Alarming Statistic, Alarming Consequences
Meet George* (not his real name). George has been attending an Evangelical Free Church for almost 20 years. He came to know Christ in college through a parachurch organization and, since graduation, has been plugged into a local church. He and his wife have raised three kids, homeschooling the last two. George is trusted by his neighbors and respected in the community. He has served on multiple church teams and is currently an elder.
In many ways, George represents what most evangelical churches desire to see in their membership. But sadly, George is also part of an alarming statistic: According to Todd Johnson, from Gordon-Conwell’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity, almost 20 percent of people in North America (almost 14 million souls) do not have one personal relationship with a Christ-follower.
George is respected by those who know him, yes, but even some who “know him” only know him as the nice guy with the big smile who walks through the neighborhood with his wife. George was the dad who helped with sporting events and field trips when his kids were younger. But though people “know” George, they don’t have a friendship with him.
Oh, and did I mention: George is the pastor of his church? Unfortunately, many do not even know he is a pastor, let alone a Christian.
George has never had a family outside his church over to his home for supper. George has never asked a new acquaintance out for lunch. Although George has invited people to church and even passed out tracts, he’s never befriended a soul outside the Christian community.
Southern Baptist Jeff Chistopherson put his finger on the problem when he was quoted in Christianity Today as saying, “We hide in our own evangelical ghetto.” 1
For many of us, our relationship circles include our church family, friends from other churches and Christians we see each year at the same Christian events. All the while, those outside the evangelical ghetto know no Christian and therefore no Christ.
So what’s holding us back?
Busyness? Colin Marshall and Tony Payne in the book The Trellis and the Vine observe, “Saying ‘yes’ to more personal ministry almost always means saying ‘no’ to something else.” So let’s be honest. We prioritize what we think is best.
Different priorities? Let us not forget that our job is Christ’s commission (Matthew 28:18-20). We have no other charge. If we fail here, we fail completely. So, too, Paul exhorts pastors and elders to do the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5).
Marshall and Payne go on in The Trellis and the Vine to say, “Evangelism is at the heart of pastoral ministry. Ministry is not about just dealing with immediate crises and problems, or about building numbers, or about reforming structures. It is fundamentally about preparing souls for death.”
Now, when Christian leaders set the tone on prioritizing lost people over other preferences, conveniences or even some Christian friendships, there will be backlash. The religious people of Jesus’ day did not like that Jesus interacted with the crowd that He did. But in so doing, Jesus gave us a model we are privileged to obey.
We know that Jesus bore the epithet “friend of sinners” with pride (Matthew 11:18-20). He even told us to quit inviting our friends over for a meal and start inviting the kind of people who won’t ever invite us back (Luke 14:12-14).
If someone watched my life 24/7 this week, would they say that I am a friend of sinners?
As leaders in the church—and perhaps those most susceptible to getting stuck in an evangelical ghetto — let’s consider some steps for overhauling this alarming statistic:
- Frequent the same restaurants, work-out places, coffee shops, parks and grocery stores. Learn the names of fellow shoppers and employees. Begin asking questions (this worked well for Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch).
- Look at long-term relationships (neighbors, co-workers, parents of children in similar activities) as a process. Be upfront early about being a Christian. Then, look for opportunities to serve them (getting their mail or mowing their lawn when they are on vacation, giving rides to their children, etc.). Invite them into daily life (meals out, day trips to fun places, concerts, etc.). Always keep an eye out for a chance to share the gospel or other biblical truths.
- Commit one night or lunch hour each week (or month) for hospitality with non-Christians (either at home or out).
The scary reality of 21st-century America is that almost 20 percent of the population doesn’t know what it looks like to walk with God. They need us to model Christ and to speak Christ—not to mention that, in a world more and more isolated by digital gadgets, they just need a friend.