This article is an excerpt from Jonathan's award winning book, Do They Run When They See You Coming? Reaching Out to Unchurched Teenagers
Do they smile or groan when they see you coming? Or do you even know?
To truly understand unchurched kids, we need to be aware of their perceptions of us. Unfortunately, our reputation isn't good.
Jacob Aranza, a youth speaker who works with unchurched kids, says "the problem in our day isn't that people don't believe in Jesus, the problem is that people don't believe in people who believe in Jesus." People think we're hypocrites, and, let's face it—we are!
I saw a bumper sticker that read "God, please protect me from your followers." This sticker sheds a lot of light on the perception the unchurched have of Christians and the church.
Singer Boy George said:
"On Sunday I attended the christening of my year-old godson Michael, and he was as restless as everyone else. The priest was a lovely man with impeccable dress sense, but I was confused from the moment he took the pulpit. Most of us only ever go to church for weddings and funerals, so sticking to the Book is pointless...and what's the point of rattling on about sin when most of us are doomed to eternal damnation? It doesn't warm people to Christianity, it only makes them feel like hypocrites. Worse still are the utterly depressing hymns. I'd like to see live music, acoustic guitars, and percussion. Church should be a joyous and liberating experience—[it] badly needs a facelift because it is God's theatre on earth, and he should be packing them in. Amen." -Boy George, London's Daily Mail, Feb. 23, 2000
I spent years of my ministry inviting unchurched youth to church. I almost always got the same responses:
"I don't do church."
"No way, they just want my money."
"I don't need someone else telling me how to live my life!"
Do the unchurched really know who we are? The title "Christian" is slapped on a great number of people in this world: TV evangelists begging for money and bopping people on the head to heal them from their afflictions, abortion clinic bombers, white supremacists wearing a cross and a swastika on the same outfit, and gay bashers with hate in their eyes yelling memorized passages of condemnation. If someone hears we go to church or believe in Jesus, they automatically stereotype us with every attribute they fear from the long list of misperceptions they have about Christians.
When I was a kid I had a paper route. The pay was lousy, but the tips made the job worthwhile. I went the extra mile to get the paper right on the doormat, always nice and early. People responded well and I did pretty good with tips. The way The Sacramento Bee
collected money back then was by sending the poor little paperboys door-to-door saying, "collecting for the paper." This was tedious, sometimes taking numerous trips just to collect from one house.
I'll never forget two houses on my route. One was a single guy, often hanging out with friends, always throwing a party. I called this the party house. (As a paperboy, I began to label houses by what I observed over the years.) The other memorable house was one with Christian signs all over the outside of the house. Christian bumper stickers covered the back of their cars. The door mat even read, "The Son is Always Shining Here." I never got a tip from "The Son-shine House," as I began to call it. As a matter of fact—they were the worst people on my paper route to collect from. They always asked if I could come back. Sometimes I would even hear them come to the door, peek out the peephole, and then not answer the door.
One time around Christmas, when tips were always better, I went back to "The Sunshine House" for the fourth or fifth time to try to collect the last month's bill. I had collected in full from everyone else on the route. They were the only ones left. Persistence was the only method that worked, so I made a habit of stopping there whenever I passed the house to try my luck. This particular time I was heading somewhere with my family, and I talked my mom into stopping so I could give it yet another try. Behold the door opened, and there was the Son Shine Lady (that's what my brother and I called her).
"Collecting for the paper." ("Again", I wanted to say!)
"Didn't I already pay?"
"No ma'am, here's the receipt stub."
She looked over the receipt book. Hers was the only one that wasn't torn from the book. "It seems like you just collected!" "No,"
I thought, "That was just me knocking and you hiding behind the door!" "How much?" "$8.50"
Regretfully, the Son Shine lady went and got a $10 bill. The most common tip I got was $1.50. I think this was because it was easy to hand me a $10 and get on with life. Some people, particularly the older ones, wanted their two quarters back so they could tip me that even $1.00 and an occasional few tipped only 50 cents.
