4 Groups in Every Church at Christmas
Speak to every type of person in every message.
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In my late teens, I encountered Christ through the love and testimony of a group of fellow students. I remember wanting what they were experiencing: genuine love and acceptance of one another, remarkably intimate expressions of faith in prayers, and confidence in God and the Bible to give reasonable answers to life.
As a new Christian, I found church to be disorienting. At church we sang songs I didn't know and didn't like. People prayed using words and phrases that seemed (to me) unusual. They flipped through the Bible with ease I didn't have. I couldn't make sense of a book that had "books" and had chapters and verses that people would cite as numbers by saying something like, "Turn to First Corinthians fifteen-three." (My mind was whirling: How many Corinthians were there? And what is a Corinthian? And what do the numbers mean?) It is disconcerting to think about how much acquired knowledge has been taken for granted by believers who have assimilated to church culture. How we speak within the church and address those in our midst is often determined by how we group people.
Someone observed that there are two groups of people in the world: those who divide everyone into two groups and those who don't. As pastors and leaders of churches, we tend to fall into that first category because we realize Jesus made himself the dividing line for the world. How we respond to the gospel identifies us as either saved or lost, in or outside of God's kingdom, belonging to or alienated from God and his family.
Some churches intentionally speak to Christians in the weekend service and mostly ignore anyone else. The church gathering is for Christians, for insiders, who have learned the language and culture, and are motivated to worship and serve God. Other churches use weekend services evangelistically to reach people who have yet to believe in Christ; but in so doing, they neglect believers seeking to learn and grow, and are hungry to be challenged.
As illustrated in the Bible, the tension between primarily addressing believers or primarily addressing unbelievers in church gatherings is not new. In Corinth, believers were enamored with the exercise of dramatic, supernatural gifts of the Spirit—specifically the gift of tongues. The apostle Paul felt a need to weigh in and corral the Corinthians' behavior when they gathered together. He redirected their attention to prophecy (speaking God's Word), rather than the unrestricted use of tongues. His reason is insightful: Unbelievers who are present in the assembly will not understand speaking in tongues and will be confused and conclude Christians are crazy. But if those unbelievers hear God's Word spoken clearly and directly, the secrets of their hearts will be disclosed and they'll conclude that God is among these people (1 Cor. 14:23-25).
Don't miss the assumption: There are at least two groups in that assembly, and the presence and needs of the second group (the unbelievers) should modify the behavior and practice of the first group (the believers).
Routinely, we have found it helpful to think in terms of two identifying questions with binary answers (Yes/No), dividing people into one of four groups. The first question is, "Does the person believe?" This is obviously the most important question. If they do believe, they have embraced salvation and their future has been altered. If they have not believed, nothing else matters as much.
The second question creates a second dividing line: "Is the person interested?" More specifically, is that person interested in God, in spiritual things, and in discovering and living out the truth? The answer to that question determines whether we are speaking to the motivated or the resistant or to the determined or the distracted. The first question ("Do they believe?") is one of condition; the second question ("Are they interested?") is one of motivation.
My wife is a diabetic educator. As a nurse, she helps to diagnose whether or not a person is a diabetic. A follow-up assessment tries to determine if the person is willing to do something about the diagnosis. Both condition and motivation are important to discern and affect how you approach the teaching process as well as what you have to say to each group. Keeping that in mind will help pastors and churches communicate effectively with people within different groups.
The four groups
The four-square grid allows us to understand the needs, spiritual condition, and receptivity of diverse people who attend church services. We identify and target four groups of people (see chart).
1) The Disciple: Believes and is interested.
Jesus expects every believer in Christ to be his disciple and his follower (Matt. 28:19). Being a disciple is the normal, everyday life of a believer. We expect disciples to be open-minded and motivated. A disciple wants to learn more about God and his Word. Whether a spiritual novice or a mature believer, a disciple is intent on growing and readily accepts their purpose and mission in God's kingdom.
Disciples are the easiest of the four groups to speak to and are often the most forgiving. We intend to give them an opportunity to see and worship God and to be challenged in their faith by God's Word applied practically.
2) The Distracted: Believes but is not interested.
The distracted group is not an inevitable stage in the Christian life but is a common, unhealthy condition and is sometimes a darker season brought on by poor priorities or forgetfulness (2 Pet. 1:9). The Distracted person has been swamped with other things and has neglected a relationship with Christ, resulting in spiritual lethargy and general disinterest (Mark 4:18-19).
