Redeeming the World of Sport by Redeeming the People of SportRelevant Gospel Outreach Through Sports / Part 5
Classrooms? Commonplace and dark. Sanctuary? Beautiful but empty. Gymnasium? Far from being state of the art and a little undersized, but bursting with life.
Next we viewed a well groomed and spacious parking lot, filled with minivans and SUV’s. Beyond the sea of cars a three field soccer complex was brimming with excited adults cheering on energetic grade-schoolers who kicked black and white balls down the field.
I asked “how many people in these leagues are your parishioners?
He scanned the crowd. “I see about a dozen families.” This was perhaps 25% of the total.
“And how many in the gym are your folks?”
He paused, drew a mental picture of what we’d just visited and said: “probably 5 or 10 families.” Again, a low percentage.
I said nothing and continued to watch the soccer games. He looked at me, his frustration apparent and building. Beginning to wonder if he was wasting time and money on this consultant, he blurted out, “well can you help me or not? Can you tell me how to reach my community?”
My reply stunned him. “I can’t teach you anything my friend. Indeed, it is I need who need to learn from you!”
His puzzled look told me he still didn’t get it. I motioned to the cars in the lot and asked:
“How many of these cars will be here tomorrow morning?”
Unabashedly, he quickly pointed out “oh we don’t let them park here overnight, because we need the room for our….” His voiced faded as his face turned crimson. Bull’s-eye. The realization hit hard and yet the embarrassment quickly gave way to a relieved excitement as he haltingly stated the obvious.
“How did I miss it? I don’t need to go to the community, they’re already here! They’re coming to me!”
“Bingo! So, now are you ready to teach a seminar at the next Sports Outreach Summit on how to reach your community?”
That church, like many others, was sitting on a gold mine and didn’t even realize it. There was still much to do to help soccer and basketball families experience a personal relationship with Christ and assimilate into the larger church body, but this church had already overcome a major obstacle – connecting with the “un-churched” community. They were connected but still had much to learn…
I. The Un-churched are not all alike
All “un-churched” people are not alike and local churches make a tactical mistake by lumping all who don’t attend a church into a “one size fits all” category. “Un-churched” people share certain things in common, such as only entering a church building to attend a wedding or funeral1 but there are many distinguishing characteristics which subdivide the overall category termed “un-churched” into three major subcategories: the “never-churched,” the “other-churched” and the “de-churched.”2Additional analysis reveals all three subcategories of the “un-churched” can be placed on a continuum of how entrenched and committed an “un-churched” person is to their particular world view. This continuum of entrenchment can be charted and ranges from “affiliated” to “antagonistic.” Thus there can be up to nine definable subcategories of the “un-churched” and these are useful to describe and define the many different and unique profiles of those not affiliated with a church.
Churches that recognize each individual “un-churched” person has his or her own unique profile are better prepared to create outreaches specifically designed to lovingly share the message of Christ with each subcategory of the “un-churched.” What follows is a brief overview of the three major subcategories of the “un-churched,” starting with a synopsis of the “never-churched.”
A. The “Never-Churched”
The “never-churched” person is non-religious, which means they rarely, if ever, participate in a religious activity or service. For the most part, they have a secular mindset but most of them are more open to church related involvements than either of their counterparts: the “de-churched” and the “other-churched.” A few “never-churched” folks may actually have a personal relationship with Christ, but not with a church. Churches are sometimes surprised when a “never-churched” person expresses an interest in knowing more about the church and hearing about Christ!
There remains however, a significant portion of the “never-churched” who describe themselves as either atheistic or agnostic.3 This segment of the “never-churched” crowd tend to be less open to church activities but still are much different than a “de-churched” person.
B. The “De-Churched”
A “de-churched” person differs from the “never-churched” person in the sense they have been “churched” at one time but left the church because they had a negative experience with a church and/or church people. Their negative experiences encompass a broad range of hurts, wounds and disappointments. Some simply found the church to be irrelevant and moved on to other pursuits. Many experienced hypocrisy amongst church members and looked for authenticity elsewhere. Others were angered by how they or a family member was treated by a representative of the church. Perhaps a funeral or wedding did not meet their expectations or the pastor didn’t visit them during an illness. Regardless of the offense, they left angry, frustrated and embittered. The worst “de-churched” scenarios are those who have been victimized by a spiritual leader. These deeply wounded people face a daily struggle of trying to forge a new life, a life that keeps them as far from the church as possible.
