Churches that take the Great Commission seriously had better start reaching out to people with purple hair and nose rings, according to Alvin Reid, associate professor of evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.
"We tend to look at our churches as hotels for saints, not hospitals for sinners, and consequently we are not reaching the radically unchurched culture," Reid said during an evangelism seminar at the National Conference for Church Leadership in August at Ridgecrest (N.C.), a LifeWay Conference Center.
Reid defined the radically unchurched as Americans who "have no clear personal understanding of the message of the gospel and who have had little or no contact with a Bible-teaching, Christ-honoring church."
In other words, he said, many of the 41 percent of the American population considered radically unchurched have never set foot inside a church – not for weddings, not for funerals, not for Christmas or Easter.
Reid told the story of how a young man with disheveled hair, blue jeans, an earring, and no shoes found his way into a traditional Protestant church after giving his heart to Jesus. When he walked through the doors in the back of the auditorium, he discovered it filled to capacity. As he slowly made his way to the front looking for a seat, he caused a rippled hush over the congregation. Finding no empty seat, he plopped down on the floor in the front of the sanctuary – like he had done at coffeehouses many times before.
Finally, a deacon of long tenure with neat gray hair and wearing a tailored, three-piece suit followed the young man to the front of the church. When the elderly church member reached the spot where the young man was sitting, he sat down on the floor of the sanctuary beside him.
"The only way to reach the radically unchurched culture," Reid said, "is through radical Christianity."
Reid reminded the group that Jesus did not hang out with church-attending folks.
"Jesus was accessible to unchurched people. He went after those types of people intentionally. He made a tax collector his friend and he showed concern for an immoral, Samaritan woman.
"There are places that we as churches don't want to go, but we have to raise the bar if we are going to focus on the radically unchurched," Reid said. "And if you become a church that reaches out to these people, you will face hostility like Jesus did."
The religious hypocrites of Jesus' day called him a "friend to sinners, and that was not a complimentary title."
Reid listed some guiding principles for reaching the radically unchurched:
Begin with the gospel, not the needs of the radically unchurched. "No generation is more pagan in America than the Generation Xers," Reid said. "But the essential needs of the Generation Xers are the same as the generation before. Our unchurched culture is not as unchurched as Paul's culture was. We have to share the same gospel, not necessarily using the same approach."
Remain intentional in personal evangelism. "Testimonies and personal evangelism are the best ways to reach people in this world. We tend to believe some people can't be reached – people like the Muslims or Buddhists. But they can come to Christ too. We can never minimize personal evangelism."
Give specific attention to reaching the younger generation of radically unchurched people. "Eighty percent of those who come to Christ do so before age 20. The number of children we baptize in our churches is pathetic. I wonder with all these school killings, what's it going to take for Christians to take notice of young people?"
Focus on divine authority, not human ingenuity. "The power of prayer makes all the difference in the world. Some things don't come about but by prayer and fasting. There are no foolproof strategies to win people to Christ. It simply takes passion."
Raise the bar for Christian living. "One of the main reasons people don't go to our churches is because they're afraid they'll turn out like us. You can't explain Christianity; you have to live it."
Approaches Reid gave for reaching the radically unchurched included:
• testimonial evangelism or "telling people what happened to you"
• servanthood evangelism or simple acts of kindness (like free car washes) coupled with intentional evangelism
• worship evangelism or inviting a lost person to a worship service filled with people who love God
• evangelism through the arts – taking drama out of the church and into the community
• evangelistic church planting, intentionally targeting the radically unchurched