Both the Distracted's priorities as well as what they believe about the importance of life needs to be challenged. In speaking to the Distracted, we try to focus on the bigger picture: the inevitability of life's end, the emptiness of living without God, the purpose and mission of believers, and the magnetic pull of the grace and mercy of God.
3) The Seeker: Does not yet believe, but is very interested.
This person expresses interest in spiritual things and may be highly motivated to search out answers but has not yet grasped the gospel in its clarity nor responded decisively as God intends.
Seekers need to keep hearing the gospel in a clear and compelling way. They need to hear that Jesus died in their place for their guilt and that he was raised from the dead as Lord. Seekers need to understand what is at stake—complete forgiveness and new life—and how to respond by repenting and believing. In nearly every service, we ask the question, "Was what Jesus did enough to make you right with God?"
4) The Resistant: Does not yet believe and isn't very interested.
The Resistant often show up at church services during holidays and vacation times when they are dragged there by their family or friends. The Resistant attend more out of obligation than interest. If this is their first time visiting the church, they expect little good, expect to disagree with what is being said, or expect to find fault or be annoyed. Those individuals usually find what they're looking for and hope the ordeal is over quickly.
We're very glad we have resistant people among us, and we intend to startle them with the truth and make them curious enough to start seeking it.
Speak to every type of person
Not everything I say in every message speaks to the heart of every person, but I try to speak to every type of person in every message. For example, in a recent message on the Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), I began the sermon by addressing the need to ask God for better things. Primarily, I was speaking to the Disciple and challenging them with a need to align their requests with what the Lord considers most important:
Have you ever listened to our prayers? Given the chance to ask God for anything, what do most people pray for? Most of our prayers revolve around three things:
1) Healing of physical problems—for sickness, cancer, or accidents. Ask people for prayer requests, and without a doubt you'll get at least some requests for physical health. Common illnesses, injuries from accidents, or life-threatening conditions like cancer top our prayer lists because we hurt, or we're threatened, and we can't always control the outcome, so we cry out to God. Without doubt, this is the most common request I hear.
2) Provision of perceived needs or wants: We're out of work and need a job. We need money to pay an upcoming bill. We want a husband/wife with no promising candidates on the horizon; we have a wife or husband … and are having problems. So we want answers or guidance.
3) Reversal of circumstances: We don't like where we are or the situation we find ourselves in and we want it to change or reverse. We're having problem with our kids, and we want them to behave. We're struggling with weight and we want to lose it. We're frustrated with a person and we want him to change.
Hear me well, praying and asking God for any of those three things is not wrong. In the Bible, you can find examples of people praying for each of those requests. But praying about those things isn't necessarily what matters most. What should we be asking God for so what we are praying for is what matters most? Jesus addresses that and gives us a mental map of how to pray. We know that "map" as "the Lord's Prayer," but it's really a prayer for us to use.
Because the Distracted person has shrink-wrapped their perspective around themselves, their needs, and their concerns, I always attempt to challenge their self-centeredness. In the sermon, I pointed out the order of the requests in the Lord's Prayer by stating that Jesus gives us as a mental map:
Jesus begins by saying, "Pray then like this … " (Matt. 6:9a). He's offering a model prayer, a mental map to pattern our prayers after. He thinks that if our prayers don't sound like this one, they should.
Note that there are six requests divided into two sections. The order of requests is significant. First, a disciple prays, "Father, your name, your kingdom, your will … " (Matt. 6:9-10). Then they pray about "our needs, our debts and debtors, and our temptations and weaknesses" (Matt. 6:11-13). The first three parts of the request deal with God's glory, and the following three have to do with our good—our necessities. First, we think of the greatness of God, his purpose and plan for life, and the need to do his will before making specific requests for our personal needs and desires. The prayer moves from human history to daily needs, from our timeless God to today's passing problems. William Barclay, in his insightful commentary on Matthew, observed, "Prayer must never be an attempt to bend the will of God to our desires; prayer is always an attempt to submit our wills to the will of God." We often pray first for our problems and desires and eventually broaden to God's desires, but Jesus teaches us to first focus on God's Glory and then our good. When we reverse that order, confusion results. We begin to subordinate God's will to our personal plans, and we grow blind to the reason why we're here, and we miss the flow of God's work in the world. Like Woody Allen once confessed, "Life must go on. I, uh, forget why." Jesus wants us to see the big picture and never forget why we're here.