Regardless of the reason, the “de-churched” are wary if not completely antagonistic to the church and to anyone associated with a church. This makes it extremely difficult for the church to reach them. To successfully impact the “de-churched” a church must commit to three things: intercessory prayer, long suffering patience and a consistent engagement in strategic activities that foster long term relationships with the “de-churched.”
Traditional strategies won’t work because the “de-churched” tend to be secular in their thinking and lifestyle, and because of past negative experiences the “de-churched” reluctantly, if ever, participate in any religious service or attend any traditional church related function.
What often surprises church people however, is a significant number of the “de-churched” have maintained a personal relationship with Christ after disassociating with the institutional church. They’ve been hurt by the church, not deserted by Christ. Many run into His arms for solace over the “de-churched” event which caused their hurt, but they vow to never again be associated with a church. While the “de-churched” may not be “reapable” they are “reachable.” But reaching them will not be done quickly and almost never through traditional means.
A Personal “De-Churched” Story
My friend was a young man of 30. This good man was active in his church, lovingly supportive to his wife and doting with his children. He was a good provider, had a wonderful house and was considered a genuinely great guy by all who knew him. His one problem was his “de-churched” father…
“My dad is so far from Christ. He used to be so much into the church; in fact my dad raised me in the church. Many people tell me my dad is the reason they are a Christian today and yet he is now so far from Christ. What happened to him? I’ll never be like him; he has disappointed so many people.”
My friend’s father was a “de-churched” person. The church youth pastor having an affair with a member of his dad’s family was a blow “but dad’s leaving had been coming on long before the affair. The reality of the pain and disillusionment of my friend because of his “de-churched” father became real to me at that moment. Unfortunately, it got worse.
The pressures of work, the monotony of marriage, trouble with teenagers all piled up. The thirty-year old turned forty and church attendance didn’t rate as high on the priority list. First he, then his wife started to accept a few work assignments on Sunday and one missed Lord’s Day service led to another, which led to yet another… Slowly but surely this man became a second generation “de-churched” father. He still professed a belief in Christ but gave little outward evidence of it. He was still a “great guy,” maintaining high moral and ethical standards, but feeding his soul through regular spiritual disciplines of Bible Study, Worship, Prayer, Church Attendance and Fellowship all but disappeared from his life. He still had a decent relationship with his wife and kids but his wife turned cold to God after a son was permanently disabled in a car accident. Blaming God, and believing He had let her and her son down, she refused to go to church even when her husband asked her to go with him. When she was finally ready to go to church her husband had drifted so far away, he was the one who wouldn’t go.
What’s the church to do? There’s no easy answer, but its response needs to be rooted in a three-fold principle for impacting the “de-churched”:
Most of all, the church must trust in the promises of God beginning with: “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it”4 and act in ways consistent with that belief. In this situation a group of about a dozen families of my friend’s church committed to staying in touch with this “de-churched” man and his family and routinely engaged them in social activities. These friends of the “de-churched” family understood recreational activities succeed where traditional church activities don’t. Invitations to go out to eat, take part in “card club” or a weekend “get-away” all enabled this group to “relate more than push religion, listen more than lecture and pray more than preach.” Their hope is to eventually see their friends restored in their relationship with the church and with Christ.
The “de-churched” need loved as much, maybe even more, than any of the “un-churched.” Winning them back to Christ and the church doesn’t happen easily or quickly. It takes a sustained effort over many years and through many relationships? Is your church up for the challenge?
There is one other subgroup of the “un-churched: the “other-churched.” This third group is unique and different from both the “never-churched” and the “de-churched.”
C. The “Other-Churched”
One unique difference of “other-churched” people is they are religious and regularly participate in formal religious activities. They come from the four other major religions in the world: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism; or from many minor sects, philosophies and animistic tribal traditions. A few are secular in their thinking but most have a religious world-view. A few may be open to discussing or learning about Jesus. Many even have a high view of Christ believing He was a prophet, a teacher or a good and wise man. None would call Him God and to many, calling Jesus the Son of God is blasphemous. Particularly Hindus and Muslims think highly of Jesus but they reject the Christian claims about Jesus being a Redeemer or the perfect God-Man.
