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3 Keys to Engaging a Post-Church Culture

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As part of our coverage of the 2016 Outreach 100 Fastest-Growing Churches list, the executive director of LifeWay Research, Scott McConnell, analyzed the patterns behind the numbers. Here’s what he found.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit a friend in Africa. Many of the people I met there spoke English; if they didn’t, my friend did the speaking. A couple times he wasn’t around and I had to fend for myself. My mind tried to help me out by providing the words that were useful in similar situations in the past. The problem was, those words were in Spanish, and no one in East Africa spoke Spanish. I had to admit, I didn’t have the language tools to bridge the cultural divide.

Today, many church attendees in the U.S. face a similar struggle. They realize the culture around them is not what they thought it was. And the words that come to mind to try to connect with those in the culture are not the tools that can bridge the cultural divide.

This is not a new challenge. As the apostle Paul traveled from city to city, he connected with people in different ways. He always shared the gospel, but his starting point depended on where the people were at in their beliefs. He tied the gospel message to what the people already believed from the Law and the Prophets in Antioch of Pisidia. He appealed to the belief in a creator in Lystra. And he described an unknown god in Athens.

As the American culture shifts, people have different beliefs and different experiences. Many church attendees see church as the only place they can be with people who share their values. While believers need the opportunity to recharge and find firm footing on the Rock, there is a danger that today’s culture will tempt many churches to become more internally focused.

Every year, LifeWay Research, in association with Outreach magazine, pulls together data from churches across the country, seeking to identify and rank the nation’s fastest-growing churches. We also list the 100 largest participating churches. These quantitative lists are only the tip of the iceberg. Each number represents real people, real stories and real movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

As we gather numbers, we also look for patterns in these stories that may be helpful to other churches. This year, as we looked through the surveys and interviewed leaders, we saw a theme of engaging a post-church culture.

Not every large church follows these patterns, and not every church that implements these principles will grow. But we believe we can (and should) glorify God for what he has done for others and ask ourselves if any of these principles fit our context or need to change our thinking.

1. Accept people where they are.

In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart wrote his oft-quoted phrase, “I know it when I see it,” as he described his threshold test for obscenity.

This threshold test is true for recognizing the obscene, but it also describes how our understanding improves when we get a glimpse of the incarnation of our goals. Often our vision statements are so forward-looking, we don’t understand what the culture actually looks like today.

Ricci Del Priore, a campus pastor at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois (No. 64 Largest), describes the church’s heartbeat as going after people who are far from God. Parkview pushes their people to connect with their neighbors they are already doing life with and invite them to church.

Del Priore describes a conversation about a year ago in which the senior pastor, Tim Harlow, caught a glimpse of the culture he had worked hard to create.

After a service, a man in his 20s who had been invited by a friend went up to the senior pastor and said, “This was my first time in church, but I need to tell you, I’ve never been a real religious guy. But this was really [good].” Only instead of saying “good,” he used a phrase with an expletive.

Really? He just swore in front of the senior pastor?

Instead of being shocked or offended, the staff at Parkview began referring to “Expletive Eddy” at every leadership team meeting. They knew him when they saw him. He embodied exactly who they were trying to reach. In fact, they started using him as a threshold test: Were the things they were doing reaching this kind of person?

He is not just a target—he is a real person. And now another one of his friends is attending as well.

Discovery Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado (No. 75 Fastest-Growing), has a heart for reaching lost, hurting and broken people. The lead pastor, Greg Lindsey, says one of the church’s values is raw community, expressed in the mantra: “You’ve got a jacked-up story. Me, too!”

Sonny Hennessy, executive pastor at Life Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin (No. 2 Fastest-Growing), says the people who are invited may go to a fortune-teller on Friday night and Life Church on Sunday. “As long as we church people don’t freak out about the fact that they’re searching … we get to show them the right way.”

When Sonny and her husband, Senior Pastor Shawn Hennessy, moved to Green Bay from the South, they found people had a church history, but it was something they were born into. Many simply did church; they didn’t enjoy it. It was a heavy-drinking area and for many, their behavior throughout the week had nothing to do with whether they attended church on Sunday.

