Reaching Your Secular Community

The church often seems to be talking past the secular world. Bible studies, evangelistic meetings, altar calls, gospel music - all are familiar marks of passage the religious world recognizes as conversion but they mean little to the secular world. This, it seems to me, is why our actions seem so awkward when we attempt to bridge the gap to a world that does not understand our symbols.

I once attended a two-day seminar called, "Evangelizing the Secular Mind." The title tells you exactly why my education in that class has not, to this day, added a single secular mind to my church. First, because it was not about people, but about minds - abstract modules that with sufficient heat and pressure might be made a Christian shape. Then, when we talked about evangelizing them, we were talking about a process that is at best non-dialogical and at times even faintly coercive. And finally, because the minds in question are secular, which means they are so foreign as to be almost incomprehensible to us.

I am beginning to believe we have thought of the entire process of reaching the secular world wrongly. We have thought of it as persuasion, when in fact it is something more akin to romance. Once I saw a magazine article called, "How to Woo a Girl in 12 Steps." I would be astounded were I ever to meet a gentleman who said, "I am happily married today because I read an article called 'How to Woo a Girl in 12 Steps' ." I would be equally surprised to learn that some particular church is exploding at the seams with ex-secular minds because its pastor studied a method by which to win them.

So what can we do?

Consider these preliminary reflections.

1. We must work to resolve a damaging endemic attitude. This attitude has been with us almost from our conception, and resides somewhere along a continuum between snobbery and shame. Snobbery because we are in fact separated from the world. We do not, we say proudly, fraternize with the secular. Shame because we suspect (and only a few brave ones say out loud) that we are more imperfect, ecclesiastically and theologically, than we have liked to think we are. We in the church are hardly prepared for our romance with the secular world until we recognize our own deeply contradictory feelings about their possible union with us.

2. We must learn to listen. Back in college I dated a girl who merely talked to me. However, I married a girl who talked with me. The church has often talked to the secular world, but rarely talked with it. In truth, we are often frightened of what we may hear from the world we wish to win, for we may learn something that troubles our made-up minds. But we will not woo them unless they know we are listening to them, for I suspect that secular people (perhaps all people) don't join the church merely because they heard excellent theological arguments, but because they were given the opportunity to explore their own spiritual depths.

3. We must believe that Jesus is the evangelizer of the world.
It is tempting to believe that Christ can hardly do without our 12-point programs. Interestingly, the pivotal text is in the passive voice: "This gospel of the kingdom will be preached. . . ," which leaves open the possibility that it can be done without you and I. Might it even be that this gospel we are to help preach is a much simpler gospel than we have been preaching, not tailored to some mythical secular person, not unduly encumbered by program and process, but conveying the unpretentious truth that Jesus is Lord of all, and would, if He were allowed, be Lord of our lives?

Make no mistake, were that gospel successfully preached, and our churches suddenly filled with secular or ex-secular people, they would not remain the same churches they have been. Were it to happen, I'm not sure but that many now in the church would regard the cure as worse than the sickness. For they wouldn't exactly be our churches anymore, but would, I must hasten to point out, still be God's churches.

That's not bad. One could do worse than be the pastor of a church that is truly God's!

Loren Siebold pastors in the Columbia Union Conference.

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