So, “other-churched” people are those who choose a religion other than Christianity. They may tolerate Christians and see Christianity as a valid religion but they really have no desire to get involved in anything Christian because they have their own religion.
A Personal “Other-churched” Story
Barney was raised both culturally and spiritually a Jew. He participated in Sabbath School during childhood and celebrated his bar mitzvah. His Jewish heritage provided him with a religious world-view but he felt something was missing. As a young man, Barney drifted away from regular “religious” activity in the synagogue. During this time he struck up relationships with many people outside of his faith group, some who were followers of Christ. His Christian friends invited him to join them in two activities they shared a common passion for: music and sport. Over the course of the next few years, Barney stayed involved in the sports ministry of the church and became friends with other followers of Christ. After a few years, he made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
Sport was what initially attracted him but more importantly it was the one thing that kept him involved over a long period of time in which he was able to observe the gospel lived. Today Barney is happily married with three children and he and his wife are raising their children in the same church that used sport to reach him.
Not all “un-churched” people are the same. The “un-churched” fall into one of three subcategories: “never-churched” “de-churched” or “other-churched.” Each group is unique and will be impacted most effectively by a strategy specifically designed for them. One additional analysis is necessary for fully comprehending how to effectively reach the “un-churched.”
II. The “Un-churched” Continuum of the Three Subcategories
Each of the afore discussed subcategories – “never-churched,” “de-churched” and “other-churched” - contain members who fit onto a continuum of three further distinctions: a) Affiliated; b) Active; c) Antagonistic. Those who fall into the “affiliated” group are only nominally or culturally associated with a particular world view or religion. The “affiliated” members of all three categories (“never-,” “de-” and “other-churched”) are usually more open to Christianity whereas someone from the “active” segment of the three groups is most often the hardest to reach. Someone who is “actively” associated with another religion or an atheistic world view has thought through their beliefs and is committed to them. In addition, they have probably been committed to their religious group for many years and have established habitual life patterns that are hard to change.
Conversely, the “antagonistic” have “an axe to grind” because they have been hurt or offended by a Christian institution or person. Someone who is a “de-churched” or “never-churched” “antagonistic,” is often the most difficult to impact for Christ. However, if they are “antagonistic” to a religion other than Christianity, they may open to Christianity and are much easier to reach.
The following more precisely defines and explains the unique characteristics of this continuum.5
A. The “never-churched” continuum outlined.
Some “never-churched” are truly “active” and committed atheists. They have thought through many religious and spiritual issues and are convinced there is no God. They don’t share the animosity of an “antagonistic” atheist nor do they feel the need to vociferously defend their belief or attack others beliefs. They live comfortably within their world-view amidst their strongly held views. They live comfortably without any interaction with a church or church people. To them, at best, the church is irrelevant, at worst; it represents an unenlightened and ignorant group of bigoted people. Truly committed atheists represent a small minority of the “never-churched” category.
The great majority of the “never-churched” are only somewhat “affiliated” with the atheistic position by default. They haven’t really thought through all the various world-view possibilities nor do they have a strong emotional tie to this world view. They just know they’re not religious and so assume the only other option is to consider themselves atheists. They may actually be better described as an agnostic, as agnostics claim they don’t know what’s true about faith, religion and spiritual aspects of life. They’re not involved in a religion but are certainly not antagonistic to it.
However, a small number of the “never-churched” are “antagonistic” about things of faith and religion and most of these would be very similar to the “de-churched” because they had a bad experience with Christians who had offended them in some way. The difference is, the “de-churched” were actually part of a church at one time whereas the “antagonistic” “never-churched” person may only have had a bad experience with a Christian, not a church.
B. The “other-churched” continuum outlined
Someone who has been culturally raised as a Muslim, Jew, Hindu or in any other religious heritage, typically has a benign view of religious aspects of life and thus is only “affiliated” with their religious group. Most are moral people, at least from a secular perspective, but feel no compelling reason to choose one “religion” over another. They “affiliate” with a particular religion more out of ethnicity or because it is the predominate religion of their culture but they would not want to be considered a religious fanatic. They tend to be more open to Christianity, or any other religion, than those who are “active” in a particular religion.
