[notice]Next month US author and Christian leader John Burke is visiting South Africa to share an approach to evangelism that has helped thousands of people become disciples of Jesus. In this article another pioneer of effective evangelism in a post-modern culture, JAMES EMERY WHITE, provides some practical insights on this important issue. Churches and small groups who want to stretch their thinking on reaching the lost can book here for John Burke’s teaching sessions.[/notice]
Originally published in Christianity Today
“Tell me what’s working.”
That’s a question I’m asked frequently. Pastors want to know what’s working in evangelism, not theories or ideas from out on the fringe, but news from the front lines. We need insights that are new but tried, and transferable.
So here’s a report from the front lines at Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Some quick background on Meck: Our church has grown in eight years from a single family to nearly 5,000 weekly attenders. More than 80 percent of our growth comes from those previously unchurched. Every person who has been baptized, every new member, and every attendee at a discipleship event is surveyed so we can verify that statement.
We know where they have come from, how they got to us, and we have a snapshot of the state of their spiritual life before attending. We’re reaching the unchurched at a rate that has astonished even us.
And they’re young. Mecklenburg is a church of young boomers and older busters, in their twenties and thirties, giving us a foot in both camps.
Some myths need busting
In the decade since we founded Mecklenberg, our approach to evangelism has changed, largely because times have changed.
People have changed, too, but not in the ways you might think. From our experience, let’s bust a few myths about reaching people in this new era.
Myth #1: Generation X has radically different needs from boomers.
Conventional wisdom is that the insights gained during the ’80s and ’90s on reaching unchurched boomers are of little value in reaching the generation that followed them. Not so.
We have found that once twenty-somethings get married and have a child, they begin to look and act very much like boomers. When they start a family, those who wanted the music cafe and coffee bars become much more interested in the nursery. I cannot overemphasize the massive change that occurs in the Gen-Xers’ tastes and demeanor and schedule and priorities when they walk the aisle and start a family.
This shouldn’t shock us. After all, it was the Woodstock generation that grew up and gave us the Reagan era.
The profound cultural changes that have shaped the mindset of today’s spiritual seekers have less to do with their being Generation X than with society as a whole. The postmodern mind is real and here to stay. It is best represented by the Gen-X way of thinking. But there is a difference between the philosophical moorings and their sociological pilgrimage. We must understand the philosophical change, but hold loosely to what it takes to reach them stylistically at the various stages of life.
In practical terms, the music and worship styles of Generation X are not that far removed from those of younger boomers, and their ministry needs grow more alike as they age, get married, and have children. A lot of what we learned in the ’80s and ’90s still works.
Myth #2: The key is to be seeker-targeted.
In the movie Field of Dreams, the character played by Kevin Costner is told to build a baseball diamond in the middle of a corn field. “If you build it, they will come,” a mysterious voice promises him, meaning the reappearance of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the 1919 Chicago White Sox.
Many assume that’s true of building a church: fashion one that is seeker-targeted, and seekers will come. So they advertise “Seeker Service—y’all come,” and then sit back and expect it to grow. They think that if you offer topical messages, casual dress, drama, drums, and Starbucks coffee—then the church will grow.
It’s a myth.
The reality is that seeker services, which Mecklenburg itself offers, are nothing more than a tool in the hands of those who are doing the inviting. Apart from that, they’re meaningless. If unchurched seekers want Starbucks, they’ll go to Starbucks. The idea that such things themselves will be a draw is ridiculous.
Mecklenburg is a seeker-targeted church, which means that when it comes to how we want to grow, we want it to be from the unchurched. That is what it means to be seeker targeted. It’s not about a formulaic service. Service styles vary from church to church and setting to setting even among “seeker churches.” Being seeker-targeted is not about style. It’s about a radically different set of values, that the church doesn’t exist to meet the needs of the already convinced, but to win the world.
We may not even have a seeker service in five years, but we will always be seeker targeted, because being seeker targeted is about building relationships and earning the right to talk about spiritual things. It’s about carefully creating entry points to support the evangelistic and invitational efforts of believers attempting to fulfill the Great Commission through the local church.
Myth #3: Everyone needs small groups.
Okay, let’s all say it together: “We don’t want to be a church with small groups, but a church of small groups.” Everybody says it. Well, everybody but Mecklenburg.
We have found that small groups are very much needed by those who need small groups. Read that sentence again slowly. The truth is that many do not need them, and may not be best served by them.
We initially rebuffed this idea. Somehow it was sacrilegious to even verbalize the thought. In fact, small groups can become just as much a sacred cow to the contemporary church as Sunday school was to earlier generations.
