the shape of leadership

Is There Room for Someone Like Me?

Preparing your ministry to reach post-Christian outsiders

Earl Creps on January 6, 2016


I ordered coffee while my friend John found us a table in Berkeley’s crowded downtown Peet’s store. When I returned, a man I did not know had pulled up a chair.

Dressed in a black leather coat and beret, “Alex” looked every inch the 1960s Berkeley radical. An elderly man in his 70s, he had not lost the fire of those days. As we sipped the strong coffee, John shared that my wife, Janet, and I were ministers who had just moved to the city.

Alex pounced: “Who are you with, and why are you here?”

A bit shaken, I explained that we represent the Assemblies of God and that we came to start a church. The savage rebuke others had warned me to expect never came. Instead, Alex shared his own dream for the city. His generation believed Berkeley was the “city on a hill” that would transform the human race.

“So what happened?” we asked.

Alex’s face changed.

“There was this darkness in people,” he said. “And we could not overcome it.”

His radical dream had died.

Learning we were Christians, he confessed, “I’ve been evangelized by just about everyone you can name.”

Alignment with Jesus’ mission begins with understanding our starting point: the margins.

When we asked why he never believed, his answer stung: “Too many sinners, and not enough saints.”

He had never known Christians who made Jesus look more credible than the alternatives.

Alex taught me two things. First, he is not the sort of person my training prepared me to reach. He is neither ignorant of the faith nor especially hostile, but instead considers Jesus just one of many options.

Second, Alex was more interested in his questions than in our presentations. He wanted answers first, before tuning in to listen to us.

These two observations sound like huge obstacles, but what if they are also opportunities? We have three choices with people like Alex: ignore them because they are too strange and reaching them is too hard, attack them and alienate them permanently or listen to their questions and respond in love and integrity.

This last option is consistent with the mission of Jesus who came not “to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).

Alignment with Jesus’ mission begins with understanding our starting point: the margins.

The Church on the Margins
The likelihood of an American adult engaging with a local congregation is ebbing. In 1970, weekly church attendance stood at 38 percent, according to the American National Election Studies. By 2008, only 23 percent reported weekly attendance, and there is good reason to believe even these reports were inflated.

An increasing number of people describe their religious affiliation as “none,” with far fewer young adults claiming an affiliation than their elders. My city of Berkeley, for example, has more church facilities per capita than almost any other city in the nation, but the level of actual church involvement is among the lowest. The leadership of our church plant thinks of our setting as America-plus-20. If nothing changes, Berkeley is today what the rest of the nation will be in 20 years. In other words, as Berkeley goes, so goes the nation.

While there are still lots of churches — including many healthy, fruitful congregations — over the long term, the market does not lie. While the need for what we offer has never been greater, the demand for it seems to be softening. As Microsoft founder Bill Gates put it in a 1996 interview with TIME magazine: “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”

Alex would agree. So how can we remove the obstacles from his path toward faith in Jesus?

Listening and Responding
Christians spend a lot of energy applying labels to those outside the faith. We call them things like postmodern, secular progressive, nones, etc. People often tell me, for example, that the city where I serve is a modern-day Nineveh, the heart of darkness and the capital of an evil empire. These characterizations reveal how easy it is to let our labels drown out the voice of a loving God who is not willing that any should perish.

What if we suspended labeling and actually listened to what people far from God are asking? What are their questions? A 2015 CRN International survey of advertising managers asked them about the biggest challenge in creating content. The two top answers were (1) understanding what resonates with our customers and (2) our own company’s culture. What would happen if we listened to people far from God and adjusted our ministry culture — not to acquiesce, but to accommodate them? This kind of commitment might make them real people to us, people we could connect with and reach.

The very first event connecting the body of Christ with a non-Christian group in a public space could illustrate what it means to listen. The scene is first-century Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. When God pours out the Holy Spirit baptism on the first Christians and they begin speaking in tongues, the commotion attracts a large crowd of religious pilgrims from around the Roman Empire gathered in the city for the Jewish holidays. Acts 2:6 says they are bewildered by hearing the Spirit-baptized believers praising God in languages they could not     possibly have known.

“Utterly amazed, they asked: Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?’” (Acts 2:7).

These simple words suggest the first question we need to hear the culture asking us: Is there room for someone like me among people like you?

Being from Galilee carried with it a certain stigma. People thought of the region as a cultural backwater compared to more metropolitan Jerusalem. Poverty, isolation and political unrest were the calling cards of the area. No wonder this crowd, composed of people with the means to undertake the arduous trip to Jerusalem, is shocked that simple people from the margins of Jewish society would have a command of multiple languages (Acts 2:8).

The first issue for this new audience is not whether our message is true, but whether it produces people who will accept them, regardless of their starting point.

