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The Unchurched Next DoorUnderstanding Faith Stages as Keys to Sharing Your Faith
By Thom S. Rainer
ZondervanCopyright © 2003 Thom S. Rainer
All right reserved.
There was a person by the name of Jesus Christ.
He probably lived a very good and moral life.
I think he was an ethical person.
Whether or not he was more is not important.
-Betty M., U4 from Baltimore
Perhaps you would not expect John E., a college freshman in Wisconsin, to be interested in attending church. After all, John was raised with little Christian church background. Most of his days in any kind of religious setting were spent in a Universalist-Unitarian church. And of course the Universalist-Unitarians do not believe in a fully divine Christ since they do not believe in a Trinitarian God. But they do believe that all people will ultimately make it to heaven, a concept for which they have no clear understanding. But now John is not attending any kind of religious institution. Yet he still gave this incredible response: "I probably would attend a church if someone invited me, and the closer the friend the more likely I would be to attend."
Researcher Travis Fleming is a Ph.D. student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I serve as dean. Travis has a heart for evangelism. Yet Travis, like most of the researchers, admitted that this research exercise was an eye-opening experience.
In telling us about his encounter with John E., Travis noted: "I am grateful to Dr. Rainer for allowing me to work on this research team for unchurched persons. It has been an enlightening experience for me. It has made those of us on the team step away from the confines of the seminary classroom to enter into the minds and the lives of people who do not have an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Conducting these numerous interviews showed me there are people all over the United States who are just a conversation or a relationship away from being introduced to Jesus Christ."
The sad note about Travis's word is that John E. may never have heard the gospel unless this research project had intersected with his life. When asked about his concept of God, John gave a muddled yet sincere response: "He's a higher being. I picture him as ... I really don't know ... he's up there somewhere." Yet John, despite all his confusion, is ready to go to church if invited. But no one has invited him to church. And no one ever explained the gospel of Jesus Christ until Travis interviewed him.
Travis was grateful for the opportunity to interview John, who could best be described as a U4, resistant but not antagonistic toward the gospel. Yet Travis also quickly realized that other Christians would have to enter into John's life for him to become more receptive to the gospel. "I presume it is going to take one of John's friends to share Christ with him," Travis mused. "John will listen. That is why the local church and laypersons are so important. Each one must reach one! We must 'always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have'" (1 Peter 3:15).
Why This Book Is for You
I cannot know what caused you to begin reading this book. Perhaps your pastor suggested you read it. Perhaps you were intrigued by the title and you have a desire to reach out to your friends and neighbors who are not Christians and do not attend church. Or perhaps you know that you could be doing something more to be obedient to God's command to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19).
Whatever your motivation, I am grateful to God for the opportunity to share with you the work of the research team. But it is my prayer and desire to see this book become more than an academic exercise. Indeed, as I was leading the team in one of our meetings, Travis commented that he wished this information would be written for all Christians, not just pastors, ministers, staff, and leaders in Christian organizations. I took Travis's suggestion to heart and wrote this book for all who are followers of Christ.
Readers who have read my earlier books will notice similarities in this book. You will see some statistics and some charts, but you will also sense the heart of a pastor. Before I came to Southern Seminary on February 1, 1994, I served as pastor of four churches in Indiana, Kentucky, Florida, and Alabama. One of my primary passions in pastoral ministry has always been to communicate God's vision for reaching the lost. Such is the heartbeat of this book.
Before We Go Further: Eight Tough Questions
If you are willing to hear from the mouths and hearts of lost people, and if you really believe that lost people matter to God, let us pause a moment before we get into the interviews, data, and statistics. Let us be reminded that evangelism, including personal evangelism, begins with God. It is not some human endeavor that depends on magical words, the latest methodologies, or cutting-edge research.
Reaching the unchurched is spiritual warfare. Satan will oppose us at every effort we make to reach lost people. We cannot proceed in our own power. In my pastoral and academic ministries, I have seen Satan thwart the witness of believers in myriad ways. The following eight questions are meant to address some of those areas in which our opportunities to be a witness for the Savior can be stymied.
1. How is your prayer life? Most of us, if we are honest with God and ourselves, would admit that we are too busy for our own good. Life's demands sometimes cause us to replace the good for the best. Time in prayer is often the loser when we look at our checklist of to-do items.
Prayer is an awesome opportunity to come into the presence of the living God. Prayer is an incredible picture of the demonstration of God's desire to have fellowship with his creation. Immediately after the apostle Paul described the full armor of God for spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:10-17, he said, "Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests"(v. 18). Prayer is our source of power to fight the schemes of Satan as we try to reach the unchurched world around us.
We cannot expect to reach our unchurched friends, neighbors, and family members if we are not men and women of prayer. I encourage you to begin each day with a prayer similar to this: "According to your will, Lord, allow me this day to cross the path of someone with whom I can share the love of Christ." See how God will answer that prayer! How is your prayer life?
2. Whom did you tell about Jesus today? I recently finished a consultation visit with a church in the Midwest. In addition to my role as dean of a seminary, I am president of a church consultation firm called the Rainer Group. As part of the preparatory work, our consultation team interviewed dozens of church members.
One question I asked in a particular interview was a straightforward "Do you share your faith on a regular basis?"
In addition to the usual hesitation, excuse-making, and defensive behavior, the response of this person was not common in my interviews. "How do you," the middle-aged man asked, "share your faith on a regular basis?"
My response may have seemed curt at the time, but it also seemed the right thing to say. "Just do it," I replied.
Before I finished my work at this church, this same man approached me and began to speak with tears flowing from his eyes: "I left our interview pretty offended. But your words would not leave my mind: 'Just do it.' I realized that my failure to share my faith was nothing more than disobedience, sin against God. I just wanted you to know that I told someone about Jesus for the first time in my life yesterday." The man really began to lose his composure as he barely got the last few words out of his mouth: "The person I told about Jesus accepted him last night. He was my sixteen-year-old son."
When we fail to share our faith, we sin against God. Jesus told us in his last words before he ascended into heaven, "You will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8). No option or out was given. Whom did you tell about Jesus today?
3. How is your family life? The last three decades have provided clear evidence that one of Satan's most effective strategies against Christians has been to attack the family. When a Christian's family is in turmoil, his or her witness to the unchurched is damaged significantly.
I wish my best illustration of this reality were not so personal. You see, my speaking and consulting ministry involves considerable travel. All of my sons are now grown and living on their own or at college. But when they were at home, I found myself struggling to keep a right balance between my work and my family.
My wife, Nellie Jo, did a remarkable job of working with my secretary to make certain I missed very few of my boys' special events, particularly the athletic events in which they were so actively involved. Still, I began to accept more and more invitations. I can see now that my own ego and sinful self-centeredness explained my inability to say no.
One afternoon one of my sons brought one of his Christian mentors to our home. The young man asked me to sit down as my son shared something with me. Simply stated, my son said that he missed me. I may have been sitting in the stands of the athletic events cheering him on, but I had not been there for him just to talk, to spend time together.
Excerpted from The Unchurched Next Door by Thom S. Rainer Copyright © 2003 by Thom S. Rainer. Excerpted by permission.
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