We discovered instead that it is community that is taught in the Scriptures, not a programmatic methodology for achieving it. Yes, there were house churches in the New Testament, but this is a narrative insight, not a didactic teaching from Scripture. Early cell groups have more to do with the nature of the growth and culture of the early church than they do a methodological mandate.
We are not anti-small group. But small groups are not the answer for everything for everyone. We have had to learn to think beyond (read “in addition to”) small groups for assimilation, community, and pastoral care. Specifically, we’re rediscovering the lost art of one-on-one mentoring. We also encourage a team mentality and community spirit built around ministry activities.
Myth #4: People today don’t want to say anything, sing anything, sign anything, or give anything.
The most commonly held idea is that when seekers come to church, they want as little “church” as possible. This was true 20 years ago, at least in terms of the cultural trappings of church that stood in the way of understanding and appropriation. But today seekers want to experience the sacred, to encounter the Divine, to participate in the transcendent. They crave neither the purely presentational nor the sacred couched in secular vessels. They are ready to engage the holy unencumbered.
This has been an area of great change for us. When we started the church, our experiential element consisted of one short chorus that we tried to get in and out of as quickly as possible. Anything more in a seeker service would have been anathema.
Today, we turn over an eight to ten-minute segment of each weekend service to our pastor of worship. He crafts a high- energy experience that involves the spoken word (often an explanation of worship) and two or three songs with lyrics on screen, ending in a time of interaction (“take a moment and greet those around you”). Very simple, but under his leadership, it is electric.
People are on a search for the spiritual, and what they are looking for is far more experiential than cerebral. Instead of thinking their way into feeling, they often feel their way into thinking. As a result, believers need to express themselves like never before, and seekers need to see a life engaged in the spiritual like never before. Thus our services involve many more moments designed to directly engage the soul and expose it to the holy—and allow it to respond in kind.
Our services have changed in another way. During the ’80s and ’90s, seekers were approached primarily on two levels: the practical application of Christianity and the reasonableness of Christianity. Today, their main need is to have it explained.
It’s not enough to move from the King James Version to The Message in our speaking. The key is more elementary, explaining, “This is a Bible. It has 66 books. There’s an Old Testament and a New Testament. It tells the story of us and God.” Today we have to introduce the basics of the Christian worldview. While defending the faith is critical, they must first understand it. As a result, we have shifted from services themed “Reasons to Believe the Bible” to “This is the Bible,” and from “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” to “So What If He Did?”
With the myths out of the way, we’re back to the original question: what’s working? Here are four approaches that reflect our cutting-edge on evangelism.
Opening doors, closing the loop
Create pre-evangelism events.
The need for pre-evangelism cannot be overstated, particularly taking those events directly to the unchurched. Many people, before they are ready to hear the gospel, need an introduction to both their need and to those who can address it.
One of our members is a highly-sought piano teacher. After inviting many of his students and their families to church with little success, he tried another tactic: take church to them. He envisioned a parenting seminar offered by the church at the clubhouse of a residential subdivision. It would be on a Friday night around dessert and coffee. He came to me and said, “If I can get my unchurched clients to buy into it, and then have them invite their unchurched friends to come, would you do it?”
Being less than Great Commission-minded, I said, “Who is going to pay?”
He said, “They will! I’ll get each of my families to sponsor a table for a couple hundred dollars. We’ll get twelve tables, with ten people at a table. That way we’ll pay for the clubhouse and have enough left over for a first-class event.”
I said, “Let me get this straight. A bunch of unchurched folks are going to pay through the nose for us to talk to them and their unchurched friends about how to raise their kids in Christ?”
“That’s it!” he said.
“You pull that off,” I told him, “and I’ll be there.”
He pulled it off. Our piano teacher gave out tapes from talks I’d given on parenting, got 12 of his client-families to become sponsors, and then gave them responsibility to fill their table with friends. Instead of a Mecklenburg event, the evening became a service to them, sponsored by the community itself.
In just a matter of weeks, every table was filled. More tables were added. Finally, capacity in the clubhouse was reached, and people were being turned away who had just heard about it and wanted in.
I gave a simple presentation on some basic biblical insights related to parenting, with a low-key plug for what having Christ in a marriage and home could mean to them. Mecklenburg tapes and invite cards were offered, and then we mingled for a while and went home.
In the weeks that followed, dozens of families streamed into the church who would never have attended apart from that event, and we unleashed a grapevine factor within that community that continues to this day. Now we are working intentionally with clusters of families in subdivisions all around Charlotte to offer parenting seminars as pre-evangelism, pre-attendance events.
