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:
- Get out of the church building, spend time with non-churched people, and form real, ongoing friendships with them.
- Challenge (and train) your members to do the same.
- Don’t view non-believers as your projects. Simply be friends.
- Listen, with genuine interest, to their views. Without judgment.
- Ask good questions. Doug Pollock, author of God Space, advocates “wondering questions,” such as, “I wonder how you came to that belief.”
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send your free copy.
Great insight and a terrific challenge to us pew sitters!
One must be prepared for the possibility that the non-churched may change YOU–and for the better!
1000% agree! But I feel that we also must be careful not to assume that because someone is unchurched that they don’t believe in or don’t know God. We have to be careful not to give off a “holier than thou” attitude because someone is unchurched and we think they aren’t a Christian. Time and time again I am reminded that just because they are un-churched doesnt mean they don’t know God at all. They might seem a little rough around the edges and may not have a strong personal relationship with God, but we all had to build our relationship with God from somewhere. And what better way for us to reach them and introduce them to that personal relationship with Him than to live out our own relationship with God and be their friend!
This would be wonderful tool to use with churches who have closed their doors to an inclusive gospel. Please send A.S.A.P.!!
I may have a slight advantage in that I rent out rooms to men in recovery and men coming out of prison which serves to give me a lot of practice in listening, praying, and seeing where I can impart truth. I recognize the importance of living out what I speak so that is my goal. I want to know that when the men move on in their lives, they go with hope and seeds of truth that might serve them well when the difficult times come. I see I’ve still a long way to go.
My scores on the self-assessment:
I got a 71 on the self-assessment. My heart is breaking for a friend who is not living like a Christian. She used to claim Christ as her Savior, but I don’t know if she claims him anymore. This assessment helped me see that I need to seek to understand others first before giving my opinion. It was hard to answer some of the questions because in my whole life I can’t think of very many non-believing friends.
I got an 87 on the assessment, so there is work to be done by me and in me. I know some church folk in my congregation who believe that come out from among them means not to associate with sinners at all. If it is okay, I would like to share the assessment with them.
Excellent! excellent! Excellent! We were all ‘lost in sin’ before Christ, but I think there’s a few that have forgotten. I am so glad you have this cafe. Thank you. I am going to send you an email as soon as I get done this message because I want to take the self assessment. I have family and a few friends that either do not want to have anything to do with Christ or think-like I used to-that ‘of course’ they’ll go to Heaven, they’re nice people, aren’t they?’ or they give no thought to Eternity because they won’t die for quite a while yet…and then they’ll think about it. Thank you so much for this article and that you care. Thank you for putting this on facebook, so I could read it.
I ranked a 92. The question that I wished more people could exhibit is #8: “Are you comfortable with communicating acceptance to others without endorsing all their life decisions?”
If we think about it, we already do this with other people in our lives. There probably are very few people who would say they agree with everything that a friend or family member of theirs does or believes, but yet they accept those individuals. But when it comes to non-Christians, some people think showing acceptance of the person is an endorsement of their behavior or beliefs and so they’d rather be standoffish. But it is possible to accept a person and not agree with them or their life choices. I think what we really need is to get a revelation of every person being created in the image of God. Maybe THAT would change our approach.
Don’t view non-believers as your projects. Simply be friends… I think that is key. If you have an agenda behind your friendship it is not a friendship.
This is so true of what is happening in some ministries. We are launching a campaign of evangelism in a suppressed area. But we know that there are some diamond there. We are going out to build the Kingdom. I would like a copy of the assessment. Take courage
Great article Thom,
I saw this exact issue in action last Sunday at a discussion group for the Dave Ramsey University of Peace workshop. One of our teen members made a comment that was “not so Christian” and poor kid was attacked by another group member – exactly as you described. Dominated the conversation, punctuated it with theological argument and completely shut the boy down. Made the whole group very uncomfortable!
i forwarded your article to our group coordinator and had shared with her last week about the incident and that this needed to be addressed to ensure the boy kept coming and kept sharing
please send me a self-assessment. Any guidance on this friendship ministry to Jews?
You’ll find that true friendship and “wondering questions” work with all kinds of people–including Jews.
Great article and insight! Even as a believer, I find myself in group settings where some people want to be an even bigger believer. The unchurched should never be made to feel bad about their relationship with God. Will u please send me the article….. Thank You….
You are right, and I speak as a “non churched”, a word i have grown to despise. I tried church, two of them, and those people made it quite clear that I was an outsider, not good enough to join the club, and because I am divorced, it was made clear I was not to be allowed to even sit near anyone. i was told to sit alone in the back corner. I never went back to either church. People like me come to your clubs, err, churches, seeking, and you tell us we aren’t wanted.
Please send me the self-assessment. We so do need to get off the pews and that is one reason I love my church is that it is open to everyone. We are taught to just show Jesus love to the people no matter who are what they are and open our doors to them and once we get them in Jesus will do the rest.
As one raised in church, I was always asking questions and was told that I was obstinate. I left the “church” for years, wondering where I might go to find the real Jesus and not just a set of doctrinal rules that catering to those emphasizing those rules without including the Jesus that I longed to know. I discovered that He was there all of the time, not in a church building but within my own heart, waiting for me to open the door that he might enter in that I might recieve Him as a permanent resident there.
I also discovered that there are others who like myself, became lost in man made doctrine without ever knowing the real Savior, Jesus Christ. I am now an ordained minister, not a pulpit minister but one called to those who have never known this real Jesus or have become disenfranchized with the “church”. Its been said that one plants, one waters, one harvests. Additionally, there are those who till the soil, enabling the rest to do their part. To that “beginning” I am called into His Majesties Service.
Might I inquire about taking the assessment ? Blessings, rev.