The scene was surreal. In the middle of a busy rush at Starbucks, one of my fellow baristas discovered that my “real job” was working at a church down the street. Acting as if she had never come in contact with a live pastor before, she began squealing with delight, telling every customer and employee of her discovery.
This revelation caused a spontaneous spiritual combustion at the store, and I listened as a group of people circled around the espresso bar and regaled me with stories of their spiritual history.
Selma went first: “I think Christianity has an important place in society. I don’t personally follow it, but I figure, whatever makes you happy, do it.”
Matt quickly followed, revealing the painful interactions he had experienced: “Christianity is for simple-minded people. When they talk to you, they act as if you are a robot. They have an agenda to promote, and if you don’t agree with them, they’re done with you.”
Tatia thought about Matt’s comments for a moment, and then added her own. “I don’t know if that’s what bothers me so much. What really gets under my skin is that all the church really wants from you is your money.”
Justin put the finishing touches on the conversation, and seemed to summarize everyone’s feelings when he said: “Look, we all know that ‘God’ is out there at some level, but no one has a right to tell another person what ‘God’ looks like for them. Each person is free to express that however they want, but they should keep their opinions to themselves.”
Such was my baptism by fire into the emerging culture. In that moment I realized most of the training I had received in “evangelism” didn’t fit my Starbucks friends. The biggest barrier wasn’t their lack of information; it was their attitude. They were biased against Christianity. How could I engage these people in a way that bridged the gap between their current spiritual condition and a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ?
This encounter happened in the late 1990s while I was working at Willow Creek in Axis (the ministry for 20-somethings). Willow had been on the front lines of evangelism since its inception in the 1970s, but as the church aged, we began to notice a trend: the attitudes of the not-yet-Christians in the emerging generation were changing. Amid increasing interest in spirituality, fewer and fewer 20-somethings were translating that spiritual interest into church attendance.
Axis was born in 1996 to wrestle with the question: “What does it take to effectively engage the emerging generation with the message and life of Jesus?”
I was privileged to work with Axis for five years. To speed up my learning, I also took a part-time job at Starbucks. Since I had grown up as a pastor’s kid, I thought I understood evangelism. But my three years at Starbucks taught me that simple formulas and canned presentations were woefully incomplete if we were to connect with this generation.
So Selma, Tatia, Matt, Justin, and others at Starbucks became my new instructors on evangelism. I began to re-think the whole process of engaging the emerging culture for Christ. This journey has since led me to leave Willow Creek and plant River City, a new church in inner-city Chicago. Here we continue to experiment with ways to introduce this generation to Jesus.
Pre- and Post-Christians
People are way too complex to put into boxes, but it helps to describe two very different spiritual portraits, and then ask which portrait best describes your friends who don’t yet know Christ.
First, “Pre-Christians.” These are individuals who at some level are open to the idea of Christianity and, given the right circumstances, could see themselves embracing it. Maybe this is a man who grew up in a Catholic home but had never grasped the message of grace. Maybe this is a woman who grew up in a church youth group, lived the crazy party scene in college, and after graduation begins looking again for spiritual roots. Maybe this is a person who had no church experience, or at least no negative impressions.
There are a variety of hues in the Pre-Christian portrait, but the common element is a relative openness to the gospel that, with the right approach, could be cultivated.
Second, “Post-Christians.” These are people who have seen Christianity somewhere along the way and have decided they are not interested. For example, a young man who grew up in a Christian home and was disillusioned by his parents’ messy divorce. Or someone who had attended church but witnessed something as painful as a nasty split or as subtle (yet subversive) as hypocritical Christians who said one thing and did another.
Other Post-Christians have no church experience at all, but their experiences with Christians, even if only through the media, have been negative—they consider Christians preachy or legalistic or untrustworthy.
Sometimes it’s as simple as negative interaction with the idea of Christianity; after seeing public scandals and watching a diminishing reputation, they decided they didn’t want to be associated with it.
The common element is that they, rightly or wrongly, feel like they already understand Christianity and are not interested.
After explaining these two categories, we ask people at our church to identify which portrait more aptly describes their friends who are not Christians. About 25 percent will say their friends are Pre-Christian. Yes, there are plenty of Pre-Christians out there, and they matter to Christ as much as anyone.
But 75 percent indicate their friends are Post-Christian, with a huge trust crater that needs to be overcome in the journey toward Christ. The 75 percent seem almost relieved to have a lens by which to understand their friends. They are grateful to discover that the slow trust-rebuilding process is no reflection of their doing something wrong, but is actually the only way to engage a Post-Christian.
These differences require distinct approaches. Pre-Christians tend to be open to the idea of going to church if it is relevant and they can meet other people their age. The absence of Christ in their lives is not usually out of anger at God or broken trust with Christians. God just hasn’t been a priority so far.
Post-Christians, on the other hand, have a decided bias against organized religion. A well-meaning River City person might say, “Hey, I’d love to invite you to my church this weekend to hear a great message and meet other cool Christians. It’s a very powerful service and very relevant to our lives.” The Post-Christian would just shrug and say, “That’s cool that you’ve found something that works for you. I’m not into Christianity though.”
How are we to reach this person?
“Awake and Invite”
For friends who are Post-Christian (we emphasize this group not because they are more important, but because traditional methods of evangelism have missed them), we suggest an approach we call “Awake and Invite.” It parallels the vivid imagery Jesus used to describe contagious evangelists: salt and light.
