I remember walking into youth group that Wednesday night around a decade ago. I was so excited about the evening’s upcoming events. As a church, we had been advertising this night heavily, encouraged on multiple occasions to make sure we invite our friends to be a part of what we were doing. There was more pizza than you could imagine. Video game systems lining the wall of one of our rooms. Our auditorium had a sleek stage, and was decorated with bean bags and other chairs you’d likely find in a Sharper Image catalog. We were bringing in a non-Christian band to put on a concert, in hopes that we would reach some folks who didn’t normally come to church. To further the cause, raffle drawings were had, and signage was made.
The whole night was built around one pinnacle moment. Our dynamic youth leader was prepared to swoop in and sucker-punch these unbelievers with a short, but pointed gospel message. Just when we had thought we had reeled them in with attractional, seeker-sensitive features, we would show them the goodness of a relationship with Jesus Christ and have an amazing night of confession and repentance.
To my knowledge, and by God’s design, that didn’t happen.
Instead, I took away other lessons from this night, and other nights like it. There were two things that I felt we communicated more effectively, more loudly, than the gospel message:
1. The paid pastor is the most qualified to reach unbelievers.
2. The gospel needs some help.
I wouldn’t have considered myself a very mature Christ-follower at the time. I feel that in the last ten years, I have made some progress and grown in some areas of the Christian life. I feel that I am more sensitive to the kinds of messages we are sending in and through our churches. And I can say, with confidence, that there are plenty of churches who still posit these two positions. This is unfortunate, because it is not how Scripture would advise us to think about reaching neighborhoods, friends, and unbelievers.
As someone in full-time ministry, I have to remind myself of my pastoral limitations often. It is not my preaching that makes the gospel work, but the gospel that makes my sorry preaching work. It is not my small group efforts that make the Spirit move, but the Spirit’s moving that makes my small group efforts mean anything.
We have to remind ourselves that the gospel message does not include a manual for efficiency, giving us directions to avoid error. Error is precisely a part of our ministry, because churches were never meant to be Saviors.
Zack Eswine expresses it this way:
“There is a way of desiring to go all out for the ministry that will split you in two, cause pain to those you serve, and reveal how far off from Jesus’s definition of greatness you’ve drifted…There is more grace and more hope here than you may yet know…among the greatness of slow, overlooked people and places can become, in God’s hands, all gift, true joy, abiding contentment, and good life. Why? Because this is Jesus’s way. Where Jesus is our portion and desire, we lack no true treasure.”
We should desire to make the shift from inviting people to church to inviting people to Christ. When life with Christ becomes our motive, our strategy, our metric, we are becoming authentic fishers of men. This is by no means a simple shift. We have to remember that the pastor is not paid to do, so much as he is to help do. We must see ourselves, each of us, as a priesthood of all believers (1 Pt. 2:5). We all are administers of the good news, only some of us are primarily called “bankers” or “waiters” or “moms” or “volunteers” instead.
When we sit across the table from someone who is hurting, someone who is missing out on the joy and beauty of the good news, our temptation may be to think that they need church. And they do, in one sense. They absolutely need the community of Christians to speak into their life and care for them. They need to be prayed for by a pastor, and sit under the teaching and exhortation of God’s Word publicly. They need to hear lyrics that stir worship. But as we know, none of these actions in and of themselves are mighty to save. Only Christ Himself has the power to heal the brokenhearted, to offer living water that will render one no longer thirsty.
The greatest disservice we can do to the unreached is coerce them into thinking that to find Jesus one must go to church, because it is only there that you find Him. What if, instead, we bring Jesus to them, and by God’s grace, they want to come to church, without gimmicks or throwing bait for bites? What if Jesus actually meant “Go” when he called us to disciple-making? This is not to minimize the importance of church itself, but only our reliance upon it to do what God has equipped us as individuals to do. Yes, sermons can break down the love of Jesus, but maybe the best way for your neighbor to see it is not in a pew, but sitting on your couch, next to you, as you weep and laugh together.
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk. 8:36)