I think that is why I remember this day so clearly. When she handed me the $10 I did my normal routine: reach into my pocket, obviously digging out change waiting for the person to say, "don't worry about it" or "just keep the change." Well at this house I kept digging and the lady just stood there with her hand out-stretched. I pulled out a dollar and handed it to her and then did the digging motion again waiting for her line. Her hand stayed out so I kept digging. I hadn't planned this stop and it was lucky I even had a dollar and some change on me. Unfortunately as I pulled out my change, I only had two dimes. I said "I only have 20 cents." This would mean she could take the 20 cents, tip me a measly 30 cents, and be done with it.
But she said "that's okay..." and I thought whew, we're done
. Then she gave me the one dollar bill back, took her ten back and said, " ... you can come back later."
I always remember that the Son was never shining in that house.
In sharp contrast to the Son Shine Lady was "The Party House" I had collected from the week before. When I knocked on his door, it opened, blaring loud music and voices. The guy comes to the door with a beer in his hand and a girl on his arm.
"Collecting for the paper."
"Oh sh*t, yeah I forgot—just a second." He dug into his pocket and pulled out a twenty.
I did my typical maneuver, reaching into my pocket to pull out a $10 first and then hope that while reaching for the rest he would say "keep the change." I barely got my hand in my pocket and he waved his hand and said, "F**kin A. Merry Christmas. Keep the tip." He smiled and closed the door.
Which person do you think I, a 15-year-old kid, wanted to be like?
The Fine Television Example
Years ago I had the privilege of introducing an 8th grade girl named Kristin to a relationship with Christ. A few afternoons later I got a phone call.
"Jonathan, it's Kristin."
"Hey Kristin, what's up?"
"Quick! Turn on your TV to channel 10."
"Just turn it on—it's Riki Lake. You need to see something. Call me back."
I turned on the TV and switched it to channel 10. Riki Lake had a special guest: a "Christian" preacher and several people who were living the "alternative life style." The preacher was in the middle of a huge speech, quoting scripture about God's judgment and anger against homosexuals. Then he said something like, " ...and your lifestyle is an abomination. For that you are going to burn in the eternal flame!"
One of the alternative lifestyle individuals responded.
"...and all I see out of you is hate. If that's what your God is about then I don't want any of him!"
The crowd (no one with a two digit IQ allowed) clapped furiously.
I sadly dialed Kristin back. She answered quickly.
"That old guy...I'm not what he is, am I?"
Wow! I'll never forget Kristin's question.
The unchurched don't know the difference between us and any of these extreme examples. In their minds, we might be that "Bible Thumper" or that "radical who doesn't really represent what Christ stood for." Hypocrites exist and they don't make our job any easier. That's our first thought. But upon further examination, our own
hypocrisy makes our job just as hard, if not harder.
Who's the Neighbor?
Ever think about why Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan? Do you think it was to teach us to care for those who have been beat up? So many of us miss the true punch of that story. Samaritans were hated by the Jewish people of the day. You see the true Jews were from the line of Judah, one of Jacob's (Israel's) sons. Most the other descendants of Israel intermarried with the Gentiles (non-Jews). Some of these descendants were called Samaritans, and the Jews thought they were dirty, Godless people.
The story of the Good Samaritan was told by Jesus to a group of Jews. Picture this. Jesus tells the story of a man who is mugged and left on the road to die. In the story, a priest and a Levite pass by on the other side of the road. The Jews hearing this story probably agreed that this would happen because the Levites and priests were bound by the law to ceremonial cleanliness that prohibited them from being in contact with a stranger. The story goes on to tell of a man who happened by. The Jews were probably already finishing the story in their heads. "Yes, the third man, like a good Jew, will stop and take care of him in a neighborly fashion."
But here's where Jesus switched gears. Jesus chose a Samaritan to be the hero of the story. Jesus tells how the Samaritan stopped and helped this man, bandaging his wounds, paying for his lodging and care. The punch of this story exists in the fact that the audience, the Jews, couldn't even get past the fact that Jesus messed up a perfectly good story by making a Samaritan the hero. They couldn't even say the word "Samaritan" when Jesus asked them who had acted neighborly.