All because one of our members understood the need to take the gospel to his unchurched friends.
Use the Internet for training and outreach.
At Meck (www.mecklenburg.org) we’ve found two of the best uses of the Internet are training our members to share their faith and outreach to seekers.
We have converted much of our evangelism coaching from church-campus classes to a 16-week Internet-based effort called “The Impact Zone.” The pitch is easy: “Give us your email address. Then, for the next 16 weeks, you’ll receive a weekly, one-page coaching e-mail.” It keeps evangelism before them on a weekly basis for four months; it’s bite-sized and easily digested, and convenient to their schedule.
And it works.
Through our Internet-based approach, we’ve put more people through a basic evangelism training program in the last six months than in eight years of on-campus seminars.
We are also using the Internet for outreach. The site itself is specifically designed to help seekers feel comfortable about Mecklenburg so that they will come and check out the church. We have sections on our Web site, based on my book A Search for the Spiritual (Baker, 1998), that help people explore the Christian faith.
For our regular attenders, we provide online resources to help them answer the tough questions of the faith as they interact with their friends. And we have provided an e-mail invitation they can send to friends inviting them to the weekend services.
Let them ask questions.
People today have a greater desire to talk about what they are learning, and to process their journey in the context of community. We’ve learned to let them.
For us, it began with what we call Dialogue Nights. The first was an experiment: what would happen if we committed an entire mid-week service, following our time of worship, to the audience’s questions on Christian faith and spiritual growth?
We laid the ground rules carefully (no questions on what was or wasn’t happening at Mecklenburg). We allowed people to voice their questions live. They also could submit written questions during the offering.
We had no idea what to expect, but we got question after question on every issue imaginable. People asked about the things that bothered them.
“I had a dream where my dead grandmother talked to me. What was that about?”
“Talk about the show ABC did on Jesus.”
“Do Jews go to hell?”
“Tell me what you do with your kids.”
“Sometimes I feel like God hates me, because I keep screwing up. I know he doesn’t—but how does my sin play into my relationship with him?”
We were on to something. Now Dialogue Nights are regularly scheduled and rank among our most highly-attended services. We are also incorporating times of dialogue in our weekend services, usually at the end of a series to address lingering questions.
Our seeker small groups are now built on an open question format. Seekers want to talk with others about their search. In the first of six sessions, everyone in attendance voices their top questions regarding the Christian faith. These questions become the agenda for the group. We give them two resources: a Bible and the book A Search for the Spiritual. Our small group leaders are trained to use the “I Am” statements in the Gospel of John to address the myriad questions posed on the first night, so that the sessions have biblical structure yet high personalization.
To date, every single person who has gone through this seeker-group experience has become a Christian. Every single one.
We are now exploring the establishment of a chat room on our Web site that will allow similar give-and-take.
Offer gateway experiences to new believers.
Like any church, we’ve struggled with how to disciple new believers, and even more, how to bring them into church membership. The biggest breakthrough we’ve experienced has been the use of large, gateway events to introduce people to the basic disciplines and commitments we want them to embrace. Rather than a plethora of classes and seminars, we created two conferences, Foundations and TeamLife, that provide the basic introduction to everything we want them to explore.
Foundations addresses the basic discipleship needs in a new believer’s life. During this experience, we cover
how to be sure you’re a Christian
the importance of baptism
how to read the Bible, pray, and have a quiet time
how to worship
spiritual gifts and the call to serve
the importance of community and small groups/mentoring
the urgency of evangelism and how to talk to others about our faith
basic principles of stewardship
and a challenge on the lordship of Christ.
The second event, TeamLife, introduces church membership. In it, we tell the Mecklenburg story, followed by our ten core values, our purpose and mission, our ten-step strategy. They also receive a notebook of materials on the church, such as staff bios and our constitution and by-laws, and a copy of Rethinking the Church (Baker, 1997). We conclude with a challenge to commit to the body of Christ through membership.
Both events begin with dinner at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday night, ending at 9:00 p.m., and then reconvening the next morning over breakfast with a schedule from 9:00 a.m. to noon. Each topic is treated as a mini-session, using media and drama, music and testimony, just as we would present a message during a weekend service.
We offer both “gateways” three or four times each year.
The goal is to take our best communication tools and create a single experience that is easily presented as the “next step” that propels someone forward.
After the Foundations and TeamLife weekends, we offer specialty courses that go into greater depth. We’ve found that once people have been introduced to an area of growth or commitment through the gateway experience, they readily make the greater investment of time the smaller, in-depth classes demand.
That’s what’s working in our trenches. Now, it’s your turn. What’s working for you?
James Emery White is founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.