Being & Building Followers & Friends of Jesus
The “Quote/Unquote” Interview
Phil Miglioratti queries Rick Richardson,
Author of "You Found Me"
RICK Richardson of Billy Graham Center ~
Those are people who in surveys when they were asked what their religious preference or identification was said they had none. They may be atheist or agnostics, or they might be nothing in particular. Nones are not necessarily unbelievers or unspiritual people. They might be very spiritual they might believe in God (80% do) and even in Jesus. What’s more, 20% of them pray daily, and 5% of them say they attend church weekly (stats from several years back). They just don't identify with any religious organizations or institutions at all.
Research tells us what's going on with people, churches, and society. Research needs to be used with discernment and prayer, but it can give us insight into best practices. It can help us understand people's lives better. It can give us insights into communication and culture, and what connects for people. It can inform us regarding the demographics of neighborhoods we want to reach, it can highlight the dynamics of what is working in leadership in particular contexts, etc. Research can give us a whole wealth of information, and insight, and ministry help as we consider or pursue our calling. However, it can't tell us the full answer because that needs to come from God, from understanding our own capacities and capabilities and history, and from understanding the people around us. But research can do a lot to give us the background and the insight and the best practices of others so we can make good decisions and pursue good directions.
You might be surprised at how likely your church, whatever it is, was represented by churches like yours in our study and in our cohorts. For example, in our research and our cohorts, we have had every size church. We have also had rural, suburban, and urban churches. We have had cross-cultural dynamics included, as well as different socioeconomic realities. We also have different ages of churches, and different kinds of leaders represented.
Secondly, even if we don't have a church that's exactly like yours, we have discovered a lot of principles, best practices and dynamics that could be applied and adapted to your situation. So, I would suggest a lot of it is very relevant to many people reading this article.
For eight years now we have been drawing groups of 6 to 10 pastors into cohorts. Initially we ran the cohorts for a year, and now we tend to run them for two. We have learned that two years can get churches to the tipping point of the cultural change churches need to become much more evangelistic and missional. We have already helped over 200 churches, and we are in the process of expanding to another 200 as a result of a large grant from the Lilly Foundation. As a result of years of work in many different kinds of churches, we have been able to field test a lot of the applications that we recommend coming from the research, and that are described in my book You Found Me.
In our cohorts, or leadership labs, we work with senior pastors because they are the only ones that can set the pace for culture change. But we have that senior leader bring another person along, an evangelism influence leader, who will help the church implement missional and evangelistic practices. Culture change in a missional and evangelistic direction rarely happens without the senior pastor setting the pace and holding out the vision. But on the other hand, every important ministry in a church needs leadership that goes beyond just that one senior leader. The combination of the senior pastor and influence leader has proven to be very, very effective.
Our cohorts have also focused on helping churches with three main things.
You might also notice that these three main ways we help churches also are the three main section of You Found Me. So, you can get a lot of help there as well. The really fun thing has been to see a number of our churches start reaching more people, becoming more vibrant, and making more disciples who make disciples.
“I am in this book and in my work and life a prioritist for evangelism, despite the fact that the word evangelism conjures up very negative images and association for too many in America. I want to reimagine and revitalize a chastened but courageous and clear evangelism … to reimagine and revitalize the experience of conversion to faith in the context of congregations.”
PHIL ~ Many Christian leaders preach and teach the priority of evangelism. Why do they need to take on the challenge of reimagining? … and … What do you mean by “a chastened evangelism?”
RICK ~ Too often evangelism has negative associations for people. It tends to produce guilt when we say the word. Most people in churches know that they are not very focused on witness, not excited enough about witness, and not very effective at witness. In denomination after denomination and in church after church, when we evaluate factors of vitality, evangelism always ends up being the lowest and least practiced, leaders feel badly about that. We all want to share God’s heart and values and priorities. When we look at the life of Jesus, witness, proclaiming the kingdom and inviting people to follow him, was absolutely central to his life. And he made disciples after his image and then told them to go do the same. His longing: to seek and to save the lost, to restore the broken, to heal the world, to make disciples who would join his mission. Still his heart.
So, we need to reimagine evangelism, so it no longer becomes the guilt producing trigger, but starts to become an empowering, inspiring, motivating, and catalyzing image. That's partly why we have chosen to focus on what we call the BLESS missional practices, five practices that help us live out what God set out as God’s mission when he called Abraham. He blessed Abraham and then said he would bless the nations of the earth through Abraham. The acronym for this mission to BLESS that we use is, “B”…
That kind of compelling and winsome vision for witness that breaks it down into doable and clear steps is very compelling for people today in our churches.