Jesus cut right to the issue of why the Jews didn't know how to act neighborly. It wasn't because they wouldn't stop on the road to help a poor chap in need, it was because they hated Samaritans!
We, like those particular Jews, are hypocrites. It's so easy to point the finger at others and rest the blame there, but the truth is we all need Jesus. Do You Know That You Don't Know?
A huge problem is that many of us don't even know that we don't understand the unchurched. The more unaware we are of this, the bigger the chasm that separates us from the point of ever reaching them. Many of us don't even know this chasm exists.
During college I worked at a bank. One of my co-workers, Katrina, became a good friend of mine. Katrina is African American and I'm Scotch-Irish-American mutt. My family wasn't prejudice at all and I had been raised that all people are equal, regardless of race, gender, or ability. Growing up I had a lot of friends of different races and I never thought I really even noticed race or color.
One day working at the bank my eyes were opened. Katrina and I talked a lot at work, especially during slow days. This particular day we had a lot of time to converse and somehow the subject of racism came up. Katrina never brought the subject up—she was a peacemaker and extremely easy to get along with. In this conversation, I was expressing my anger against those who discriminate because of color, or make demeaning statements. Katrina made the statement, "most people don't even realize when they're being condescending." I thought that was really interesting. I asked her for an example. She told me that I made statements like that all the time. I was shocked. Not because Katrina was telling me this, Katrina was cool and we were friends. She had earned the right to tell me if I stuck my foot in my mouth. The reason I was shocked was because I literally had no idea what she was talking about.
"Give me an example." I asked.
"The other day you asked me for a comb. I pulled my pick out of my purse, joking with you that it was all I had. You said ‘no, a normal comb!'"
I was dumbfounded. I never had considered what that sounded like. Now that I thought about it, it sounded pretty degrading. I just never thought about it. I probed Katrina and she gave me several more examples. I felt terrible. I never had considered Katrina less than myself, yet in my own ignorance, I routinely made degrading remarks.
That day I learned that I looked at the world through Caucasian, middle class, Christian, California-raised, Jonathan eyes. To me, "I" was normal. Anyone who didn't fit in these categories was "other" than me, therefore, "other" than normal.
Identify and Eliminate
That day I learned the hard way that I had to make a determined effort to try to understand and consider others with eyes that went beyond what I saw and knew. That day I realized that my actions were based on my own limited perception. If I was going to relate well with others, I needed to identify those areas of ignorance, and eliminate the bad habits I had built around these misconceptions.
This book focuses on understanding a group that most of us who have been raised in the church don't understand. This group is the "unchurched." People who don't know what "washed in the blood" means, people who can't sing "The Old Rugged Cross" without cracking a hymn book. Often we treat these unchurched people the way I treated Katrina. Sure, we claim that they're our friends and that we treat them fine. Yet we make statements like I made to Katrina all the time without even realizing it. It's these kind of statements that we need to identify and eliminate.
Most people will question me right here at this point. Most people will say "Jonathan, I have tons of non-Christian friends and none of them feel awkward around me." Well, some people are better than others, but let me share four major roadblocks that hinder most of us from reaching the unchurched.
These four roadblocks cause us to reach no one
with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ. Four Roadblocks to Reaching Our Friends 1. Act condescending or belittling toward them.
Some of you might think you don't act this way. I know I thought I didn't. Like in the situation with Katrina, I wasn't even aware I did it! See if you can identify with any of these common examples: Refer to them as a "non-Christian."
This is something that many of us in the church do. Ironically, even in this book I have consistently referred to the "unchurched," a label for this group of people we're trying to reach. But what if we are in a conversation with them? Do we call them a non-Christian?
"You don't go to church? I didn't know you were a non-Christian
Think about the word "non-Christian." Or better yet, think of it another way. What if someone came up to you and asked you a question you couldn't answer. Then they politely remarked, "Oh, that's right. You're a non-Buddhist." You'd probably think "A non-Buddhist?!
What do you mean a non-Buddhist? Like I would even want to be a Buddhist?" Get my point? Calling someone a "non" anything assumes they should be that thing. "Non-Christian" is an egotistical word. Even if we truly believe they should be a Christian, we're not going to get anywhere being that condescending to them. Use the phrase: "I don't date non-Christians."