The pilgrims can tell the Galileans are different. While they are not seeking acceptance by the Galileans, the cultural gap between the two groups parallels the distance between church insiders and Alex. Those who notice Christians thinking and living differently want to know whether fitting in with us is even worth considering. Like the crowd in Jerusalem that day, they are diverse and multicultural, and they have little or no affinity with our faith. They are definitely not Galileans.

Listening. The first issue for this new audience is not whether our message is true, but whether it produces people who will accept them, regardless of their starting point. Our church plant in Berkeley meets in an artsy movie theater in the middle of downtown. Among the thousands who walk and drive by on a Sunday morning are scientists, venture capitalists, hipsters, the homeless, secretaries, professors and criminals. Many are immigrants, but almost all are from somewhere else. They represent every race and language on earth. They come to Berkeley for what the city has to offer: 400 restaurants, America’s top-ranked public university and the chance to start a business.

It is like Jerusalem, with people gathered from all over the world hoping to have a special experience in this special place. The Jewish faith shared by an otherwise diverse crowd on the Day of Pentecost parallels the near-religious skepticism so common in our city. As UC Berkley Chi Alpha pastor Marc Madrigal puts it, “The danger here isn’t being persecuted to death; it’s being ignored to death.”

Why? The spiritual pilgrims of our region generally feel the Church is not accepting, so they strike first by not accepting us.

At one of our very early preview services held in a small hotel conference room, a pilgrim visitor said, “You’re not what I expected. All of my friends hate evangelicals. But the truth is, none of them know any. You’re not the Fox News people.” Her comment was not so much about disdain for a network as it was a confession of her own prejudice.

This young woman stereotyped Christians as unthinking, intolerant and just plain mean. Her first question was not, “Is the good news credible?” Rather, it was, “Are you credible?”

She wants to know not just whether the group will accept her, but whether she can accept us.

Responding. Maintaining faithfulness to our doctrines and practices is crucial to answering this question. After intolerance, the second biggest offense among pilgrims is evasion. Our LGBT friends have made it clear they respect us because they know our Assemblies of God position on their sexuality and on same-sex marriage. Clever wording to avoid directness suggests an off-putting lack of integrity. So our ability to attract and welcome others is actually degraded when we back away from biblical positions — just as it is when we turn those positions into weapons for beating them down. The truth spoken in love is still compelling.

Is there room for someone like me among people like you? Yes. Can we welcome anyone while still holding biblical standards on lifestyles and leadership? Yes.

Jesus is the only agent of personal transformation. Our ministries are just one vehicle He can use. Jesus said, “apart from me, we can do nothing,” (John 15:5).

People of all kinds who are attracted to truth spoken in love and surrounded by a faithful, caring community will be open to the transforming work of the Spirit of Christ.

When the pilgrims seem to resist, sometimes it’s their way of asking us another question. Some who heard Peter mocked outright, saying, “They have had too much wine” (Acts 2:13).

Even those who did not mock were “[a]mazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’ ” (Acts 2:12).

This statement surfaces the second question those outside the faith are asking: Is there room for someone like me among practices like yours?

While calmly exploring alternative expressions of spirituality, many pilgrims have anxiety about the charismatic Christian experience. For example, The New York Times defines Pentecostals as, “Evangelicals whose faith centers on an emotional, even ecstatic, belief: that the Holy Spirit can bless the faithful with gifts like speaking in tongues or the power to heal. All Pentecostals share an electric style of worship.”

After reading this, pilgrims considering a visit to one of our churches might conclude that this experience would be simply too far out of their comfort zone. However, a well-led ministry can not only make outsiders feel at home, but create an environment where they are drawn to the experience of the Spirit. How could we earn the right to prove this to outsiders?

Listening. From their perspective, then, it’s quite reasonable to ask, “What does this mean?”

What if we suspended labeling and actually listened to what people far from God are asking?

For example, I have greeted many newcomers to our services in Berkeley — often people who are educated (two-thirds of our adults have at least a bachelor’s degree) and quite accomplished in life. But when visiting a church, the self-confidence typical of our population turns into a special kind of anxiety I can see on their faces. People who take on every kind of challenge the rest of the week are afraid of what might happen to them during one hour on Sunday morning.

These anxieties are groundless, but present nonetheless.

Responding. So how do we flow in an authentic experience of Jesus’ power without communicating to pilgrims that they must sacrifice their intellect to join with us? While there is enough genuine weirdness out there to keep this stereotype alive, our starting point should not be defensiveness — backing away from the real-time expressions of the Holy Spirit so central to our spirituality.

When the Galileans find their native language too small to express the greatness of God, it overflows its banks into glossolalia as the Spirit gives utterance. The pilgrims (“both Jews and converts to Judaism”) report that, “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues !” (Acts 2:11).

