Let’s cut to the chase on something.
Almost everybody who follows Christ, and almost every gathering of those Christ-followers constituting a church, says the same thing:
“We want to reach the world for Christ.”
Yet most don’t.
So where’s the breakdown?
It’s not strategy. There are vast numbers of churches who are successfully penetrating the culture of the “nones,” growing through conversion growth, and who willingly offer their tried and true strategies to any and all who wish to learn.
It’s not theology. As mentioned, almost every Christian church would have evangelism as part of their core values and integral to their mission statement.
It’s not the new generation of leadership. Most young leaders got into the game to see a lost world won to Christ. They are sold out and ready to rock.
It’s not the new generation of Christians. If you want to meet an evangelistic animal, spend time with a new Believer. They are, in the best sense of the word, shameless with enthusiasm.
So what is the problem?
When challenged about His own missional emphasis toward those on the outside of faith, He responded: “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what the Scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders'" (Matthew 9:12-13, Msg).
The problem? Seemingly long-term “insiders.”
Countless numbers of leaders and members of churches have given in to a Christian consumerism. They embrace a mentality that gives ample rhetorical support to evangelistic intent but resists violently at the point of implementation because -- at the point of actually “doing” it -- it “costs” them.
In other words, scratch the surface of a sacrificial, pick-up-your-cross, to-die-is-gain, eat-my-flesh-and-drink-my-blood Christian…
…and you have an it’s-all-about-me, spiritually narcissistic, turned-inward, meet-my-needs, feed-me consumer.
Don’t believe me?
Let’s listen in:
“Of course I want to reach lost people,”
…but I’m not going to see us change the music.
…but I’m not going to lead a capital campaign to raise the money.
…but I’m not going to park far away.
…but I’m not going to risk stirring things up right now in the church.
…but I’m not going to attend at a different service time.
…but I’m not going to start a new church.
…but I’m not going to stand for the pastor dressing casually.
…but I’m not going to give money to launch a new site or relocate.
...but I’m not going to watch someone on a video.
…but I’m not going to put in 50 or 60-hour weeks.
…but I’m not going to let them start playing drums.
…but I’m not going to change how I preach.
…but I’m not going to give up my favorite seat.
…but I’m not going to turn things over to a bunch of 20-somethings.
…but I’m not going to attend on Saturday night.
…but I’m not going to…
You fill in the rest of the blanks.
The problem with outreach today is that the most basic and elemental issues related to building a relationship with someone apart from Christ;
...and then engaging in spiritual conversations;
...and then inviting them to an open and winsome and compelling “front door” so that they can come and see, come and hear, come and experience;
...is resisted by the very people who say they want those unchurched people to come and find Jesus.
Why? Because it would call for sacrifice or inconvenience of some kind. A leader would have to work harder, or invest in vision-casting and face potential opposition. Attenders would have to be part of a church that no longer exists solely to serve them, but to serve those who have yet to enter the doors.
Which means that evangelism is fine in theory, but not in practice, because in practice evangelism almost always involves death to self, the complete anti-consumer state of mind.
So can we change? Sure. But only when we look in the mirror and own the truth about our consumerism: we say we want them in heaven,
…but we act like they can go to hell.
James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.