What does that imply? I've heard this phrase used millions of times in church youth groups. It's a great principal, but a lousy way to say it. It is a good idea for young girls and guys who have Jesus as the number one priority in their life to only date others who have the same priority. We're not here to discuss this point. The phrase "I don't date non-Christians" however, is a condescending statement. There are much better ways of getting that point across.
Picture this. Randy really wants to ask Christine out. Randy doesn't go to church at all. If he's like most students in the beginning of the 21st Century, his parents were forced to go to church by their parents when they grew up, and they vowed never to do it to their children. So today we have a majority of youth who don't go to church, except maybe for a funeral or perhaps an Easter service every once in a while to show off their fancy duds. Randy asks Christine to go out with him Friday night. Christine says, very politely, "I don't date non-Christians."
Get into Randy's head for a minute. What is he thinking? First, he's probably confused. The word Christian is highly misused and Randy probably doesn't know what it means. He might think he is a Christian because, after all, America is a Christian nation, right? Chances are, when Randy was six or seven years old and some of the kids in school were talking about religion, Randy asked his parents what he was. They most likely told him Christian because he isn't Buddhist, Hindu, or a guy in the airport selling flowers.
Not only does Randy probably think he is "Christian," he probably is also wondering why Christine thinks he isn't. Does she think she's too good for me? Maybe she thinks she's the church lady. We've got a regular Mother Theresa here! I don't want to go out with her hypocritical kind anyway!
Christine could say it another way. Christine could decline, but return the invitation by asking if he would like to go to church or youth group with her. She might even get him to go. Dating only Christians is a great principal I heartily endorse. We just need to be careful how we communicate it. Respond with "I don't drink."
This is just like the last phrase about dating. All teenagers shouldn't be drinking alcohol regardless, because it's against the law. But what if someone invited you to a party and there was obviously going to be drinking there? Jimmy comes up to Ryan and asks him, "Are you going to the four-kegger at Megan's this weekend?" Ryan replies, "I don't drink." Ryan might as well say, "I don't drink...like you do, you alcoholic scumbag!"
Many of us have great convictions about issues of purity in our lives. But the minute we vocalize them in a way that puts others down, we close doors to ministry. Jesus was always being criticized for hanging out with sinners. In one particular passage (Matthew 9:10-13), Jesus is eating with Matthew and a bunch of his tax-collector, "non-Christian" friends. All these religious people asked, "Why does Jesus eat with such scum?" Jesus replied something like this: "Healthy people don't need a doctor—sick people do...I have come to help sinners, not those who think they are already good enough."
We need to be careful what statements we make. Why shouldn't you make these statements? Because you will fail in the second roadblock in reaching the unchurched. 2. Eat your words.
Nobody intentionally eats their words or sticks their foot in their mouth (although I wonder sometimes). But many of us have done it at one time or another.
In high school I had a friend who made a stand like we just discussed: "I don't date non-Christians!" She would say it proudly and it would become a heated discussion in the cafeteria where she ended up looking like a snob.
But to make matters worse, she ended up eating her words. We had English class together next period. Every Monday there was a vocabulary test. Half the class never bothered studying because it was so easy to cheat on those tests, thanks to the clueless teacher who would leave the room during the test. One girl in the class actually printed out tiny definitions of the words on small cheat sheets and passed them around the class. As they were being passed around, my good friend asked for one of the sheets. An individual who was at the lunch table not an hour before noticed this irony. After class he made a huge spectacle of the "Christian" who wouldn't date a "non-Christian" yet would accept a cheat sheet from one.
I fell victim to the same situation. I already shared with you when I got caught cheating just a few weeks after "standing up for my faith." Many other times I got in some sort of trouble with my mouth or actions and I was sure to have an audience of "non-Christians" there to point it out to me.
