Listening to the Unchurched (2016)
Christianity has an image problem.
Many of those outside of the Christian faith think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind – that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be. Simply put, in the minds of many, modern-day Christianity no longer seems Christian.
And much of that image has been earned. We've acted in ways, talked in ways, and lived in ways that have tarnished God's reputation. As a result, our culture seems to be saying, "Christ perhaps; Christianity and Christians, no."
Maybe the church needs to listen up.
What would the unchurched tell us if we would listen? It may surprise you. Let's imagine listening to someone rattle off a few things that, in truth, they very much feel:
- I do not consider myself (nor do I feel like I am) a "pagan." I mean, really? A pagan? Not sure I like "unchurched" or "irreligious" either, though they’re a step up. Ideally, how about John, or Mark or Sandra? In other words, my name.
- I honestly don't mind it when you invite me to your church or talk to me about God. Just keep it… I don't know… natural. Like when we talk about sports or movies. I hate feeling like a project. Let's keep it a conversation between friends and as friends. I could see doing that.
- Please don't be threatened by my questions. They really are my questions, and I've had them for a long time. I hope that if Christianity is true, it can stand up under any amount of intellectual scrutiny. Anyway, I would feel a lot better if you were less threatened when I raise questions. I'm not trying to be a jerk by questioning you; I'm just trying to sort it all out. And that means asking you about all kinds of things. I know sometimes it seems combative or aggressive, but God's questions aren't exactly tame – much less safe. And for me, the answers are everything.
- Don't forget that a lot of my junk is emotional, not just intellectual. And it took a lot for me to say that. I almost don't know how to get into this, but I've been burned, disillusioned, hurt. You may win some of our verbal contests, but it doesn't usually move me forward. It still leaves me feeling cold, mostly because some of the time the intellectual stuff is just a smokescreen for what I'm really battling. Here's the last 5 percent: It's not just whether I can buy into this intellectually, but whether I can buy into it relationally. In other words, are you really safe?
- I would like to belong before I believe. What I mean is that I'd like to experience this a bit before signing on. Is that legal? I hope so. I think that if I could test the waters a bit it would be helpful.
- There's a lot I don't know, and I know it – like not knowing much about the Bible or Jesus or whatever. Don't make me feel stupid about it. If you could start at the beginning and explain it all to me, that would be great. Like starting with Genesis and moving forward.
- Can we agree that there's a lot of weird stuff attached to Christianity and the Bible? Okay, it may be true, or real, or whatever, but can we just agree that some of it is a bit… bizarre? For some strange reason, it would make me feel better to hear you acknowledge how it all looks and sounds to someone from the outside.
- What's up with all the scandals? I'm sympathetic to screwing up – I do it all the time. But what makes me want to puke is how they're screwing up while they are telling everybody they don't, or that nobody should, or… you get my point. It makes the whole thing seem like a joke. Just own that you have screwed up (that'd be fine with me, really), or just shut up about not doing it. But this parading and posturing and then being exposed – it just turns me off. It makes me feel like the spiritual one because at least I don't pretend to be something I'm not!
- I like it when you help people – care for the poor, house the homeless, tend to the widow, protect the orphan, work for justice against sex-traffickers – that gets my attention and feels authentic. It's also convicting, because I'm not doing much in those areas. I agree with it, and write a check now and then, but I'm not on the front lines. When you are, it makes me have to listen to what you have to say, whether I like it or not.
- I'm really open to it all. More than I let on. In fact, I want to feel good about myself spiritually. But I don't think I could ever measure up. When I really think about God, all I feel is guilt and shame, so I stay away. It would be nice if there were something in all of this that would make me feel like I could – I don't know – come home?
James Emery White
Editor’s Note: This blog was published at ChurchAndCulture.org in 2015, and we believe that this is worth an annual read as we continue to reach out to those who do not know Christ.
Excerpt from James Emery White, The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker). Available on Amazon.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.