By comparison, someone who is an “active” “other-churched” person is one who has studied, chosen and committed themselves to a specific religion. They are satisfied in their religion and are by far the hardest to reach and convert to Christ. They may be the Rabbi or Imam, Cantor or Zen Leader, but whatever their position or level of participation they are solidly committed to their religion. They can be affirmed for their dedication and commitment and reassured their desire to want to know God is a sign God is reaching out to them. It should be obvious however; it will take a long time for them to be convinced of the truth of Christ.
In contrast to the “active,” “other-churched” people, those who are “antagonistic” to a particular religion are often open to hearing about Christ. Think of this subcategory as a “de-churched,” “other-churched” person. They have been hurt or disillusioned with the religion they were raised in or had some association with. They have seen the shortcomings of a particular religion and reject it but are still open to religion in general. For example many Arabic women who were raised as Muslims recognize how repressive Islam is to women. They welcome Christianity because of its freedom for women and its tenets which elevate women.6 Someone who was promised all problems would be solved through a Zen-like meditation is still looking for answers after realizing the meditative trance provided nothing more than a brief respite from life’s nagging problems and issues. Unfortunately, Christianity also has alienated many people and has much to make right with those who have been hurt by Christianity. Both groups need loving associations with Christians.
A “de-churched,” “other-churched” story
I once asked the pastor of a very large Middle Eastern church how the people who attended his church had come to trust in Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior; most of who were former Muslims.7 Considering the government of his country made it illegal for Christians to initiate any conversation about Jesus with any Muslim, I asked how these thousands of people had even heard the truth about Jesus.
My pastor friend shared his church’s strategy for its parishioners. Members of the church were to first establish friendships with Muslim neighbors and family members. Second, they were to engage their associates in some regular activity. The church stressed the importance of participating in activity designed to enhance the long term development of a relationship. They recommended recreation and sport as the activity of choice because these provided natural opportunities for sustained interaction. Third, the church instructed their members to pray a specific prayer for the people they were recreating with. Since they were forbidden to talk with their friends about Jesus, they were to specifically pray for Jesus to talk to their friends…in their dreams! In that Middle Eastern culture, dreams are highly esteemed and are widely accepted as the means God uses to communicate His message to people. Fourthly, the church instructed their members to be ready for the time their friends would share their “Jesus dream” and ask them to “interpret” what Jesus was trying to communicate to them. These church members were prepared to be like Joseph of the Old Testament and provide the true meaning of the dreams. My pastor friend ended his story with a rather “matter of fact” summary: “nearly 90% of Middle Eastern Muslims who were coming to Christ were doing so because of a dream!”
What this church realized was how many Muslims had had bad experiences with Islam. Many had never found true contentment through it and were in essence “de-churched” Muslims. You can imagine the great joy these new converts experience when they find real freedom and peace in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus was best proclaimed through relationships initiated and nurtured through years of shared sporting activity.
C. The “de-churched” sub-categories defined
All three categories of the “de-churched” sub-category are difficult to reach, although the “affiliated” are the most open, primarily because their reasons for disassociating with Christianity had more to do with the church lacking relevancy or they simply got enticed away for some materialistic or sensate reason. In the case of the “de-churched” person, “affiliation” describes someone who is more likely to believe the church is irrelevant than to have been wounded or hurt by the church. Typically, the “active” and the “antagonistic” “de-churched” are very similar. They have been wounded and share a common anger and/or hatred for the church but the “active” “de-churched” person has resolved their anger/hatred better than has the “antagonistic” person or perhaps their wound was not as severe. The “active” “de-churched” choose to ignore the church, not wanting to be hurt again. The “antagonistic” “de-churched” person bears a grudge to the degree they lash out at the church in general and church people in particular. The whole “de-churched” scene is indeed sad.
III. How to reach the “de-churched” “never-churched” and “other-churched”8
For the most part this section can be summarized by two phrases: “jettison the jargon” and “win the right to be heard.”9 Here’s why…
The British playwright, Bernard Shaw, astutely recognized the dilemma facing England and America. He described the dilemma as “two countries divided by a common language.” A similar problem occurs when people of faith try to communicate with their “un-churched” neighbors and friends. Churches need to recognize and address the language barrier they face when trying to communicate to the “un-churched.” Three different languages may be employed by Christians dialoguing with an “un-churched” person: a) secular; b) religious; c) spiritual.