The unchurched, the partyers, the atheists, anyone who doesn't believe in Jesus thinks we're all hypocrites. And, you know what? They're right! We are. But sometimes we make it harder for people to believe, not only because we mess up, but because we often spoke or acted proudly or condescendingly to a group that was just waiting for us to eat our words! 3. Righteous Acts of Confrontation
I volunteered in a youth group for years that was filled with students who wanted to reach their friends with the Gospel. Many of them were making a huge impact on their campus and bringing a good number of friends with them to church. There were others who, although their motives were good, used poor discernment on how to reach their friends. They, more often than not, repelled others from ever thinking about a relationship with God.
One day in youth group these students were sharing about opportunities they had to be a light in this dark world. One of the students stood up and shared an opportunity he had to "reach his friends." He shared, "I was sitting in class one day and I heard these guys talking about parties. They talked about the last party and how much beer was there. Then they talked about how much beer and how many ‘fine ladies' were going to be at the next party. I stood up and walked over to them and said, ‘Hey! You guys are doing wrong! You need to stop that partying and drinking and go to church. Jesus doesn't want you doing that—so stop!' Then I sat down."
I asked him later how effective this little talk was. He said "They just laughed at me, but that was to be expected from their kind."
I asked this young spitfire a question, "Where in the Bible do you see this kind of rebuking happening?"
He quickly retorted, "Jesus rebuked people all the time."
I asked him again. "Who was Jesus usually rebuking?"
He thought a while this time. "All kinds of people, but usually the Pharisees."
I asked him to share with me one time that he could remember Jesus yelling at and condemning a "non-Christian." He couldn't name one instance because Jesus never did!
So many people like to quote verses about rebuking or correcting. Look at the contexts of these verses, they speak of rebuking and correcting believers, religious people or false teachers. Jesus actually teaches the contrary with "sinners."
1 Cor. 5:12-13 "What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside..."
It is amazing how many people teach the theology of confronting or rebuking sinners.
Victoria L. B. Hamilton, a senior at duPont Manual High School, shared her feelings about this in an article about faith in The Courier Journal
"... I'm not Christian. My parents ... converted to Buddhism. I was born in 1984, so I was born into the religion. When I was growing up, I grew up next door to a Christian minister (who) didn't really want his grandchildren playing with me, and he told them to tell me that I was going to hell. That's just the stigma that I grew up with. (So) I didn't want to talk about religion." ("A question of faith," The Courier-Journal, March 16)
Jesus showed us that we're supposed to love the sinner. One of many examples is the adulteress woman caught in the act (John 8). The snobs were trying to trap Jesus and they decided to do it at the expense of someone they considered unimportant, a sinner. Somehow they caught this woman in the act of adultery. (How do you do that? Open random doors checking for wedding rings?) They brought her before Jesus alone and accused her. (Where was the man? Religious law, which they knew, required both parties be stoned [Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22])
Jesus was teaching at the temple courts when the woman was brought to him. Now picture being at church or in class one morning when bunch of guys burst in holding a woman wrapped in a sheet. We don't know what she was wearing—if she was naked or if they gave her a chance to put something on. You can bet she wasn't in her Sunday best, and it was definitely a bad hair day.
All these religious snobs probed Jesus, trying to get him to decide the fate of this woman. They had Jesus in a catch-22. If Jesus said they shouldn't stone her, they could accuse him of violating the Mosaic law. If he told them to stone her, they could report him to the Romans who did not allow the Jews to carry out their own executions.
Jesus did something very cool. Instead of worrying about his own backside, you see him show extreme compassion. As the snobs continued to demand an answer, and as the crowd stared at this woman with hateful, judgmental eyes, Jesus bent down and started writing in the dirt. Everyone's focus—which was on this woman—now shifted to Jesus. Everyone started to look at what Jesus was writing. As tension probably built to an unbearable level, Jesus stood and spoke for the first time.
"Go ahead and stone her—but let the person who hasn't ever sinned throw the first stone." All the leaders stared at each other. Fists were clenched, rocks were grasped tightly, and glances were exchanged as they waited for something—anything! Perhaps they looked to a leader in their group for assurance, for a first move, endorsing their actions and moving them to the next level. The Bible says the oldest person in the group dropped his stone first. Everyone else in the group followed their elder's lead until only Jesus and the woman remained.
