I just read a Pew Research center report that claims the Christian faith is in decline and continues to decline. It is down 12 percentage points over the last 10 years. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009. Our nation is becoming more and more uncomfortable with the Christian faith. Why? There are perhaps a number of reasons that we could point toward to explain what is happening. But perhaps there is one big reason for this decline: a loss of trust in Christians and the institutions surrounding the Christian faith.
When I attended the Incubator training, I was given a demographic study for the area immediately surrounding our church that covered a two and ½ mile radius around the church. Keep in mind, this is our neighborhood.
The top ten reasons that people in our community did not attend church are:
1. People are too judgmental
2. Religion is too focused on money.
3. Don’t trust religious leaders.
4. Don’t believe in God.
5. Don’t trust in organized religion.
6. Strict/inflexible beliefs
7. Disillusionment with religion.
8. No longer believe.
9. Wasn’t relevant to my life.
10. Moved from community.
If you notice, 6 of the ten reasons have to do with trust.
In addition, respondents were also asked about their reasons for considering NOT participating in a religious community and they answered in this way:
1. Don’t believe in God
2. Strict inflexible beliefs
3. Didn’t feel welcome or useful
4. Don’t trust religious leaders
5. Religion focused on money.
6. Moved from community
7. Wasn’t supportive during a crisis
8. Religious people too judgmental
9. Disillusioned with religion
10. No longer believe.
A number of those also have to do with a loss of trust.
Also interesting is the demographic study that reveals our local communities beliefs about faith. And the strongest opinion is that God is love and invites the world into a loving relationship. Second is that they can have a personal relationship with the living God who is Lord and Savior.
Curious. They have a pretty accurate picture of a good and loving God who wants a relationship with them but they distrust church people and religious institutions.
This highlights a major problem. We need to work at building trust with our community. How do we do that?
We’ve been in a series on evangelism and have talked much about sharing our personal faith stories and we have also talked about what it is to have a new birth experience and be born into a new community of Jesus followers. Today, I want us to consider an aspect of evangelism that will help us build trust in our own local community.
The incarnation. What is the incarnation? It’s what our text today is about. Jesus…
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross
God became human in the person of Jesus, he humbled himself and became a servant. Stop right there. Incarnational evangelism first and foremost is about serving our community in ways that demonstrate the reality of a Loving God.
So, in incarnational Evangelism we serve others.
Some of the trust barriers that people have are do to with ways in which the church has exploited people due to abuse, mishandling of money—or exploiting others through the health and wealth teachings or by means of other scandals that have harmed people. Other trust barriers have to do with the ways that many Christians have aligned themselves with power—military power, political power, corporate power and ethnic power. These abuses and alignments have cost the church at large trust.
I met a man a few weeks back who asked me some questions about evolution. I could tell by his questions that he assumed I was a fundamentalist. I was astonished that he put all Christians in the same boat as fundamentalist Christians. He assumed that all Christians didn’t take Science seriously and that they were all of one political opinion. It was hard for him to welcome the church or faith because of his perceptions.
And perception is reality even if those perceptions are not accurate. We have a significant amount of trust to build with people who have no faith or who have left their faith.
We are sort of like a church in exile. A people who are refugees in a foreign land. In our country many people of faith want to reclaim power so that they can re-establish Christianity as the dominant religion in our country. This is the opposite of what we find in the Bible.
When God’s people were in exile in a foreign land, when they were refugees, the prophets told them to seek the welfare of the city. They were to do good, to serve and to participate in the community. And in doing so they would be able to live in peace. What a unique strategy. This strategy aligns well with the incarnational approach to sharing our faith.
This way of sharing faith is welcomed in fact it is a way that we can re-build lost trust.
We can participate in acts of justice, in meeting practical needs, in being a people of reconciliation. We can love one another regardless of color or creed or status. We could be the ones out there in the community building bridges between people instead of being a part of the divisive rhetoric that is common today. We could seek the welfare of the city.
Second, Incarnational evangelism has to do with listening and learning.
The demographic study we were given is one way that we can be listeners and learners. This is a more general way of listening and learning that does not require much engagement with real people. It is a place to begin the listening process.