Three months after arriving, the Hennessys made a conscious decision to “marry this dirt.” They changed their whole thinking from being disgusted with the culture and judging it to engaging the culture. This would be their spiritual soil.

That is the first principle of engaging culture today: Love and welcome the people in your community with all their habits, brokenness and hurt.

A church can’t be engaged in its mission if it disengages from its community.

2. Make it easy for your congregation.

Have you ever thought about how many places you can lead someone to simultaneously?

A GPS device will let you enter multiple destinations and plan a course for all of them. You may be 20 minutes away from each of three destinations when you start, but following the GPS, you will not reach all three in 20 minutes. In fact, it may take more than an hour, because the GPS leads you sequentially. It can direct you to those destinations only one at a time. You must arrive at one before leaving for another.

Church leaders are not limited to sequential leadership, but the reality is that it is difficult to lead people to multiple places at the same time.

As we look at growing churches, we see their leaders have a similar response to this reality. Growing churches keep their strategy and their direction for their congregation simple. It’s not that only a few facets of discipleship need attention. It’s that there is so little attention to be harnessed.

“We really approach everything with the mindset of ‘How can we make this simple, strategic and obvious for them?’” says Roman Archer, executive pastor at Next Level Church in New England (No. 20 Fastest-Growing).

As a church attendee, that sounds refreshing. Who is interested in ministry that is complicated, directionless and difficult to understand? Yet, if leaders are not constantly and consistently working to make things simple, strategic and obvious, they won’t be. In fact, it will be ministry that attendees are quite happy to watch their leaders do for them.

If anyone has an excuse for having a complicated ministry, it is megachurches. But when we interview the leaders of megachurches, something is markedly different from other interviews we do. We cannot get more than two questions into the interview without the church leaders articulating the church’s strategy.

We didn’t specifically ask for it and they didn’t call it strategy. They labeled these concise phrases as “vision,” “approach” or “heart.” But they could not describe their church or talk about evangelism without sharing their simple, easy-to-remember strategy for their church.

This is especially true for evangelism. Archer explains, “We don’t want to just tell people, ‘Hey, go have a conversation.’ We want to make it easy for them.”

Next Level Church tells its people to constantly be inviting and investing in relationships. That is not a new approach, but Next Level goes another step to make this easy. The leaders make the church incredibly visible in the community. They found that if the community is talking about Next Level, it is easy for an attendee to chime in and say, “Oh, that’s my church!”

They get the community talking about the church through events such as a helicopter egg drop at Easter, a gas buy-down, a Happy Mother’s Day rap on Facebook that went viral and micro websites for seasonal campaigns. There are also small invite cards to assist their efforts.

The instructions for church attendees are to take inventory of who is close to you and far from God, and invite them.

Another complication for many attendees is knowing when is a good time to invite their friends. A church can make it easy for people by making this very obvious. Some of the fastest-growing churches go another step—they are intentional about every week being an invite week. This way there are no schedule conflicts and no confusion.

Next Level Church’s emphasis on inviting nonchurchgoers is tied back to the gospel message that is explained every weekend in its services.

Life Church in Green Bay uses a similar strategy. Each week, the people hear that every Sunday is a good Sunday to bring family or friends, because every Sunday is a chance to receive Jesus. Every Sunday is another game, another opportunity to move the ball down the field further in people’s “Jesus journey.”

Each service is focused on Jesus, and the sermon always includes an opportunity for a salvation response. To help attendees know what guests can expect, Life Church tries to avoid having guest speakers. The leaders want consistency in who will be speaking, to connect with the culture, people and city.

They also took an idea from Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama (No. 5 fastest-growing)—offering a weekly 101 class on what it means to be on the Jesus journey and a 201 class on getting connected. In each class, they reinforce that every Sunday is a good Sunday to bring a friend.

“It’s not a program for us,” says Hennessy. “It’s just a way of life for all of our people.”

3. Prove the value you are offering.

In our research of unchurched adults—those who have not been attending church in the last six months—that we conducted for Wheaton College this year, three cultural realities are evident.