Because the Seeker is interested but hasn't grasped the gospel of grace, in every sermon I attempt to present the gospel clearly and compellingly, often with familiar language that the Seeker would hear week after week and begin to identify as the gospel. In the sermon on the Lord's Prayer, the appropriate place to address that information was at the very beginning of the message in the way the prayer begins:
There are two possible reasons why we might call God "Our Father in Heaven":
1) We are all part of his creation, so we owe our existence to him. In that sense, every person can call him Father, the One who has given us life. As true as that is, that is not the reason for this address.
2) In the New Testament, "Father" points to the gracious, intimate relationship between God and believers. Why? Because when we put our trust in him to be our Savior, God does a miraculous thing we could never do—he gives us spiritual birth because we believe the gospel. Jesus died in our place for our guilt as our Savior and was raised from the dead as the Lord. For all who turn to him and believe, God grants complete forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit whose presence changes us from the inside out. The question you must answer for yourself is this: "Was what Jesus did enough to make me right with God?" For those who say, "Yes!" there is a special relationship with God as Father, because he has graciously imparted life. We are his spiritual offspring! That's why he listens to us! We are his kids! "Father" is a reminder of our intimate relationship with him. So start your praying by remembering what God has done for you!
Years ago, I crafted a question I often ask the same way in my teaching that summarizes both the essence and the proper response to the gospel. I ask, "Was what Jesus did enough to make you right with God?" I want the Seeker to become familiar with what Jesus did and to know without doubt how to respond to receive the benefits of forgiveness and new life.
Since the Resistant person can find fault with anything and may be highly critical and disinterested, I always try to startle them with the truth and help them see that typical stereotypes of Christians are often incorrect. As I wrapped up the sermon on the Lord's Prayer, I decided to turn it inside out, and present ideas opposite of those the Lord taught us to pray:
Make me look good.
May other people see me, know me, and like me.
Make other people do what I want them to do
as if I were You. Give me not only what I need
in advance, but what I want. And may I get even
with my enemies for what they have done to me.
Forgive me when I give in to temptation (which I will),
and deliver me from the consequences.
Praise God, hallelujah, thank you Jesus.
Poking fun at ourselves in a humorous way often disarms the Resistant person of their criticism and challenges them to think more deeply.
Don't assume anything
One of the most effective things a preacher can do to speak to all four groups of people is not to assume anything. Explain concepts clearly. Whenever possible, use descriptive terms that are not technical, and define terms that aren't usually used in daily conversation. In the message on the Lord's Prayer, I did that by addressing the first request we are to pray.
We are to pray, "hallowed be your name." Most of us have no clue what "hallowed" actually means. "Hallowed" means "Let your name be honored and greatly respected." Using a term like "hallowed" could confuse those who are unfamiliar with certain terms referenced often in Christianity.
So what is the significance of a name? A name is what we are known by to others. When you think of "Steve Walker," you think of a person, his position, his responsibilities and authority, his character and personality. When you think of God, you should remember that he is the creator of all life, infinite in all his ways—in knowledge, wisdom, power, and presence; he is the personal God who knows your name. He is absolutely righteous and holy, faithful and unfailing in all he says and does, shockingly loving and merciful to us but still just and true in all dealings with humanity. This is our God. And we're to pray that God's name, his reputation be spread to everyone, so that all people everywhere give him the honor and worship he rightly deserves. God wants his name to be respected & honored—not misrepresented or ignored. We should be praying for all people everywhere to come to know and worship the Lord. In fact this should be the very first prayer falling from the lips of disciple!
When we assume people know "Christianese"—the spiritual language of insiders—we do a disservice to others who are not in the know. If we are to speak compellingly to everyone, we must speak clearly and understandably by using terms and language familiar to those listening.
Every weekend, churches fill with people who are not in the same place spiritually. To one degree or another, they come with different agendas, expectations, openness, and maturity. Some come knowing the Bible and are on the same page as a pastor and teacher; others know very little about the Bible or hold to contrary convictions and a worldview opposed to the truth. Some people are intentional and motivated while others fold their arms in resistance and reluctance.
We should pray that we see everyone in all categories and speak in a way that helps Disciples grow, the Distracted get back on track, the Seekers understand and believe the gospel, and the Resistant begin to seek God.
They'll all come. The question is, will we speak to them?
Steve Walker is the Lead Pastor for Redeemer’s Fellowship in Roseburg, OR, loves Macs, anything with two wheels, hot black coffee, and a good story told.