Often evangelism methods come off like a sales pitch as the evangelist "sells" the wonderful plan for your life and "closes the deal" with an offer to accept Christ as a personal Savior. And while the evangelist walks away feeling like they have just won someone to Christ, the targeted person feels more like a commodity than like they have just met God. These methods can come off simplistic and reductionist to contemporary ears. And in using them, we are not building trust. So what should we do?
The first recommendation is to pray.
I believe we don’t pray enough for others. Pastor Lori and I are keeping a list of people that we are meeting and praying for them regularly. They are people we meet in the cafes and people we meet in coffee shops and other city activities.
As Methodists, we believe that God is already at work in people’s lives and by praying we are joining with God in what God is already doing. The first step to incarnational evangelism is to pray for the people we notice in our paths.
My second recommendation is to build a relationship with people within which it is safe to have faith discussions.
While we are building this relationship, we are learning who they are as real people that God already loves. Often we even discover some of their needs and can begin praying for those needs as well. And when it comes time to having discussions about matters of faith, there will be a greater openness because they know you care about them as real people.
I even have some questions that can be asked when trust is built and faith discussions can happen. These are from District Superintendent, Fred Vanderwerf.
Here is a good one, how would you describe yourself spiritually?
And then listen to them, learn about them. It’s not your job to correct their doctrine or assert your beliefs. It is your job to listen and learn and even to notice that God is already at work in their lives. They may have had significant encounters with God—even if they know very little about God. Following is another good question that helps people self-reflect about their own faith journey.
If you went to church when you were younger, what was the turning point? Why did you stop attending?
Again, listen, learn. It is not your job to correct their understanding or to defend the church in any way, which is often what we are tempted to do. We just listen, learn—maybe even validate their emotions.
This kind of listening builds trust and is an opportunity to empathize with their experience.
Often we jump too quickly to a defense of the church or a defense of God. This is a time when we just listen and learn. We might also validate their feelings and see their pain. Then we take these things back to the Lord in prayer. These are hurts and places where trust has been broken. Before they can consider a relationship with the church trust might need to be restored.
Another good question is this one: What disappoints you about the church?
And again, I cannot stress this enough… LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN so that you can learn about them and their concerns. This is being present to them—serving them as one who deeply cares about them, their experiences and perceptions. We don’t have to know stuff or share correct doctrine—we just need to listen, learn and care about them as people. Validate their feelings. Recognize that the experiences they had are real for them. Go home and once again carry them in prayer because God is already at work in their lives.
Next question: When have you seen the church at its best?
I love this question because it helps people self-reflect about good experiences or observations they have about the church. Often, we are too binary about our assumptions and perceptions about the church and this question helps people think about how they have noticed the church being at it’s best. It gets at what they value and what they hope to see in the church.
And finally, here is a question that allows them to tell you something they wish they could tell the church.
What would you wish to tell the church?
And once again we listen with a non defensive ear and learn. We see them as a person who has insight that is meaningful. In listening we offer respect to them.
None of these questions will help you make the evangelism pitch and close the deal. But these questions will help you serve them. They will help you build trust, and participate in being a part of what is healing to them.
There are so many times when I have thought that being present and listening was not enough. I thought that I needed some sort of wise thing to say or to have some sort of correct doctrine to offer or to have a solid defense with which I could win the argument. But people don’t work that way. Folks don’t feel loved when you win the proverbial evangelism argument. They feel loved and cared about when we listen to them, when we are present to them, when we learn about them and what matters to them.
These questions help us serve others by being present to them, to their concerns and experiences. They help us build trust and see that God is already at work in their lives in ways that are vital and meaningful. We don’t have to argue, or point out their sin or tell them what they need. We are present, present to them, listening to them, serving them, caring about them. We are partnering with the Holy Spirit loving and being present in their lives in holy ways.
Often when people come into my office they may come for food or a grocery card. I have begun to ask them to tell me their stories—to listen to them. I have been asking them if there is anything they would like me to pray for them about. I am surprised how often they have real things they want prayer around. Then we pray. And I pray during the week also. It is curious and interesting how such simple questions open the doors for conversations about them, their lives and about God.
Incarnational evangelism is about seeking the welfare of the city and serving people by listening and learning their stories—hearing what matters to them. I believe it has the potential to heal the relationship between the church and the community. We can heal the gap, build trust as we allow Jesus to live in and through us.