1. Few are thinking about their eternal destiny.
2. They don’t see church attendance as beneficial.
3. Most haven’t heard believable benefits of becoming a follower of Jesus.

In short, the unchurched are not in church because they don’t understand the value. And the way we are accustomed to explaining the value doesn’t connect with them.

“It took me a while to get this,” says Lindsey. “Not only were the unchurched people indifferent about church, but they were almost jaded toward church. It was almost like ‘Been there, done that.’”

Even though Lindsey refers to Colorado Springs as Christianville, “People are not predisposed to church,” he says.

“Somewhere along the way we’ve made the mistake in the church of thinking people come to church looking for forgiveness and salvation,” says Lindsey, “when really, people come to church looking for help and hope.”

Lindsey is not minimizing telling people to confess and accept eternal life, and he agrees that getting them walking with Jesus is the endgame. But he is convinced Jesus came to do much more than that and people need to hear and see those things, too.

“We’re not just talking about forgiveness,” says Lindsey. “We’re talking about healing, redemption, restoration and life to the fullest.”

Discovery Church shows this value in its community. The church has a food truck on the streets three days a week feeding hungry people. It has partnered with the Springs Rescue Mission, has a big Halloween event, collects turkeys at Thanksgiving, adopts families at Christmas and fills backpacks for school kids.

Service projects can be an easier invitation than to a worship service: “Hey, come! We’re going to feed some hungry people this Saturday morning.”

One Saturday night, a man named Chris was in town for a party during the NFL playoffs. Chris was planning to go back to Denver, Colorado, that night and kill himself. His life had hit a low point, and he had it all planned out.

Shane, who attends Discovery Church, was at the same party and said, “Why don’t you stay the night and go to church with me in the morning?” Shane had no idea what Chris had planned, but he convinced Chris to stay at his house that night, and they went to church the next morning.

Six months later, Chris was baptized. He is now engaged and he serves in the church with his fiancée.

“Our basic growth engine is inviting people,” says Lindsey. “Our people are contagious inviters, because they found life themselves in the church.”

On the other side of the country, Archer describes a similar experience in New England. You can’t simply send a mailer saying a new church is coming. “That’s not a draw for people, because in their life, they don’t have a category for church.”

Nationally, 1 in 4 unchurched adults has never regularly attended a Christian church.

“They’re not attracted to the idea of church,” says Archer. “So, we’ve got to go in and relationally build trust and show them we’re here to give back.” Next Level seeks to meet the needs in the communities where it has campuses. The church wants to add value to people’s lives in such a way that they become open to God.

Archer finds the easiest first step for people is attending a worship service where they can be anonymous and kick the tires a little. And the staff models inviting people to church. As the lead pastor preaches, he shares about the conversations he has with people in his basketball league or a conversation with the tree guy.

“When you have something that you love, you can’t help but talk about it,” Archer says.

A couple of years ago, a high school student with a broken background had given his life to Jesus at Next Level and was excited that his story would be shown on video. He invited a next-door neighbor he had known his entire life, an older businessman, to come to church, as he had several times before.

What the student didn’t know was that his neighbor was struggling with alcohol. Just a few weeks before, the man had missed a flight because he was too drunk to come home. Stuck in an airport, he found a Christian book and started reading it. He came that weekend to see the high school student’s video and accepted Christ.

It took more than a year for the businessman’s wife to attend. Next Level has service opportunities for people whether or not they believe in Jesus, and she began serving as she worked through her doubts. A couple of months ago she found Archer in the lobby and said, “Today I made the decision to follow Christ.”

Next Level creates opportunities where people feel comfortable enough to come in, explore and see what this Jesus thing is all about.

The church welcomes the broken. The videos make it easy to invite. The story of what God has done proves the value of the message to others.

If the values of our culture have you discouraged, this is not a time to disengage. Cultural engagement involves loving and welcoming the people in our communities, making it easy for our congregations to live this mission and clearly communicating the value of a relationship with Jesus.

Read more about the 2016 Outreach 100 »

Scott McConnell is the executive director of LifeWay Research.