Relationships are the key to reaching all non-believers. Only in the rarest of occurrences does a one-time, cold-call home visit or a big event ever single-handedly reach a “de-churched,” an “active” “never-churched” or “other-churched person. It is true, God can do anything and occasionally does reach a person through a one-time event or cold-call, but even most of the successful cold-call decisions for Christ occur during the “reaping” phase of evangelism and are the culmination of the prior and unseen work of others. Cold-calls are rarely the sole reason for the conversion. Cold-call success is dependent upon and the result of a long process of preparing, planting and cultivating of others. This success is only possible because of someone else’s long-term, relational evangelism.
Normally, the evangelism process takes place over the course of many years. It occurs as followers of Christ engage in long term relationships with “un-churched friends and family members. Someone who has been deeply hurt by a church, or a Christian, doesn’t usually turn around overnight. It’s not easy to convince a committed atheist of Jesus’ claims to be God. It’s even harder to undo the hurt and pain of someone who has been deeply wounded by the church. These kinds of situations take much time, much patience and even more prayer.
The standard “rule of thumb” for evangelism is: the further from Christ a person is, or the deeper a person’s hurt, the longer it will take for a truly non-churched, secularized, non-believer to enter into a personal relationship with Christ. It is typical for this process to take 5-7 years! In addition it is often necessary for there to be five or more positive relationships with a Christian before a non-believer comes to faith in Christ.
This is what makes Sports Outreach so effective. Sports Outreach provides repeatable experiences that enable Christians to initiate and develop long term relationships with people far from God and His church. Nothing else a church offers is as attractive to the “un-churched” as sport and recreational activities. Certainly, it has no peer for being able to sustain long term relationships.
It is right and proper for churches to follow in Christ’s footsteps to “seek and save the lost.”11 Sometimes, they are fortunate enough to sit on a “gold mine” having gyms and fields full of “un-churched” people or they may have athletic facilities sitting empty, waiting to be utilized for outreach. Regardless of what they have or don’t have, churches truly wanting to successfully reach the “un-churched” with the Love of Christ need to better understand the distinctive subcategories of those they are trying to befriend.
However, the major reason for outlining all the subcategories of subcategories is for churches to realize each individual person is unique and churches would be wise not to think every “un-churched” person is the same. Each has his or her own story. Each thinks in his or her own way. Each is on a unique personal faith journey. Each is in need of a friend, a church and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The charge for the church has not changed in over two millennia: “go into all the world and make disciples,” especially of the “un-churched.”12
1 This should set off all kinds of “wake up alarms” for churches who have never envisioned how to make their churches welcoming to that once-in-a-decade, wedding or funeral visitor.
2 See the accompanying charts which help to identify the three major sub-categories and the “level of association continuum” of the “un-churched.”
3 An atheist is defined as someone who is convinced there is no God. An agnostic is one who claims they don’t know if there is a God or not.
4 Philippians 1.6
5 See the graphs that outline this continuum.
6 I realize not all strains of Islam are the same, just as Christianity has variations. In this regard, some strains of Islam view and treat women better than others but it is Islam that prohibits women from driving, voting and many other activities whereas by comparison, Christianity led the suffragette movement and empowers women to be full partners with men in the home, in the church and in society. Yes, there may be an individual Christian home or church that wrongly oppresses women, but no Christian society denies women basic human rights as do many Islamic states.
7 This story is purposely vague to protect those who actively evangelize in a country where it is very dangerous for Christians to live, let alone actively share their faith with others.
8 See the accompanying charts which graphically outline the narrative of this section.
9 I owe my understanding of the phrase “wining the right to be heard” to my staff days with Young Life – an evangelistic outreach to non-churched teens. The training I received from my Young Life mentors remain the single most formational aspect of my preparation for ministry. No Young Life phrase is more helpful than: “win the right to be heard.”
10 Secular language would include words such as: macro and micro beings rather than God or Jesus and people. Spiritual language would include: a Higher Power or a Supreme Being. Religious language would be God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Jesus Christ; Yahweh or Allah etc. Secular language would describe a person’s interest in and interaction with these concepts in terms such as meta-physical or para-normal; Spiritual language would talk about a Spiritual or Faith Journey; Religious language would talk about a personal faith and relationship with God.
11 Luke 19.10
12 Matthew 28.19