Half of my church plant is comprised of people who’ve never really grown up with a church community.
We gather monthly, and at one service I had the audacity to experiment. I broke the room up into sections based on religious affiliation. (Admittedly, I probably won’t do this again.) Nonetheless, I had people move around to a space that fit their description.
“Would everyone who grew up in a church and still does the church thing stand over here. Those who went occasionally as a kid but have moved on from that in your adult life here. Those who never grew up connected to a church and still aren’t, over here.”
The Nones, the Dones, and the Christians
I divided people in broad groups based on which box they would tick when given a choice to describe their religious affiliation.
Today, 1/4 of all Americans would fall into the camp of “no religious affiliation”, and that number is growing by one percentage point a year. To state it plainly, HALF of all Americans will claim no religious affiliation in under a generation. (Consult any number of research firms for the data, Pew Research and PRRI are two.)
How did my experiment stack up? About 1/2 of the room identified as lifelong Christians, and the other 1/2 as having visited a church as a kid but have no connection as adults (the “dones”). Only 2 people classified themselves as “no religion”.
What can we make from the results?
It speaks to implications of language. Over half of the community no longer, and had little to begin with, understanding with Christianity. That means the stories, the symbols, and the beliefs.
For example, any attempt to say, “Jesus died for your sins” would be met with blank stares. The statement simply has no cultural connection. The words, although true, lack meaning.
It was also curious to note that even our “out-of-the-box” church expression had little connection beyond those who had at least a nascent understanding of Christianity.
That’s probably because communities, and those who would join a worship service, do so via their existing relationships. Our service format is innovative but fails to attract random nones.
Churches have long relied on the strategy of “re-attracting” lapsed Christians back into the fold to survive.
Old paradigm church outreach has historically tried to find “new” ways of getting people into a church service. Incremental shifts designed to get more people in the door and hear a sermon. I don’t know many who have been recently transformed simply from hearing a sermon, but I digress.
The “new” is the contemporary church no longer enjoys inherited privilege at the centre of culture. Re-attracting people with a religious memory of Christianity no longer works. This reality should in the least compel today’s leaders to consider the need for new language when sharing God’s story of ultimate redemption.
It’s true many church leaders regard the culture shift away from mom and dad’s religion as a threat to a particular way of life. However, unless the church is a closed community unwelcoming to outsiders, I look at the current cultural climate as a veiled opportunity.
Another observation from my experiment was what everyone had in common. Everyone was on some personal journey of self-discovery. Most would classify themselves as spiritual, they just wouldn’t connect that spirituality with old timey religion. (The term is “spiritual but not religious” which many of you are familiar with.)
The growing minority of Americans no longer default to the church for answers to life’s questions. Yet they are on a search for what their heart and soul longs for. This is crucial. They will fill their longings in a multitude of ways, and more often that not a healthy church isn’t one of them.
How can we lead a church to a place where there’s a renewed competence particularly around joining God’s unfolding mission? For starters, let’s re-invent some language.
Shared Longings of the Heart
The Christian faith originates in the crucial identity humanity shares. All are image bearers of our Creator. I believe we are all, whether we know it or not, built with innate longings that point back to our inherited image.
I also believe Jesus fills those longings better than anything else. The disconnect isn’t so much humanity alerted to their longings, but a church capable of embodying the Gospel in a common language outsiders can comprehend.The Christian faith originates in the crucial identity humanity shares. All are image bearers of our Creator. - Rohadi Click To Tweet
Borrowing from NT Wright and his book, “Simply Christian”, these longings can be broken into four categories. These categories reflect God’s kingdom hope and are translatable to those outside of church culture. They are: love, justice, beauty and hope. Speak to these four and you’ll discover common ground to build from.
- Justice. Justice is an exercise of turning wrongs right, is central to the Bible, and is the hope God has for creation. Most long for justice and stand up for the oppressed.
- Beauty. We all can appreciate the setting sun. But more than that, the act of restoration is work to take what’s broken and repair it—making things beautiful again. Jesus is the Great Reconciler and calls all to grand reconciliation.
- Hope. We all want to matter in our own stories and want meaning and purpose. Without a core identity we become listless. God invites us to an inheritance of a grand story beyond our own, one where we not only matter, but are called sons and daughters too.
- Love. We long to love and be loved. Connection fuels our spirit and we’ll do almost anything to belong. In Christ’s love we encounter the supreme example of a love that knows no bounds, reaches to the very end where no on else will go—and then one step more. How can this lovenot be attractive to those longing to fulfill the callings of their humanity?
Although this isn’t an exhaustive list, nor is it meant to be canon, it shows how we can take deeply important Gospel and kingdom attributes and translate them in common ways for all to connect with. When we speak to the longings we all share, we as church will develop new ways to generate better connection instead of erecting dividing walls.
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