Yesterday I had the joy of meeting Philip and Janet Yancey for the first time. Janet was an absolute delight – filled with joy and overflowing with encouragement. And Philip Yancey has written over 20 books, and many of them have had a tremendous impact on my understanding of Jesus and of the Christian faith. I told him that the first series I ever did at River City was based off his book “The Jesus I Never Knew,” and shortly after that I did another series off his book, “Rumors of Another World.” Philip and Janet were passing through Chicago (they now live in Colorado), and told us that they wanted to spend the morning just hanging out with us at River City. It was a real treat – lots of great conversation and affirmation.
I asked him how he got in contact with us and River City, and discovered that it was through an article I wrote 9 years ago for Leadership Journal.
I hadn’t read it in years, and of course had to dust it off and refamiliarize myself with it. Much of our conversation revolved around the contents of this article, and I thought I would share it on my blog – 9 years later.
A couple of disclaimers:
1.) Most of what’s in here matches what I still believe, though there are a variety of references to programs that are no longer active at River City
2.) If you are reading this and wouldn’t call yourself a Christian or follower of Jesus, be warned that I use the often uncomfortable term “evangelism” in the article. With that being said, I hope you find that I use it tastefully, and I would love to hear your thoughts if you disagree with any of my comments
The scene was so surreal I could barely believe it was happening. While in the middle of a busy rush at Starbucks, one of my fellow baristas discovered that my “real job” was working at a church down the street. Acting as if she had never come in contact with a live pastor before, she began squealing with delight, telling every customer and employee of her discovery. This revelation caused a spontaneous spiritual combustion at the store, and I listened as a group of people circled around the espresso bar and regaled me with stories of their spiritual history.
Selma went first. “I think Christianity has an important place in society. I don’t personally follow it, but I figure, whatever makes you happy, do it.” Matt quickly followed, and the painful interactions he had experienced in his spiritual journey quickly showed. “Christianity is for simple-minded people. When they talk to you, they act as if you are a robot. They have an agenda they are trying to promote, and if you don’t agree with them, they are done with you.” Tatia thought about Matt’s comments for a moment, and then added her own. “I don’t know if that’s what bothers me so much. What really gets under my skin is that all the church wants from you is your money.” Justin put the finishing touches on the conversation, and seemed to summarize everyone’s feelings when he said, “Look, we all know that ‘God’ is out there at some level, but no one has a right to tell another person what ‘God’ looks like for them. Each person is free to express that however they want, but they should keep their opinions to themselves.”
Such was my baptism by fire into the language of the emerging culture. In that moment I realized that most of the training I had received on “evangelism” was going to have to be relinquished. I was going to have to completely rethink how to engage my friends in a way that bridged the gap between their current spiritual condition and a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ.
This encounter happened in the late nineties while I was working at Willow Creek in the Axis ministry (the 20-something weekend seeker service). Willow had been on the front lines of evangelism since their inception in the 1970’s, but they began to notice a trend as the church aged: the needs and desires of the not-yet-Christians in the emerging generation were changing. American culture was developing an increasing spiritual interest; yet fewer and fewer 20-somethings were translating that spiritual interest into church attendance. Due to this reality, Axis was born in 1996 to wrestle with the question, “Who is the emerging generation, and what does it take to engage them with the message and life of Jesus?”
I was privileged to be right in the center of this conversation at Axis for 5 years, and to speed up my learning , I also took a part-time job at the Starbucks down the street. Because I had grown up as a pastor’s kid, I thought that I had my arms around this thing called evangelism. But if my three years at Starbucks taught me anything, it was that simple formulas and canned models are woefully incomplete if we were going to see a spiritual Re-awakening happen for this generation. So Selma, Tatia, Matt, Justin and others at Starbucks became my new seminary teachers on evangelism, and I began to re-think the whole process of engaging the emerging culture for Christ. This journey has since led me to leave Willow Creek and plant a new congregation in the inner-city of Chicago called River City Community Church. Here we continue to ask the same foundational question: “Who is the emerging generation, and what does it take to engage them with the message and life of Jesus?”
Before getting to some of the ideas we are implementing at River City, let me first explain how we describe the emerging generation when we do evangelism training in our church. People are obviously way too complex to put into any kind of box, but we do begin by painting two very different spiritual portraits of this generation. We then ask our members which portrait best describes their friends that don’t yet know Christ.
