Driving home from church one day, I pulled behind a guy on his Harley-Davidson. I noticed a bumper sticker on the rear fender of his motorcycle, so I pulled closer. It read: [EXPLETIVE] GUILT.
After the shock wore off, I was struck by how different his world was from the one I'd just left, and even from the world a generation ago. In my day, we felt guilty, I thought. Now, it's not only "I don't feel guilty," but "[Expletive] guilt."
There was a time when your word was a guarantee, when marriage was permanent, when ethics were assumed. Not so very long ago, heaven and hell were unquestioned, and caring for the poor was an obvious part of what it meant to be a decent person. Conspicuous consumption was frowned upon because it was conspicuous. The label self-centered was to be avoided at all costs, because it said something horrendous about your character.
Today, all of that has changed. Not only is it different, but people can hardly remember what the former days were like.
Why We Need a New Approach
Many churches, however, still operate with the understanding that non-Christians are going to come through the doors, feel pretty much at home, understand the sovereignty of God and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and in one morning make a complete transition from a secular worldview.
Even 20 years ago that may have been a reasonable hope. The secular worldview wasn't that disconnected from God's agenda. A guy would hear the claims of Christ and say, "Well, that makes sense. I know I'm a sinner" or "I know I shouldn't drink so much" or "I really should be faithful to my wife."
Today, even though we're asking for the same thing—a commitment to Christ—in the perception of the secular person, we're asking for far more. The implications of becoming a Christian today are not just sobering; they're staggering.
Recently I preached on telling the truth, and afterward a man came up and said, "You don't understand what you're saying."
"What don't I understand?" I asked him.
"You're just up there doing what pastors are supposed to do—talk about truth. But my job requires my violating about five of the things you just talked about. It's part of the job description; I can't be 'on the level' and keep the position. You're not asking me to adopt some value system; you're asking me to give up my salary and abandon my career."
We preachers, I was reminded that day, have our work cut out for us. The topics we choose, the way we present Scripture, the illustrations we use, the responses we ask for, all need to contribute to our goal of effectively presenting Christ to non-Christians. Here is what I've learned, sometimes the hard way, about what kind of preaching attracts them, keeps them coming back, and most important, leads them to take the momentous step of following Jesus Christ.
If we're going to speak with integrity to secular men and women, we need to work through two critical areas before we step into the pulpit.
The first is to understand the way they think. For most of us pastors, though, that's a challenge. The majority of my colleagues went to a Bible school or Christian college and on to seminary, and have worked in the church ever since. As a result, most have never been close friends with a non-Christian. They want to make their preaching connect with unchurched people, but they've never been close enough to them to gain an intimate understanding of how their minds work.
If we're serious about reaching the non-Christian, most of us are going to have to take some giant steps. I have suggested for many years that our pastors at Willow Creek find authentic interest areas in their lives—tennis, golf, jogging, sailing, mechanical work, whatever—and pursue these in a totally secular realm. Instead of joining a church league softball team, why not join a park district team? Instead of working out in the church gym, shoot baskets at the YMCA. On vacation, don't go to a Bible conference but to some state park where the guy in the next campsite is going to bring over his six-pack and sit at your picnic table.