The story is far from over. The woman's life had just been salvaged. The sound of the first rock hitting the ground was the best sound she'd ever heard in her entire life. She was probably still apprehensive because even though the guys with the rocks were gone, she now stood before this man who taught at the temple, commanded attention, and swayed the actions of the leaders of the day. Surely her punishment was about to be declared.
Jesus asked her where her accusers were. Nervous, she answered. "They're all gone." Jesus said, "Then I don't accuse you either." Huge sigh of relief. But Jesus, the man of compassion, saw this woman's emptiness calling out. He saw her desperate need for freedom from the life she was leading. Jesus, in complete love and understanding, said, "Go and sin no more." He might have said it like this, "Leave the life that is dragging you down."
Jesus communicated the same thing to this woman that he communicated to Zacheas, Matthew, Mary Magdalene, and every sinner he came across. He clearly communicated this message: "I don't care where you've been, but I care where you're going."
That attitude needs to flow from every breath we exhale. We need to be able to see others as people who Jesus has forgiven—given a clean slate and a fresh start. Jesus didn't come here to condemn but to save (John 3:17). He saved his fiery confrontations for the Pharisees and his compassion for the "unchurched." 4. Make them feel like they don't belong.
Years ago we partnered with a church to reach our community with an outreach event. We brought in a famous athlete whose name alone was a huge draw to the community. The purpose of the event was to bring in the unchurched, the "non-Christian," and reach them with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ. The event was held at a large church in our area and was widely publicized. I brought four of my unchurched junior high students to the event. They were excited to see the famous athlete, and knew nothing else about the evening.
As they walked in the church one of the boys asked me where the little water dish was by the door that they're supposed to sprinkle themselves with as they enter the room. I assured him there was no water dish and he didn't need to do any sprinkling. We sat down in the comfortable pew and the service began with a man in a suit walking on stage. The music started, he grabbed a mike and he said, "Everybody knows this one—sing along with me," and started singing a well known church song (I think it was "How Great Thou Art"). No words on an overhead, no song sheets, just "Everybody knows this one."
All four of the students I brought looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders. After several "familiar" songs a guy came up on stage and started talking about how far youth were from the church these days and how much they need God. I'll never forget him saying, "Do you know how many kids don't even know John 3:16?" All the kids I brought gave a shrug again.
One of them leaned over and asked me if the athlete was coming soon. I assured him it would be soon. Sure enough, he was going to come up right after—oh no—the offering. The biggest complaint I've heard from the unchurched is "I don't want to go to church because all they want is my money!" Well, we proved them right that evening. I couldn't help but assume that all the unchurched guests we brought that evening must have felt like they didn't belong.
If you want a roadblock that stops most anyone, make them feel like they don't belong. Talk a language they don't understand. Make them feel stupid for not knowing anything about the Bible or about your church. Bring them to events that reek with the stench of "No non-Christians allowed!"
I'm not saying "don't bring kids to church." I brought the same students to my church and they didn't feel as awkward as at that event. They had some preconceived ideas, but they knew we were going to church. I also selected this particular church because it made people feel welcome. It didn't make people feel stupid if they didn't know the church routine. It gave Bibles away to anyone that needed one. And most importantly, before every offering they announced, "If this is your first time, this offering is not for you. We don't want your money, we're just glad you're here. This is for the people who regularly attend and call this their church home."
Reaching students isn't going to happen if our actions make them want to run away. We need to be aware of what we say and do, even if we think we're the most seeker-friendly place around.
Remember the roadblocks that will keep students away:
- Being condescending toward them by calling them "non-Christians" or standing up for your beliefs in a way that knocks their beliefs.
- Hypocrisy that makes you eat your words. People don't have a problem believing in Jesus, they have a problem believing in people who believe in Jesus.
- Righteous confrontation of sin. There's a time and a place to point out sin, just remember Jesus used compassion, not stones.
- Making them feel like they don't belong. So many teens feel like they don't belong anywhere—don't let that be true of your church or youth group.
Understanding the unchurched will pave the way to reaching unchurched youth. Avoiding roadblocks will keep our feet out of our mouths so we can begin to have meaningful conversation with them to build bridges toward sharing our faith.