What I mean by a chastened evangelism is that sometimes we have preached the gospel in ways that turn people off because we might sound like we know it all or act like we are better than other people or appear judgmental. The two biggest fears the unchurched have when talking to Christians is fear of being judged and fear of being expected to be something that they're not. And in most of our gospel presentations, we play on those fears immediately, and shut down receptivity. That need not be. There are ways to share the gospel fully and boldly that involve using language that is powerful, pointed, Biblical, and true, but does not hook people’s fears of narrow, judgmental, dogmatic, and pushy people. For instance, when I talk about sin, I talk about sin in language people can understand and with which they identify. I talk about our self-centeredness, our self-absorption, our “selfie” culture where we all tend to endlessly work on the presentation of self to others in a social media world. It is all part of our tendency to put ourselves at the center and replace God. We all tend to have a God complex. When I talk about sin that way, and then confess my own, people often feel convicted, and the discussion turns toward Christ. And they don't feel like I am being judgmental and narrow and pushy. Not that I always get it right. I don't. Cracking the cultural code today is no easy thing. But together we can learn how to do it. And our research gave us a lot of clues.
“What did Jesus do? Jesus not only reached people and restored them; he also reproduced himself so that millions and ultimately billions could benefit from his heart and compassion. He reached. He restored. He reproduced. He released. He had a strategy to change the world. And whenever we recover it, we once again join that world-changing movement and contribute to it. We start becoming brighter and stronger.”
PHIL ~ Most pastors would heartily ‘Amen!” what you have said (just above). So, why are so many congregations unable to “recover” Jesus’ world-changing strategy?
RICK ~ The church always works between two equally disastrous errors. On the one hand, the church can sell out to the culture, and become a consumer-oriented, program driven church that helps build self-centered selfie world Christians. That kind of dissolving into culture robs the church of its countercultural witness and its ability to make disciples who differ at all from everybody else. On the other hand, churches can become so critical of the surrounding culture and so walled off from it that they really don't have communication and relational bridges to reach people. Churches tend to fall in one of those two directions, and often lose the critical tensions that are needed to reach people and make disciples that make disciples. We all long to reach those far from God and to make disciples that make disciples like Jesus called us to, but it is not easy to do. In my last chapter of You Found Me, I spend some time talking about how to keep those needed tensions together, and how to become conversion movements.
“The main problem with the church reaching new people, developing reproducers who advocate for faith and invite others into congregations, and then influencing communities for good is. . .the church!”
PHIL ~ This runs counter to those who blame the ineffectiveness of the Church in a decaying culture that is causing younger generations to reject Christianity; destining us to become an unchurched, God-forsaking nation . . .
RICK ~ It absolutely does! When you look through history, the church has often grown the most when culture has been in decay or decline. Look at the early church, exploding across a very pagan and hostile and persecuting culture. Or look at the church in China after the walls of communism came down and closed off the country. A church that had no Bibles, no visible churches, with very few resources grew faster and more vibrantly than at almost any other time or in any other country in history. As a famous politician said, we have found the enemy and he is us. A vibrant church operating in the power of the gospel and filled with the Holy Spirit will grow against all the cultural odds stacked against it. That is why I say our problem is not the secularizing of culture, but the secularizing church.
“Missional leaders plus a missional congregation leads to becoming a conversion community.”
PHIL ~ Please explain how this “equation” can empower us to reimagine evangelism as a congregational, not merely an individual, lifestyle.
RICK ~ We looked at 4500 Protestant churches, and then identified 60 of them that were doing the best at reaching people, making disciples, and staying vibrant. We identified 10 predictive factors that were common in those churches. You may know that in research when you can find predictive factors you have found pure gold. Most of the time research doesn't lead to predictive factors but only to correlation, which is to say, only finding things that exist in that church at the same time. But through the methodology of regression analysis in our research, we actually found predictive factors. Those 10 were able to be grouped in the two first parts of that equation. Missional Leaders + Missional Congregations = (become) Conversion Communities.
Missional leaders are leaders that practice witness and that integrate evangelism into the ministries they lead. In other words, evangelism is not some separate program or committee, it only works when it permeates the entire church in everything that church does. That takes leaders who are vibrantly reaching out in their own personal lives, and you also have ministries that integrate a concern for the unchurched in everything they do. It doesn't mean those ministries are focused on unchurched people. It means those ministries are hospitable toward unchurched people. How do you develop missional leaders? By intentionally trying to! It takes lots of story telling and inspiration, but it also takes accountability. We help churches ask their leaders at least once every month how their personal witness is going, and then what they are doing int heir ministries to integrate a concern and hospitality toward the unchurched. Simple practices like that can actually change a whole church culture over time. And churches rarely practice those simple acts. I have asked many lead pastors when was the last time their board or elders asked them about their life of personal witness. One pastor who responded typified many when he said, “11 years and counting…”
“Jesus makes disciples. The word disciple means learner, not primarily in the sense of learning head knowledge. Instead the emphasis here is on learning a lifestyle. Perhaps a better word for disciple would be apprentice.”
