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.
The second prerequisite to effective preaching to non-Christians is that we like them. If we don't, it's going to bleed through our preaching. Listen closely to sermons on the radio or television, and often you'll hear remarks about "those worldly secular people." Unintentionally, these speakers distance themselves from the non-Christian listener; it's us against them. I find myself wondering whether these preachers are convinced that lost people matter to God. It's not a merciful, "Let's tell them we love them," but a ticked off "They're going to get what's coming to them." These preachers forfeit their opportunity to speak to non-Christians because the unchurched person immediately senses, They don't like me.
Creative Topics and Titles
Unchurched people today are the ultimate consumers. We may not like it, but for every sermon we preach, they're asking, Am I interested in that subject? If they aren't, it doesn't matter how effective our delivery is; their minds will check out.
When the book Real Men Don't Eat Quiche came out, sales immediately took off. Everyone was talking about it. As I was thinking about the amazing success of that book, I decided to preach a series, "What Makes a Man a Man? What Makes a Woman a Woman?" Unchurched people heard the titles, and they came; attendance climbed 20 percent in just four weeks.
Unchurched people don't give the Bible a fraction of the weight we believers do. They look at it as an occasionally useful collection of helpful suggestions, something like the Farmer's Almanac. They tend to think, The Bible has some neat things to say once in awhile, but it's not the kind of thing I'm going to change my life radically to obey.
If we simply quote the Bible and say, "That settles it. Now obey that," they're going to say, "What? I'm supposed to rebuild my life on some book that's thousands of years old? I don't do that for any other respected literary work of antiquity." It just doesn't make sense to them.
So almost every time I preach, I'm trying to build up the reliability of Scripture and increase their respect for it. I do that by explaining the wisdom of God behind it. When you show them how reasonable God is, that captivates the secular mind.
Most secular folks have written off Christians as people who believe in floods and angels and strange miracles. My goal is to explain, in a reasonably intelligent fashion, some matters that touch their lives. I hope when they leave they'll say, "Maybe there is something to the Bible and to the Christian life."
Consider, the verse that instructs us, "Don't be unequally yoked." Some teachers speaking on that passage will say, "The implications are obvious: Don't marry a nonbeliever. The Bible says it, and we need to obey it." For the already convinced person, who puts great value on the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, that might be enough. I don't think most church people buy it as much as we hope they will, but let's say they give us the indication that they do.
The secular guy, on the other hand, sits there and thinks, That is about the most stupid and discriminatory thing I have ever heard. Why should I refuse to marry someone I love simply because her religion is a little different? So one Sunday morning, I started by saying, "I'm going to read to you the most disliked sentence in all of Scripture for single people who are anxious to get married." Then I read.
"This is that awful verse," I said, "in which, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul cuts down the field from hundreds of thousands of marriageable candidates to only a handful. And almost every single person I know, upon first hearing it, hates that verse. What I want to do is spend the next thirty minutes telling you why I think God would write such an outrageous prescription."
During the rest of that message, I tried to show, using logic and their experience, that this command makes terrific sense. We were in a construction program at the time, so I used this illustration: "What if I went out to the construction site, and I found one contractor, with his fifteen workers, busily constructing our building from one set of plans, and then I went to the other side of the building, and here's another contractor building his part of the building from a totally different set of blueprints? There'd be total chaos.
"Friends," I continued, "what happens in a marriage when you've got a husband who says, 'I'm going to build this marriage on this blueprint,' and a wife who says, 'I'm going to build it on this blueprint'? They collide, and usually the strongest person wins—for a time. But then there's destruction.
"God wants his children to build solid, permanent relationships, and he knows it's going to take a single set of plans. In order to build a solid building or a sound marriage, you need one set of blueprints."
Over time, I try to increase gradually their respect for Scripture, so that someday they won't have to ask all the why questions but will be able to say to themselves, Because it's in the Book, that's why.
When people walk into church, often they're thinking they'll get the party line again: Pray more, love more, serve more, give more. They just want something more out of me, they think. I wonder what it'll be today that I'm not doing enough of.
It's easy for us pastors to unintentionally foster that understanding. One pastor asked me for help with his preaching, and we talked about what responses he wanted. I suggested, "List the messages you've preached in the last year, and write either pray more, love more, serve more or give more next to any message where that was the main thrust of the sermon."
He came back and said, "Bill, one of those was the thrust of every single sermon last year." He recognized the implications. If every time my son comes into the living room, I say, "Do this more; do that more," pretty soon he won't want to come in the living room. But if he comes in knowing there is going to be some warmth, acceptance, a little humor, and encouragement, then on the occasions I need to say, "We've got to straighten out something here," he can receive that.
Trying to reach non-Christians isn't easy, and it's not getting easier. But what keeps me preaching are the times when after many months, I do get through.
Once a man said to me, "I came to your church, and nobody knew what really was going on in my life because I had 'em all fooled. But I knew, and when you started saying that in spite of all my sin I still mattered to God, something clicked in me. I committed myself to Christ, and I tell you, I'm different. My son and I haven't been getting along at all, but I decided to take two weeks off and take him to a baseball camp out west. He started opening up to me while we were out there. Thanks, Bill, for telling me about Jesus."
For a preacher, such a joy far surpasses the ongoing challenge.
From the book Growing Your Church Through Evangelism and Outreach.
Copyright © 1996 by Christianity Today/Leadership.