Punctuated with mild profanity, the rumpled lady described her colorful visits to her favorite psychic. Her tablemates chuckled—except for the well-dressed man who never spoke.

I recognized him as a local pastor. His discomfort was palpable.

I’ve watched scenes like this unfold repeatedly at our Lifetree Café, which attracts a steady stream of non-churched people who want to talk about life and faith in a safe environment.

It’s quite fascinating to observe some pastors, church leaders, and longtime church-goers. When encountering community members who obviously aren’t orthodox Christians, some church representatives react in a couple of common but unproductive ways:

  • They freeze. They seem stunned, bewildered and tongue-tied.
  • They argue. They attempt to dominate the conversation with crushing apologetics.

In many instances, it becomes painfully obvious these folks spend very little time with non-believers. They have no non-churched friends. And they really don’t like them.

They’re not unusual. Studies show the longer people attend church the fewer non-churched friends they have. Church growth expert Charles Arn calls this phenomenon “relational isolation.” And he says churches encourage this isolation.

“Church activities are geared toward existing members. ‘Successful’ church events are when a high percentage of members attend. Small groups are formed primarily for church attenders,” Arn says.

Arn also reminds us that almost everyone comes to the faith through a personal relationship with a friend or family member. “But we must be close enough to unbelievers for Christ to be observed and experienced through us,” he says.

So, if we care about reaching the community, we need to befriend the community—in meaningful, truly relational ways. Here are some simple ways to start:

  1. Get out of the church building, spend time with non-churched people, and form real, ongoing friendships with them.
  2. Challenge (and train) your members to do the same.
  3. Don’t view non-believers as your projects. Simply be friends.
  4. Listen, with genuine interest, to their views. Without judgment.
  5. Ask good questions. Doug Pollock, author of God Space, advocates “wondering questions,” such as, “I wonder how you came to that belief.”
  6. Earn respect and trust. Then be ready to receive the honest questions from your new friends. This is your chance to share how God works in your life.

Then watch God work through you.

If you’d like to discover your present openness to non-believers, I have a little gift for you. It’s a fascinating self-assessment from the God Space book. We use it in our training for Lifetree volunteers. Just send me a quick email at tschultz@lifetreecafe.com and I’ll send your free copy.