy, and how it all impacts their life. The church should be speaking into that need right now not ignoring it or avoiding it, or convincing ourselves that people aren’t paying attention.

With our Sunday sermons, sure, of course, but also: with our social media feeds, podcasts, YouTube channels, posts, blogs, newsletters, etc., Don’t just tell your church what time the pot-luck is, or what time your services are on Sunday (they know), engage them in the questions of why any of that is important in the grand scheme of things – why their lives matter and what God is calling them to in the world.

Our silence on this stuff just drives them elsewhere to find answers.

An example of how we are doing this: we have this segment called Pastor Mark Reacts on our church YouTube where people show me movie clips, TikTok videos, etc., and film me reacting to them from a Christian worldview. Some of these videos have hundreds of thousands of views. An amazing way to speak into the void of a hungry culture looking for answers.

So, I think, contrary to what we may feel, we need to actually make things more complicated at our churches, meaning even in our weariness right now, we need to create streams of communication to reach and impact people, versus viewing your Sunday sermon as the only way to connect to people with the message of the Bible. Those days are gone and we have so many more opportunities and avenues now that people are looking to.

Use them!

3. Think Discipleship, Not Leadership.

I did a talk at a leadership conference recently and this was the thesis: our way to flourish in this new world isn’t by focusing on leadership, but discipleship. Weird message for 800 pastors and leaders in a room but the right one I think.

What I mean is, I think why our people don’t know how to do evangelism and mission in their lives is partly because of the idolatry of leadership in the west, a culture we created. Every conference or book about leadership has told people that their pastors (or leaders) are the people who are going to change the world. The implicit message was that change wasn’t coming from them.

Our way in this new world is to empower the disciples to do the mission, not the leaders. There are more of them anyway, so the impact will be exponential.

A great example I shared with these leaders is John Goldingay’s warning. He is a professor of Old Testament theology at Fuller Seminary. He says this:

When my students are reading the part of the Old Testament that includes Nehemiah, they often want to write papers on leadership. Come to think of it, whatever parts of the Old Testament they are studying, they want to write papers on leadership. My heart sinks when they ask if they can do so, though I don’t ever expect them to understand why. Our culture is deeply preoccupied with leadership and so people assume that the Bible must be preoccupied with leadership because we expect it to focus on questions that concern us. Part of the reason the Bible is not very interested in it is because it is more interested in what God has done to put the world to rights [not us]. If you like, it is interested in God’s leadership not ours.

This must change. We must emphasize the role of our people not just our leaders.

Jesus tells his disciples he is giving them the ‘keys of the kingdom of God’ and the people in our churches don’t feel that responsibility, instead they want to hand the keys to leaders and say ‘Here, you do it, and I will bring my friend to watch.’

This will kill us in the new world.

Far more powerful than people coming to Jesus at your 9AM and 11AM services on a Sunday is people coming to him in the living room of the regular Joe on a Thursday afternoon. One writer has said it this way: ‘Don’t think church, think mission.’ I agree.

The gospel has power when the 200 or 2000 people in your church are on mission versus a group of paid staff who get on stage.

Don’t let your church play a passive role. They, not you, are the hope of future mission in the west.

What Are You Seeing?

Are you seeing people open to deep conversations? How have you made things too simple?

Share your thoughts in a comment below.

Three Counterintuitive Ways to Reach the Unchurched in Today’s Culture

3 Comments

  1. Dillon Smith on November 17, 2021 at 10:16 am

    Great stuff Mark!

  2. Gregg Doyle on November 17, 2021 at 9:04 am

    Driving in the AM rush and thinking about the scale and speed of change. I have been disappointed with so many pastors repeating the same patterns these last couple of years and wondering, can’t God change their thinking? Then I realized that God in his words to us looks at time and changes on a completely different scale. Over and over again the answer is usually “wait until they die”. Whether it be a particular leader, congregation, denomination, country, or an entire generation (see exodus), that has to get out of the way, God will accomplish his plans. He just waits them out, no rush. So be wary if you are waiting for God to fix things at your church. His answer just might be that he is waiting for you to get out of the way.

  3. Mark on November 17, 2021 at 7:32 am

    If you only look at the big parts, yes, Moses went to Pharaoh and ultimately led the people out of the house of bondage (with G-d’s divine help). Joshua led the people into the promised land (with G-d’s divine help). Today, the leaders are still the only people who matter in the narrative. In the private sector, the leader gets the credit. Leaders are still liked even when they run off the people doing hard work who receive no credit. In the news, the leaders’ names are mentions while all others are ignored. It is more along the lines of ordinary people don’t matter, and they frequently don’t. The closest story is that of the angel talking to Mary, who was courageous, yet ordinary at first. On All Saints Day, I heard a Dean say, after showing one of the relics of the saints, that these were real, ordinary people just like us. Perhaps the ignoring of the saints by evangelicals did not help things.

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