The Gospel of the Unchurched
It’s the beginning of the New Year. Among most churches that means some reflection about intentions for the year ahead. Among Methodists, and I imagine other denominations that view themselves as having an evangelical nature, that means certain terms start flying around more than normal, reminding me once again how irritating buzz words are. Yesterday, the term that popped to mind for me was “unchurched.” That word makes me cringe every single time some well-meaning pastor or lay person utters it to inspire folks to go out and invite people to some event or service. As though the “unchurched” are some biblical category of folks that we are called to reach.
The Misdirect of Unchurched
The trouble is, we aren’t called to preach the Gospel to the “unchurched.” We are called to preach the Gospel to the world. Worse than that, who exactly are the “unchurched”? For that matter, who are the “churched,” and why do we never hear about those folks? And if being “churched” is such a great thing, then why is it so hard to convince the “unchurched” to become the “churched” simply by inviting them? Why do we need the best light show, the most entertaining preacher, or the least offensive message that is hip and relevant to the culture? If the “churched” is the thing to be, then shouldn’t the church be attracting folks just with its existence? I suppose that depends on the definition of what the church is.
And here is the problem with buzzwords. They make for really great soundbites and slogans, but really poor theology. Because the church, as all those looking to reach the unchurched will tell you, isn’t a building. It’s not about butts in seats on Sunday morning. Or about the four walls of the place you come worship on Sunday. It’s all about being the church… Another buzz phrase in this case. So, I guess, according to these folks, seeking the unchurched isn’t to get them to be churched, it’s to get them to be the church. Which isn’t about a building or the four walls where we gather on Sunday morning. It’s all about reaching the unchurched and helping them be the church. See how that works?
The Gospel Mission
And nowhere in that whole mishmash of well-intentioned mission explanation do we get what it really is to be the church, or understand who it is we are looking to reach, or how to effectively reach them. But, if we go to the Gospel, the actual one, not the one about the unchurched, we find Christ gives us the actual mission.
“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. ~ Luke 24:46-47
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” ~ Acts 1:8
So, we are to begin in Jerusalem. For us, that would be within the walls of our churches and the streets of our neighborhoods. And the goal is to proclaim the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ to all nations, because of the crucifixion and resurrection. Key thoughts here, we are to proclaim this to ALL people. So, that’s who we are looking to reach, which if we read through the rest of the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ, seemed to include the churched (those within the synagogues and power structures of Israel) and those without. So, I suppose the who would be everyone, wherever we happen to run across them.
Who is the Church?
Defining the church can be a little harder, but I think Paul sums it up pretty well, repeatedly, in Colossians.
And he is the head of the body, the church. ~ Colossians 1:18
It seems we are indeed correct. The church is not a building. It is instead a living organism, created by the Holy Spirit as He conforms the disciples of Christ, who have accepted Him as Lord, into one body with many members with Christ as the head. Or it is the Bride of Christ, once again made up of the body of believers, united by the Holy Spirit in obedience to Christ as Lord.
At the same time, this doesn’t really speak to a process of being “churched,” nor lend itself to a theology of seeking to “church” out of their “unchurched” state. It speaks to God’s action in response to the lost responding to Him through the message of disciples of Christ. So, I suppose what it is to be the church is to follow the commands of Christ and allow Holy Spirit to conform us to Him in all areas of our lives.
We now know who we are, which has nothing to do with where we find ourselves on a given Sunday morning. It’s about how we live our faith every day. We now know who we seek: everyone not following the commands of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, and thus still trapped in the bondage of their sin, no matter where they find themselves on Sunday. What does Scripture say about the most effective way to draw people from being lost in their sin to being part of the body of Christ?
How Do We Respond?
We go back to those first verses where Christ commissioned His church. Or the account in Matthew:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” ~ Matthew 28:16-20
God gave us the means to be relevant in our generation. Proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Preach Christ’s life, crucifixion, and resurrection to the world. Tell everyone you meet why you live your life for your Lord. Lift Christ up, and He will draw all men to Him. I actually meant to use that verse. It’s been popping up a lot this past week for some reason. “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men to me.” This is Christ in John, explaining what kind of death He would die.
That didn’t seem to fit when I first read it over, but I suppose it does indeed fit here. It is the essence of the message that saves. Men with evil in their hearts lifted up the Christ. But the Father raised Him higher to overcome evil with His amazing grace. The Gospel in a nutshell, the power of the cross, the purpose of our lives as Christ followers. And still the only message the world needs to hear if we are to do as our Christ told us, seek and save the lost.
Where Is Our Mission Field?
So, a last thought on the “unchurched”. If you open your eyes to what God reveals, you will find the unchurched sitting on the pew beside you. You will find them sitting on the street corner or in the football stands on a Sunday afternoon. The “churched” walk out in the world following the commands of their Lord as surely as you see them singing in the choir. There’s really no such thing as the “churched” or “unchurched”. What there are are the saved being sanctified and the lost and damned. Why don’t we as the converted start proclaiming the Christ, and see how many folks He will draw to Himself? Perhaps we’ll pay attention to conformed hearts instead of butts in the seats?
Be blessed and be a blessing.