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The Seismic Shift in Outreach

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, February 4, 2013

The Seismic Shift in Outreach

There has been a seismic shift in outreach that few church leaders are understanding, much less pursuing.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the vanguard of evangelistic outreach was direct proclamation of the gospel. Whether the crusades of Billy Graham or the creative approaches of Willow Creek Community Church, presentation led the way.

This led to joining a community, and eventually, being discipled into participation with the cause.

From the 1990s through the 2000s, community took the lead. People wanted to belong before they believed. Skepticism was rampant, and trust had to be earned. Once enfolded, Christ was often met in the midst of that community. 

Cause, again, was the last to take hold.

From the 2010s forward, “cause” has become the leading edge of our connection with a lost world, and specifically the “nones” (and it is increasingly best to replace the term “unchurched” with the “nones”). Consider the recent Passion conference in Georgia. What arrested outside media attention was the commitment to eradicate modern-day slavery, not the 60,000 students in attendance much less the messages related to the Christian faith.

In a word, “cause.” 

This made the gathering of 60,000 college students in the Georgia Dome for that cause become attractional. In other words, then and only then did “community” come into play. Then, after exploring that community, Christ could be – and was – introduced.

Think of this shift in terms of moving people through stages of introduction:


Unchurched >>> Christ >>> Community >>> Cause


Unchurched >>> Community >>> Christ >>> Cause


Nones >>> Cause >>> Community >>> Christ

It is important to note how far the message of Christ is from the mind and sentiment of the average “none.” It’s not that the church should “bury the lead” in terms of putting Christ at the end of the line – remember, we’re talking strategy. It’s just that leading with Billy Graham’s simple “The Bible says” was a strategy designed for people in a different place spiritually than many are today.

The more post-Christian a person is, the more evangelism must embrace not only “event/proclamation,” but “process” and “event/proclamation.” Earlier models were almost entirely “event/proclamation” oriented, such as revivals, crusades, or door-to-door visitation. As I’ve written about in other places, this is only effective in an Acts 2, God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem context. 

“Process” models are needed in Acts 17, Mars Hill, nones/skeptical contexts. 

Like the one we live in today.

The presentation of Christ must remain central to our thinking, to be sure. That is the only reason we are even talking about strategy; the goal is to present Christ and Him crucified. But is that where we start? On Mars Hill, the spiritual illiteracy was so deep that Paul had to begin with cultural touchstones, lead in to creation, and work his way forward. 

It took him a while to get to Christ.

And community? It matters, but the average person has tastes of that already. Maybe not functional, but they don’t seem as drawn to it as they used to be. Perhaps it is because of the lure and illusion of social media, or because they’ve simply given up on it, but it’s not the great “search” it once was.

So there has been a great, seismic shift. Today, it is cause that arrests the attention of the world.

Which brings us to the challenge. 

First, to recognize the seismic shift, and begin to strategize accordingly.

Second, to realize how difficult this will be. If cause is in the lead, and community close behind, the church is at a deficit. In the minds of many, our causes have been mundane (let’s raise money for a fellowship hall!) or alienating (Moral Majority!). And the close second of community? Our reputation for dysfunction in that area is legendary.  

But there is great irony in the challenge. Jesus wed mission and message together seamlessly, proclaiming the Kingdom that had come while healing the leper and feeding the hungry. He mandated concern for the widow and the orphan, the homeless and naked, the imprisoned and hungry, while speaking of the bread of life and a home in heaven.

In other words, we should have been nailing this all along.

And if community is lurking in the back of the minds of people as a felt need, that should be a calling card as well. Jesus challenged his followers about the importance of observable love toward one another as the ultimate apologetic for His life and ministry and message.

And even if it takes a while to get to Christ, He should be presented raw and unfiltered in all of His scandalous specificity. As Moltmann proclaimed, “the crucified God.”

So as we ponder the rise of “cause” as the cultural bridge over which to walk, perhaps the greater truth is more elemental:

Do all three.

Imagine a church that had community, cause and the undiluted message of Christ in the vanguard of its efforts.

It might just become the church Jesus had in mind all along that would reach the world.

James Emery White


Editor’s Note

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, 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.

The Seismic Shift in Outreach