This new experience of the Word of God breaking over them in power does not drive the pilgrims away, but it is the reason they gather.

The crowd wanted to know, “What does this mean?”

So Peter, standing with the Eleven, “raised his voice and addressed the crowd” (Acts 2:14).

First, Peter explains they are not hearing the ravings of a drunken mob. Then he explains: “this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). People will be open to our spirituality if we help them understand with biblical teaching and practical wisdom, rather than assuming everyone gets it and anyone who doesn’t is an enemy.

The best way to welcome newcomers into the presence of the Holy Spirit, then, is through an unswerving focus on Bible-based Pentecostal substance rather than on our personal preferences in Pentecostal style. Our Fellowship now involves about one percent of the world’s population. Some of these brothers and sisters have very long services; others take less than an hour. Some prefer loud, demonstrative worship, while others feel brief, urban folk music is best. In one service, people moved on by the Spirit actually appear to be sleeping. In another, they run the aisles. Which one is truly Pentecostal?

The answer is all of them — as long as we are trusting real-time encounters with the Spirit to produce biblical fruit: prophetic preaching, healing of the sick, deliverance of the afflicted, salvation of the lost, mobilization and edification of the saints and the full operation of the baptism and gifts of the Spirit. In this prophetically charged atmosphere, anything becomes possible. 

A hotel manager who rented us the first public space in which our church met asked us a good question: “What is your church about?”

Since that day, others have asked this many, many times. How should we answer?

“Our music is energetic, and we sing for a long time!”

“We have excellent espresso served in the lobby before every service!”

“Our band wears untucked plaid shirts.”

“Our pastor really brings the fire!”

All of those may be true, and all the choices they represent matter, but none of them are the point, and none matter much to pilgrims. What does matter is whether this ministry is a place where they can find hope and help.

There simply is no argument against the sick recovering. There is no argument against the discouraged hearing an uplifting prophetic word. There is no argument against releasing the bound-up. An insistence on substance first recognizes that our style choices do count, but only because they can make us more open and relatable to the culture. Whether the service lasts three hours or 45 minutes is not a divine  inevitability; it is someone’s decision. In truth, healing can take place whether we serve espresso in the lobby or not.

Peter simply tells the story of Joel’s prophecy to the pilgrims, culminating with the narrative of Jesus coming to save us from sin and death. He speaks to the crowd in language they can all understand, but he sticks to the biblical facts.

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (Acts 2:36).

Can I truly meet with Jesus without embracing the bizarre? Yes. Becoming part of our community is not about being odd. It’s about believing that Jesus still changes lives, and then letting the chips fall where they may. People will sometimes misunderstand, but the answer to that is more substance, more changed lives. Simply put, Pentecostal substance is Jesus, “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

Holding biblical standards while loving people answers the question of our credibility. Prioritizing substance over style answers the question of what our experience means.

Even in our very post-everything city, we offer public prayer opportunities in every Sunday service, frequently emphasizing healing. The style of these altar times is quite low-key, but people respond because we present something real without raising our voices (which is important in our setting). In a different context, this opportunity would likely work better another way. But if we make style the focus because it is easier to manage and control, substance will slip into the background and we could squander opportunities to help pilgrims — as well as the faithful. We can do better.

What Shall We Do?
Everything we believe about our culture is true — somewhere. The changes rushing at us are so profound the world can seem like a Rubik’s cube, with every twist producing a new and unpredictable combination of patterns. The sense that our context is more of a seascape than a landscape can be unnerving to Christian leaders, who may wonder whether ministry from the margins is even possible.

Focusing on the main idea can keep us from over-reacting, lashing out or caving in. Nothing has changed in God’s kingdom. Jesus is still Lord and Christ. He is still Head of the Church. His Spirit, poured out according to the Prophet Joel, is still the promise “for you and your children and all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39).

At the conclusion of Peter’s sermon, the pilgrim crowd, cut to the heart, asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).

Peter told them to repent, believe in Jesus, participate in water baptism and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Three thousand responded, and the apostolic church formed that day became the platform from which the good news went out to the world.

Nothing has changed. The first century Roman world was a vastly more difficult missionary context than our own. God was not limited then. God is not limited now. Even Bill Gates now admits his family has begun attending a church!

Dealing with a mainly-pilgrim audience in Berkeley, we have noticed a trend among those we have water baptized. Their testimonies are unconventional. Our typical baptized person had an influential one-on-one relationship with a believing friend and attended our Sunday services and experienced the sovereign work of the Spirit over a fairly long timeline. The exact combination of each influence is impossible to know, and there are no heroes in the process. But what we have learned is this: Our job is   simply to take the barriers out of the way.

Holding biblical standards while loving people answers the question of our credibility. Prioritizing substance over style answers the question of what our experience means. When those barriers come down, pilgrims can come home.

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