The first portrait is what we call a “Pre-Christian.” Pre-Christians are individuals who at some level are open to the idea of Christianity and, given the right set of circumstances, could be moved closer to a point of conversion. Maybe this is a man or woman who had grown up in a Catholic home but had never understood the message of grace. Maybe this is a man or woman who had grown up in a Christian home, but the message had never taken root (often this is the person that has crazy party years in college, but after graduation begins moving back towards their spiritual roots). Maybe this was a man or woman that grew up with hardly any church experience, yet has genuine spiritual interest. There are a variety of hues in the Pre-Christian portrait, but the key thread that connects them is a relative openness to the gospel that, with the right approach, could be cultivated .
The second portrait is what we call a “Post-Christian.” Post-Christians are those who have encountered Christianity somewhere along the way and have decided that they are not interested. Maybe this person grew up in a Christian home and was disillusioned by a messy divorce between his or her seemingly happy parents. Maybe the individual had been part of a church at some point. He or she witnessed something as dramatic as a nasty split or as subtle (yet subversive) as hypocritical Christians who said one thing and did another. Maybe this post-Christian man or woman had no church experience at all but had known Christians whose preachy and legalistic ways had left enormous trust damage. Sometimes it was as simple as an interaction with the idea of Christianity; after seeing public scandals and watching a diminishing reputation they decided they didn’t want to be associated with it. The important commonality is that they are not uneducated seekers; they are men or women who, for right or for wrong, feel like they already understand Christianity and are not interested.
After explaining these, we ask each River City person to identify which portrait more aptly describes their friends that are not Christians. What we usually discover is that about 25% will say that their friends are Pre-Christian. Because of how large the other group is, they almost sheepishly share that their friends don’t seem to have a giant trust crater that needs to be overcome in the journey towards Christ – they are just moving slowly towards this spiritual reality. We assure them that this is okay, and that Pre-Christians matter to Christ as much as anyone. We then ask how many of their friends are Post-Christian, and there is always a predictable wave of affirmations. The 75% majority seem almost relieved at having some kind of a lens to understand their friends through. They are grateful to discover that the slow trust building process is no reflection of their doing something wrong, but is actually the only way to engage a Post-Christian.
By now most people can see how the different portraits require very different approaches. The first group (Pre-Christians) tends to be pretty open to the idea of going back to church if it is relevant and they can meet other people their age. The absence of Christ in their lives is not usually out of anger at God or broken trust with Christians; they’re usually just not ready yet. Post-Christians, on the other hand, tend to show no interest in organized religion. A well-meaning River City person might say, “Hey, I’d love to invite you to my church this weekend to hear a great message and meet other cool Christians. It’s a very powerful service and very relevant to our lives.” The Post-Christian would just shrug and say, “That’s cool that you’ve found something that works for you. I’m not into Christianity though.” How are we to reach this person?
After explaining the Biblical mandate for evangelism and the importance of living contagious lives for the sake of God’s Kingdom, we roll out what we now call the “Awake and Invite” strategy, particularly for friends that are Post-Christian (we emphasize this group not because they are more important, but because the traditional methods of evangelism out there now already reach Pre-Christians quite well). This strategy is simply a re-contextualization of the vivid imagery Jesus used to describe contagious evangelists: salt and light. Salt is a powerful metaphor, because it is all about proximity and time. For salt to curate something, it needs to be right up against the surface, and it takes time to have its desired affect. We remind our River City people of the truth from Ecclesiastes that, “eternity is in the heart of every man and woman.” For that eternal center to be awakened and connected to the truth of Jesus, however, someone has to be salt in that friend’s life. Through skilled question asking, the witness of a transformed life, powerful love, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, every Christian has the ability to be a powerful salt-carrier that helps each of his or her friends awaken to spiritual realities. Light, on the other hand, is that force that breaks through the darkness and calls people to itself. Light is those environments that you invite your friends to in the hope that something will happen to open the window of their soul to a spiritual moment where God can meet them in a powerful way.
Once they understand the philosophical framework for living as contagious Christians, we then walk through some of the environments that we are creating at River City to use as “Awake and Invite” opportunities:
- Serving/Social Justice. It is always profound to our members when we challenge them with the truth that Jesus never once called someone to become a Christian. He simply laid out a powerful two-word invitation to his would-be disciples: “Follow Me.” This is important to remember, because if our Post-Christian friend declines an invitation to church, we often believe this to be the end of the road in our spiritual friendship, at least until they reconsider. But there are a lot of opportunities to invite someone on the journey of experiencing Jesus besides attending a church service. We believe the most powerful of these opportunities is when we invite friends to discover God’s heart for the poor, disadvantaged, and oppressed. These kinds of experiences are often reserved for the already-convinced in church life, but we emphasize that many times a Post-Christian’s problem is with church, not the activities of a Jesus-follower.