Salt is a powerful metaphor, because it is all about proximity and time. For salt to cure something, it needs to be right up against the surface, and it takes time to have its desired affect.
We often teach the truth from Ecclesiastes that “eternity is in the heart of every man and woman.” For that eternal center to be awakened and connected to the truth of Jesus, however, someone has to be salt in that friend’s life. Through skilled question asking, the witness of a transformed life, powerful love, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, every Christian has the ability to be a powerful salt-carrier that helps each of his or her friends awaken to spiritual realities.
Light, on the other hand, is that force that breaks through the darkness and calls people to itself. Light is an environment you invite your friends to in the hope that something will happen to open their soul to a spiritual moment where God can meet them in a powerful way.
This is our philosophical framework. We need both contagious Christians and creative environments to make up our church’s “Awake and Invite” opportunities. Here are some of those opportunities:
Serving/Social Justice. It’s interesting that Jesus never once called someone to become a Christian. He simply laid out a powerful two-word invitation: “Follow Me.” This is important to remember, because if our Post-Christian friend declines an invitation to church, this isn’t the end of the road in our spiritual friendship. There are lots of ways to invite someone to experience Jesus besides attending a church service.
One of the most powerful of these opportunities is when we invite friends to discover God’s heart for the poor, disadvantaged, and oppressed. These experiences are often reserved for the already-convinced in church life, but we emphasize that many times a Post-Christian’s problem is with church, not with the activities of a Jesus-follower.
This kind of thinking shapes almost everything we do. For instance, in April 2004 we put all of our collective energies into an event hosting Princess Kasune Zulu, an international spokeswoman for the hiv/aids crisis.
Princess lost both of her parents to aids, and then contracted hiv from her husband before losing him as well. Instead of getting knocked out by this, she made it her life mission to let people know about Jesus, and to raise awareness around the world of the aids pandemic.
An event like this would normally galvanize Christians to respond in mercy to this crisis, but it would often be overlooked for its evangelistic potential.
We made this event a rallying point for all of our Post-Christian friends. Not only did we invite them in force, we even invited our Post-Christian friends to the pre-event training with World Vision (the sponsoring organization for Princess). We gathered as believers and not-yet-believers to learn how the child sponsorship program worked in Zambia.
We estimate that at least 20 percent of the 500 participating in the Princess Zulu event were not Christians, but they all accepted badges designating them as River City/World Vision Ambassadors.
It was an important point of contact, a common cause, and a trust-building experience.
We also do monthly serving projects through River City, ranging from neighborhood street cleaning to hanging out with the elderly, and we urge our people to use these as opportunities to awaken their Post-Christian friends to the civic responsibilities of “spirituality” and to invite them into an environment where they will interact with Jesus followers (and, we hope, to have an encounter with Jesus himself).
The Spoken Word. I quickly learned that many approaches we’d used in a suburban environment didn’t cross over to the urban context. We had to start over. As we looked for things that were already attracting the emerging generation and carried some sort of spiritual element, we discovered a movement that was particularly successful in the hip-hop community: the Spoken Word (also called Soul Poetry Café).
This is a place where creative minds gather to artistically express everyday realities like politics, relationships, and spirituality through the spoken medium. Anything goes at a Spoken Word café, and attendees are ready to hear artists’ opinions on everything from current policy to spiritual convictions.
After attending several of these, we felt that doing our own Spoken Word was a great way to reach Post-Christian friends. Our worship pastor began actively recruiting artists and mainline acts from other events. He then used those commitments to publicize our event. Spoken Word now happens on the fourth Friday of every month. We bring together anywhere from 50-80 people from our community, most of them strongly Post-Christian.
Trans-ethnic Community. This one is more of a “feel” than an activity, but we are strongly committed to a multi-ethnic effort to reach lost friends. Simple logic now dictates that if we are going to reach the full spectrum of our Post-Christian friends, we need a ministry that can reach people from a variety of backgrounds.
Chicago is one of the most diverse, yet segregated, cities in the country. This means that despite the fact you live among myriad nationalities, chances are low that you will ever share life with them in a meaningful way.
At River City we’ve seen that you can produce all kinds of programs to reach people, but if the ministry is not bathed in love, it will be, as the apostle Paul said, “a clanging cymbal.” We also are committed to the prayer of Jesus in John 17 that His body would be “One” as the Trinity is One, so that the watching world may know of the power of Christ.
Many of our Post-Christian friends have commented that this racial reconciliation is what drew them to River City well before the desire to be a part of any kind of organized church.
Sunday Services. Emphasizing the need to be “salt” to our Post-Christian friends does not downplay the role of the Sunday services. The truth is, if the outside-the-church stuff is working, the Post-Christians, at some point, will reconsider the idea of Christianity. When that happens, it is crucial that they experience God when they visit the church.
Here we’ve learned from one of the greatest “worship” leaders of our generation: Bono. In an interview in the early days of U2, he was asked what made their band unique among all of the others.
“Our goal,” he said, “is to blur the line between the stage and the audience. We want to create a shared experience for everyone there.”
That’s our desire for those who visit River City. We hope that through engaging worship, authentic teaching, and a primal sense of the presence of God in our community, they will have a shared spiritual experience.
They may not be able to put it into words, but we hope the service touches their spiritual center in a way that draws them back again.
—Daniel Hill is pastor of River City Community Church in Chicago, Illinois.
“Reaching the Post-Christian,” by Daniel Hill, Leadership Journal, 2004