Have you ever felt uncomfortable because you didn’t know what was going on or what was going to happen next? I can still remember one occasion like it was yesterday. I was attending a piano concert at a church with my soon-to-be wife. She had heard about this particular ‘Christian’ artist from one of her professors at school. It sounded fun, so off we went. My first indication that something wasn't right was when the musician took the stage and said with misty eyes, "You know, music has the power to open up the valley of grace." My future wife and I exchanged glances. This was going to be a long night.
What followed was one of the most uncomfortable church events I’d ever been to. A strange cocktail of piano tunes and random mystical comments floated through the half-empty sanctuary and made both our skins crawl. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when the senior minister came up at the end. "Tonight we are going to celebrate a harvest-themed communion. Instead of the bread and wine, we are excited to offer cinnamon biscuits and apple cider." That's when we made our escape.
Years later, my wife and I still laugh about how uncomfortable that date was, how awkward we felt, and how relieved we were to make a break for the door. But now, as I look back on that time, I realize something. That’s how it feels to be an unbeliever and get invited to a church service.
Now, of course, while your church isn't serving harvest-themed communion or opening up people to the valley of grace (whatever that means), your church is still a strange sight to anyone new to Christianity. The songs, the sermon, the people—it can be overwhelming for someone who’s new to the faith. Coming to church for the first time is a big step, and we do our non-Christian friends a disservice if we forget that.
High and low pressure
All this has me thinking about something Pastor Tim Keller once said about equipping lay people for everyday ministry. Keller insightfully notes that all common outreach strategies can be rated in terms of how ‘intense’ they are for non-believers. This intensity, or pressure, that's placed on the non-believer is not the fault of the Christian; it is merely part and parcel of the various strategies. Keller rates the following outreach strategies from low to high pressure:
- Casually meeting one-to-one
- Meeting one-to-one in a more structured manner (such as reading the Bible together)
- Inviting the non-believer to a Christian event or service
- Sharing a gospel presentation.
Again, none of these practices are wrong. All of them are encouraged. However, the fact remains: they exert different levels of pressure.
Offering the Christian perspective on a current issue during a casual work conversation would be relatively low pressure for a non-Christian; reading the gospel of John one-to-one would be a little more intense. Being asked to church next Sunday would really turn up the heat. Finally, sharing a gospel outline with a friend and calling for a response would be the most intense experience for the unbeliever.
Now, are all those strategies helpful? Yes! Should Christians be well-versed in all of them? Of course! But notice something.
Most evangelicals—not all, but most—when they think about outreach, think solely in terms of inviting people to Christian events.
"Oh, come to this new course we are offering!"
"We would love to see you at our community block party!”
"You should come to our church sometime, we meet at 10:30 on the corner of Broad and Shelbyville!”
Yet, of the four strategies, asking non-believers to these events is the second highest in terms of pressure! So, while there isn’t anything wrong with inviting our friends to church (we should), we also shouldn't be shocked when they politely decline. The pressure is too great! You would do the same thing if you were invited to ‘free introductory sessions’ at your local Scientology church.
So why do we focus there?
Why is it then that so many Christians only take part in this form of outreach? Why do so many people become expert inviters—to the neglect of becoming expert relationship builders and Bible sharers? The answer is simple. It's pressure. Keller is right to point out that while inviting someone to an event is a high-pressure situation for the non-Christian, it's actually a very low-pressure situation for the Christian.
Don't get me wrong. It takes a fair amount of courage to ask anyone to church. However, compared to the other outreach strategies, merely handing out a flier or inviting a friend to an event is much easier. It takes very little preparation and requires very little commitment.
On the other hand, the other three strategies put a fair amount of pressure on the believer. Sharing the gospel is terribly nerve-wracking. Building relationships is often difficult and time-consuming. A flood of doubts sweeps over most when they think about reading the Bible with another person.
And yet these last two strategies (relational evangelism and reading one-to-one) have a very low barrier to entry for the non-believer. And of these, one-to-one Bible reading presents the best chance of getting to the gospel in a natural and unforced way.
Die to self, take on the pressure
All this to say, instead of simply inviting that friend to your next church service and placing all the pressure on them, what if you took some of that pressure upon yourself? What if, instead of handing them a flier, you asked them to have a look at the gospel of Mark with you over coffee? Will you be nervous? Sure. Will you need some training? Maybe. Have a look at David Helm’s excellent One-to-one Bible Reading. But as you die to yourself and take on that pressure, know that you are creating an environment where your friend can encounter the living and active word of God for the first time.
So this week, consider Jesus’ words to take up your cross and follow him (Matt 16:24). This week, consider dying to your own comfort and stepping out in faith. He certainly died to his when he sought you. Instead of taking the easy way out and placing all the pressure on that non-Christian friend, why not ask them to read the Bible?
Before you know it, you may even have the privilege of sitting next to them in church. And, perhaps, after having already been exposed to the Bible, maybe church will feel more comfortable and a little less pressured.