By Ben and Lynley Mandrell
We don’t know a single pastor who hopes their church becomes a holy huddle—an exclusive, clique-ish group of people who are apathetic about seeing others come to new life in Christ.
No seminary student sits in class dreaming of the day they can lead a small group of inward-focused Christians who want to study the Bible but do nothing with it. Local church ministry is all about making a difference.
But how can a church impact those who are simply “turned off” to religion and have no felt need to attend a Sunday morning service?
According to Lifeway Research, only 35% of unchurched people have any interest in dropping in on a weekend worship service. Why is that?
The majority of people in our communities think church may be nice for some, but it’s not “for them.”
When we were involved in planting a church in Denver, Colorado, we learned quickly that our new neighbors were all over the map in their feelings about the church. Some were curious about what we were starting, others were indifferent, and a few were opposed—and let us know it.
We knew it would take time and intentionality to help people see the beauty of what we were doing.
Here are a few intentional things we did when working in a community suspicious of Christians.
1. Have fun with your neighbors.
Breaking the ice is a first step in building relationships. We found that family-friendly activities in our home were well-received by our neighbors—especially their kids.
Pumpkin-carving in the front yard, gingerbread house making in December, watching fireworks on the back deck, bring-your-own food picnics in the cul-de-sac—these little memories began to build a genuine bond between us all.
Over the course of a few years, the walls began to come down.
In addition to personally engaging with our neighbors, we also challenged our baby church to prioritize relationships on their street. Once a quarter, we would provide a practical way for our people to engage those around them.
For example, we gave a box of cookie mix to every family, encouraging them to bake a pan of chocolate chip cookies and deliver it to their neighbors. No person ever hated our gift of freshly baked cookies!
2. Invest in the community.
In addition to tangible neighborhood efforts, our church also brainstormed projects that would bless the people in our city.
For a struggling high school, we earmarked funds to help renovate their student cafeteria and lounge. The contractors, painters, and decorators within our church had a blast doing it and enjoyed using their gifts for the Lord.
Nonprofits are another excellent place to plug in and make a difference. Many of these organizations are under-resourced and desperate for volunteers.
Our church made a strong effort to come alongside several of these wonderful agencies and became “first responders” as they had needs. We were amazed by the heart our church developed for many different mission points across town.
If your church has become too inwardly focused there are so many ways to get involved in the work for the common good, which is truly an investment.
3. Preach as if unbelieving people are in the room.
The model church member not only serves within the body but looks for every opportunity to bring a lost person to a service. If your people began bringing their far-from-God friends to hear you preach, would these visitors walk away feeling warmly loved or coldly condemned?
The tone of your voice and the words you choose make a difference when creating an invitational culture.
The longer I (Ben) preached in Denver, the more sensitive I grew toward the person who had no background in the local church or Scripture. For example, I had to stop saying, “Paul admonished Timothy” without first answering the questions: 1) who is Paul? 2) who was Timothy? And 3) what does it mean to admonish someone?
The words we often use in preaching feel foreign to the first-time hearer, which means this person is likely checked out—especially when you’re reading Scripture.
In addition to communicating clearly, I also learned to communicate kindly about other religious people in the city.
Modeling a love for those who see things differently is a way to win the hearts of people. Speaking kindly of those from various religious backgrounds does not mean you align with their religious beliefs. It just means that you feel love in your heart for them even though your convictions are far apart.
4. Become a student of peoples’ stories.
Most human beings who are hostile toward Christians have a story to support their feelings.
At some point in their personal history they likely had a negative experience with a professing believer, creating the scar as well as the anger. When you find that wound, you’ve found an open door.
As we encountered hostile people in our community, we found ourselves praying for them with greater intensity. We asked the Lord to give us patience and love, and to show us a way to better understand the root cause of their feelings.
In the beginning of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis made the case that our stories are most interesting at the start, as the foundation of our character is being laid.
In the preface, he writes:
I never read an autobiography in which the parts devoted to the earlier years were not far the most interesting.”
This is true of us all. As the Lord brings people who are angry toward the gospel into your sphere, look for every opportunity to hear their story and to find out the events that shaped their lives and views.
Not only will you gain greater compassion, you will find these friends to be more trusting of your intentions.
In 1 Corinthians 3, we’re reminded that evangelism is ultimately God’s work, but we have the joy of participating in it: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
If we are to be faithful in reaching out, we must keep that principle in mind. Reaching hostile people takes time, patience, and the work of the Holy Spirit.
May our churches continue to build bridges—not walls—in our communities.
Ben and Lynley Mandrell
Ben is the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources. Lynley is his wife. Before coming to Lifeway, they spent five years in Denver, Colorado, planting a church designed to reach the unchurched. They are the parents of four and live just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.