This kind of thinking shapes almost everything we do. For instance, in April 2004 we put all of our collective energies into an event hosting Princess Kasune Zulu, an international spokeswoman for the HIV/AIDS crisis. Princess lost both of her parents to AIDS, and then contracted HIV from her husband before losing him as well. Instead of getting knocked out by this, she made it her life mission to let people know about Jesus, and to raise the awareness around the world of the AIDS pandemic. My hunch is that an event like this would normally galvanize Christians in a church to respond in mercy to this crisis, but it would often be overlooked for its evangelistic potential. We certainly wanted to galvanize our Christians, but we also made this event a rallying point for all of our Post-Christian friends. Not only did we invite them in force, we even invited our Post-Christian friends to the pre-event training with World Vision (the sponsoring organization for Princess). There we gathered as believers and not-yet-believers to learn how the child sponsorship program worked in Zambia, and these Post-Christian friends then wore badges at the Princess Zulu event designating them as River City/World Vision Ambassadors. Our people responded to this call of invitation, and our estimates were that at least 20% of the 500 people that came were not Christian.
We also do monthly serving projects through River City ranging from neighborhood street cleanings to hanging out with the elderly, and we urge our people to use these as opportunities to awaken their Post-Christian friends to the civic responsibilities of “spirituality” and to invite them into an environment where they will interact with Jesus-followers (as well as hopefully have an encounter with God).
- Spoken Word. Once I moved to an urban environment, I realized that many of the programs that had worked at Axis in a suburban environment were not going to cross over, and that we were going to need to start from scratch. So a team of us became students of the city, looking for environments outside of church that were already reaching the emerging generation and that carried some sort of a spiritual element. What really jumped out to us over time was a movement that was particularly successful in the hip-hop community: the Spoken Word (also called Soul Poetry Café). This is a place where creative minds gather to artistically express everyday realities like politics, relationships, and spirituality through the spoken medium. Anything goes when you are at a Spoken Word café, and attendees are ready to hear artist’s opinions on everything from current policy to spiritual convictions.
After attending 3 or 4 of these, we felt that doing our own Spoken Word represented one of our best opportunities to reach Post-Christian friends. Our worship pastor took point on this outreach, and began actively recruiting artists and mainline acts from other events. He then used those commitments to publicize our event. Spoken Word now happens on the fourth Friday of every month. We bring together anywhere from 50-80 people from our community, most of which are strongly Post-Christian.
- Multi-ethnic/Trans-ethnic Community. This one is more of a “feel” than an activity, but we are strongly committed to racial reconciliation as part of our collective effort to reach lost friends. Simple logic now dictates that if we are going to reach the full spectrum of our Post-Christian friends, we are going to need a ministry that can reach a variety of people. But for us, this drive goes much deeper. Chicago is one of the most diverse, yet segregated, cities in the country. This means that despite the fact you live amongst a myriad of nationalities, chances are low that you will ever share life with them in a meaningful way. We strongly believe at River City that you can do all kinds of programs to reach people, but that if the ministry is not bathed in love it will be as the Apostle Paul said, “a clanging symbol.” We also are committed to the prayer of Jesus in John 17 that His body would be “One” as the Trinity is One, SO THAT the watching world may know of the power of Christ. We have had many of our Post-Christian friends comment that the value of racial reconciliation is what drew them to River City well before the desire to be a part of any kind of organized church.
- Sunday Services. By emphasizing the need to be “salt” to our Post-Christian friends, I hope I do not leave the impression that the communal service does not have a key role to play. The truth of it is, if the outside-the-church stuff is working right, the Post-Christian will reverse course at some point and re-open to the idea of Christianity. When that point does come, it is crucial that they experience God in a powerful way when they visit the church. If there is one principle we are wrestling with that I would share, it is a quote that came from one of the greatest “worship” leaders of our generation: Bono. In an interview in the early days of U2, he was asked what made their band unique from all of the others. He answered, “Our goal is to blend the line between the stage and the audience. We want to create a shared experience for everyone there.” We have this same desire for those that visit River City. Our hope is that through engaging worship, authentic teaching, and a primal sense of the presence of God in our community, they will feel as though they entered into a spiritual experience. They may not be able to describe exactly what happened, but hopefully it touched their spiritual center in a way that draws them back again.
One of the saddest realities I see in church is when evangelism is marginalized to that small group of Christians that actually like going door-to-door passing out tracts. The reality is that our world is lost and dying for Truth, but the only way that Truth is going to get through the filter of a Post-Christian person is in the form of Jesus through the flesh-and-blood representation of every Christian who takes the call of salt and light seriously. May we see our churches become evangelistic forces that reclaim these loved friends for the cause of Christ