As couple weeks ago I wrote about how evangelism in the way of Jesus expresses both a high degree of connection with others as well as a high degree of distinction from those same people.
And last week I answered a question from a reader about how to practically step out in this kind of evangelism (train for gospel fluency!).
This week I want to address another question about that original post. This is from Aaron Elder (in the comments):
“I’d be interested to think about what it looks like to create communities and church cultures which are high distinction and high connection. What does this matrix look like on a corporate level and how can communities of faith be incarnational and missional. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.”
Another great question! Here are a few thoughts, stream-of-consciousness style.
Don’t underestimate the power of training
First of all, as you think about creating a culture of incarnational evangelism in your church, it’s important not to underestimate the power of intentionally training people in gospel fluency.
I know that feels more “individual,” but when you start training people (not just teaching them), culture really does begin to change, because people start doing new things.
For example, greeters who are gospel-fluent are going to be able to connect with newcomers in an authentic, winsome way.
People who are gospel-fluent are going to be looking for people they haven’t seen before and welcoming them.
A lot of the “intangible” qualities of a culture will begin to shift toward incarnational evangelism simply because there are more people who know how to connect and stay distinct!
Your community will take on a different flavor and tone as people begin to geniunely love the visitors that come through the doors.
The same kind of connection and distinction they do in their neighborhoods and workplaces will overflow into Sunday morning services, too. Why wouldn’t it?
But in addition to implementing a training culture (which is essentially what will happen if you take disciple-making seriously), you can use Sunday morning services to reinforce your culture’s vision and values.
The trouble is that, many times, our Sunday morning services are undoing the work we are trying to do in disciple-making.
So how can we bring our Sunday services into alignment with our disciple-making vision and practices?
Connection: audit your worship service
Jesus’ way of evangelism was incarnational: highly connectional and highly distinctive. How can we test our church’s ability to connect?
One simple thing is to simply review your worship service and try to imagine being a visitor without a church background.
There are a few things in every church culture that we do “because we’ve always done them that way” that create an inhospitable culture to outsiders.
So do a language audit. Are there phrases or “off the cuff” statements you make from the pulpit (or that are spoken in the congregation) that would unnecessarily alienate outsiders?
For example: any disparaging statements about “those people” (whoever “they” are). Instead, find ways to honor those who may not feel or believe the same way as you. Connect with them in their doubt. Connect with them in their pain.
Assume there are people like that in your congregation every Sunday, and it will begin to create a more hospitable environment, where people feel it is safe to come and explore.
Another example: avoid talking about “taking this city for Jesus,” and those kinds of statements. I know your intentions are good, but it sounds pretty creepy to people who aren’t part of the team that’s “taking over.”
Connection: explain what you’re doing
One of the subtle ways we fail to connect with new people is that we assume everyone knows what we’re doing and why.
So find ways to explain why you do what you do. You don’t even need to change what you’re doing. You can have a worship service that is extremely traditional AND extremely hospitable, if you just take some time to explain what’s happening and what we’re doing next.
The secondary benefit of doing this is that many longtime church-goers will learn for the first time why you do the things you do! I guarantee that many people in your congregation don’t really understand why we sing when we gather, or why we read Scripture together, or why we take communion, or why we baptize.
Distinction: be Christians!
So now let’s talk about some ways you can make sure your culture is highly distinctive, like Jesus.
First of all, be Christian. Here’s what I mean: don’t make the mistake of making your worship service more like a rock concert because that’s what people seem to be into these days.
The seeker movement helped the church ask some good questions, but some of its practices were disastrous in my estimation. Getting rid of Christian symbols and time-tested practices to “reach people” is wrong-headed, in my view.
The thing that makes you highly distinctive is simply the fact that you are a Christian community. It means you follow Christ. It means you will do things that seem odd to newcomers and onlookers.
(Let me get this straight… the two most important rituals in your faith are taking a bath and eating a meal?)
You may have to explain things (that’s connection!), but make sure you also go ahead and do them (that’s distinction!). Feel free to explain it, but then do it. Be it. Be Christians. Follow Jesus unapologetically.
Of course that doesn’t mean we’re jerks about it. 1 Peter 3:15 urges us to live out our faith in a humble and authentic way (“set apart Christ as Lord”), and then to be ready to answer anyone who asks us about it “with gentleness and respect.”
We generally make two mistakes here.
- We don’t have an answer when people ask (not enough distinction).
- We give answers to people who aren’t asking questions (not enough connection).
An incarnational diagnostic
Try this simple diagnostic if you’d like to test the “temperature” of your church community’s incarnational evangelism (high connection and high distinction).
- CONNECTION QUESTION: Do unbelievers regularly hang out with us in our homes and church services? If not, why? What is God saying to us about this, and how can we respond?
- DISTINCTION QUESTION: Do these people ask us questions about the reason for the hope we have? If not, why? What is God saying to us about this, and how can we respond?
- TRAINING QUESTION: Are our people equipped in gospel fluency so they can have these kinds of conversations? If not, why? What is God saying to us about this, and how can we respond?
I’d also love to hear your ideas – how can we build communities of incarnation, where we are highly connective and highly distinct at the same time, like Jesus?
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