PHIL ~ How would an “apprentice” perspective help us reimagine our approach to disciple-making? And, how would that revitalize our evangelism?
RICK ~ Jesus apprenticed people and what it meant to be a disciple. He took them out to pray. He taught them in small groups. He took them with when he preached the large groups. They followed him and watched when he healed people and when he proclaimed the kingdom of God. They saw their own failure when he was taken and put on a cross. They experienced his forgiveness and his power after he rose from the dead. As a result, his church of 12 people changed the world. Too often in the West we have an information-oriented picture of discipleship. We dump Bible knowledge into people. And then we help them learn some personal piety, including some prayer, Bible reading, and fellowship. Information and piety are the dominant definition of discipleship in the Western church today, but it is a definition that is quite inadequate when it comes to defining discipleship in the way Jesus did. He apprenticed people into ministry, compassion, healing, and witness. He did not just pour information into their heads; he poured his all into their lives. That is why we need to recover that vision for apprenticing people, in simple ways, when we go together to the coffee shop, to the health club, to our places of business and recreation and study, when we help together in under resourced communities of need. In all those places, wherever we live, work, study, and play, we can apprentice people by taking them with us, meeting them there, becoming a small group together seeking in every context to bless people. A better vision and practice for apprenticing people as a way to make disciples will change the culture of our churches. I am so thankful for my pastor when I was working as an engineer. I offered to be a small group leader in the church, to teach a Sunday school, to usher, or to teach kids. He said no to all of it. He challenged me to primarily be the church’s missionary to Exxon Research and Engineering company where I worked. Then he committed to mentoring me and meeting me every month to pray for the mission. I formed a small missional community there. We prayed. We hosted events. We took people from Exxon on a ski trip. We reached people. I am so thankful my pastor said, “No! I don't want you focused inward on my church. I want you to become our missionary to Exxon.” And then he apprenticed me.
“Stories carry transformational power.”
PHIL ~ Agree or Disagree: Effective evangelism in today’s culture needs to shift from a scripted, step-by-step, monologue to a conversational sharing of life stories.
RICK ~ Yes! Honestly, people still need handles for sharing the truth of the gospel. So, I certainly don't throw out ways we help one another share about Jesus. But most often witness starts with conversational sharing of life stories. We ask people about their life and spiritual journey and we share ours.
“It takes more than missional leaders to become a conversion community.
It takes a missional congregational culture.”
PHIL ~ Help us reimagine church as a missional congregation that . . .
RICK ~ From our research, churches that are reaching people and making disciples that make disciples demonstrate some practices that were quite powerful and quite pervasive among the top churches reaching people. They were good at connecting with people and doing ministry outside the walls of the church. They had a real orientation on blessing other people. They had entry point ministries to invite people to attend when people were spiritually open and receptive. And they had a great process within the church of helping visitors know that they were the beloved of God and then how to respond. For instance, one predictive factor was that visitors have an immediate next step after first visiting a church. In that next step, they were welcomed, and had chances to contribute, and begin to commit to Christ. The presence of this immediate and compelling next step meeting or ministry was predictive. So, when there were missional leaders who were intentionally reaching out in their everyday lives, and missional congregations who were practicing ministry beyond the four walls of the church and bringing people into an entry point into the church, those churches were conversion communities. They were seeing lots of people come to Christ and stick. They were bright light and strong salt in their communities.
“You can have moral and theological boundaries and spiritual passion for Jesus
yet lack cultural bridges and connections.”
PHIL ~ Sometimes I wonder if God is reviving the Church by calling us to a revising of the Church. Not foundational theology but the traditions and trends that control our strategies and systems. Is it possible we are waiting for God to reprise a revival of the past instead of looking at culture, listening to the Spirit, and leaning into a fresh reimagining of what it means to be evangelistic in a post-industrial age?
RICK ~ Yes, I think there are many indications that revival is stirring in many emerging adults and college students across the country. Worship is playing a part in congregations like Hill Song. Healing and reconciliation are playing a part in many under resourced and multi-cultural communities. Stories form the past can be very powerful. But sometimes they also begin to control our mental models and our openness to what God might actually be today. Those mental models and inability to embrace what God is doing in our day won’t stop revival. But it may keep us from being part of it.
“It can happen again in America. Our greatest barrier is not the shift in secular culture,
but the silent and secularized church.”
PHIL ~ Rick, please give us a prayer we can pray with you toward a Spirit-led reimagination of evangelism and disciple-making …
RICK ~ Jesus, we long to fall in love with you and your gospel, to stand strong for truth and faith, and to sacrificially give ourselves to the people around us and build cultural and relational bridges. We also love your church. And we want your church, your bride, to come alive with your spirit and be the magnet that it can be as a countercultural community on fire for you. So, God help us. God renew us. God give us your heart for the world, for the lost and for your church to be the church so that people will come to know you and become disciples that make disciples. Oh Lord renew us. Oh Lord revive us!
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