We got so used to that cozy arrangement that most churches still function as though the arrangement is still intact.
But it isn’t. The secularization of the West began several centuries ago, and then accelerated after World War I in Europe and after World War II in North America. Secularization moved Christianity from the center to the margins and, as Christianity lost its monopoly, more and more people were raised beyond the influence of churches. Today, at least 180 million people in the United States have no adequate understanding of the Christian faith; this country has become the third largest mission field on earth. We are more or less back in apostolic times, and—as more and more people are looking for life (but in all the wrong places)—our land has become a biblical harvest. But most churches are in denial.
What would it take for Old East Side Church* to graduate from declining local to local Christian movement?
2. Old East Side would probably have to rediscover that Christianity, and especially Christian mission, is a team game. Jesus formed and lived with a team of 12. Paul and the other apostles usually traveled with an “apostolic band.” In CE 436, St. Patrick took a team to reach the Irish, and that mission proliferated other apostolic teams and monastic communities by the hundreds. John Wesley traveled with a small entourage of people; they all engaged in ministry town to town; they established Methodist “societies” with small groups. Many movement-focused churches today form people into teams for ministries, especially for apostolic ministry. Such a team may visit, say, a tavern every Tuesday evening, and befriend people, engaging in ministries of conversation and invitation. Or a team’s members may scatter into their respective spheres of influence while interceding for each other, but meet every second Thursday evening to support each other and learn from each other’s experiences.
4. Since people are more than “souls with ears,” outreach involves outreach ministry, as well as witness. From the examples in the previous point, the church would start a 12-step recovery ministry or a distinctive congregation for the deaf and another for the Creole population, or support groups for single parents, or a literacy tutoring program.
5. Believe it or not, an effective ministry of witness typically involves more listening than talking, perhaps 80% listening. We best know what to say when we prayerfully listen to understand; furthermore, as Russell Hale once discovered, “Most people can’t hear until they’ve been heard.”
6. The most effective approach to the ministry of witness is not a one-way presentation of the gospel, but a two-way conversation about the gospel and the new life to which Christ calls us. This typically involves multiple conversations over time. This point is ratified by the sociology of knowledge, which emphasizes that all people have been socialized into some worldview—an organized cluster of core beliefs and values that provides the lens through which they perceive reality. In a pluralistic society with multiple worldviews, the one catalyst that typically moves people out of their worldview toward the possibility of another is conversation with people who see reality differently.
7. The sociologists tell us that the process of “worldview conversation” is not complete until the convert has been re-socialized into the new community that lives by the new worldview. That means the way we treat people after they become believer is as important as what we do to reach them with the gospel. The church’s classic approach—to root new people in the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount—is still indispensable. For a generation, we have also known that getting people involved in prayer and worship, in a team or small group, in a network of Christian friends, and in some ministry are all important in their formation. More recently, we have seen the importance of involving seekers, who are not yet conscious disciples, in the richness of much of this. More and more, postmodern people have to belong before they believe. For many people, the faith is “more caught than taught.”
8. We know that the Christian faith becomes more of a movement as it identifies receptive people in the community. Church growth field research has identified a dozen or more indicators of people in whom prevenient grace might be active, such as visitors to the church, newcomers to the community, or people experiencing significant life transitions. More important, the church that prays to be led to receptive people keeps finding them!
9. We know that the faith spreads most contagiously across the social networks of our most credible Christians, and especially our new Christians. Although many church leaders experience this last point as counterintuitive, new Christians provide what Donald McGavran called “the bridges of God.” One reason is that the people who are meaningfully connected to them by kinship or friendship, and have perceived changes within them, become more receptive. Programmatically, as a church receives a new Christian, the leaders make a roster of all of the pre-Christian people in the new Christian’s social network. As the church reaches some of those people, it makes a roster of their pre-Christian friends and relatives, and so on.
10. I began with one of the two most difficult points to sell to traditional churches—that their main business is to reach unchurched people; that is a more challenging paradigm shift than it should be. I conclude with the other “hard sell”: apostolic growth typically requires the addition of an alternative congregation, and in time another, then another, and another. Old East Side Church has one declining worship service at 11:00 a.m. that the active members still love. But that congregation will never be able to engage even half of the pre-Christian people in the community who are already interested in Christianity. As in any mission field, people will usually be reached through a more indigenous congregation that speaks their language, features their music, fits their culture, begins where they are, presents “Christianity 101,” and so on. But I can hear Old East Side’s leaders saying, “George, there is no precedent for more than one congregation in churches like ours.” I respond with six words: Horsefeathers, fiddle-sticks, tommyrot, rubbish, baloney, and balderdash. For nearly 150 years, churches in Old East Side’s tradition featured a Sunday evening congregation. It began where new people were, presented introductory Christianity, and invited a response to Christ. There is extensive precedence for doing what it takes. But even if there were no precedent, so what? For a long time, I have been encouraging churches to shift from tradition to mission. For reasons that are a mystery to me, many churches remain stuck in the 1950s and, sooner or later, will turn out the lights. But those that do pull it off experience miracles and contagion in their ranks. They experience such meaning in their apostolic experience that they will never turn again to the idol of tradition.
GEORGE G. HUNTER III is Asbury Theological Seminary’s Distinguished Professor of Evangelism Emeritus, and former Dean of Asbury’s School of World Mission and Evangelism. His most recent book is The Apostolic Congregation: Church Growth Reconceived for a New Generation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010).