Opening the Closed American Mind
Opening the Closed American Mind
Preaching to skeptics
The audience at our Saturday night outreach service is one-third unchurched individuals, one-third church dropouts, and one-third church adherents, so the majority come from a secular viewpoint. At the end of the service, I respond to their written questions; I have no idea beforehand what they will be. Questions range from predestination to masturbation, from abortion to suicide, and my answers aren't always what people want to hear.
One evening someone wrote, "I'm gay, and I've always been gay. Is that okay?"
"What you're really asking," I responded, "is 'What does the Bible say about human sexuality?' The Bible teaches that sexuality is a gift from God to be experienced within the commitment of heterosexual marriage. My understanding of the Bible is that all expressions of our sexuality outside of those boundaries are not within God's creative intent.
"Are you asking me if it's okay to have homosexual feelings? Yes, it is. But Scripture does not permit you to follow through with those feelings as a legitimate expression of sexuality. If you try to ignore that fact, there are consequences, one of which is displeasing God."
Answers like that can irritate people who don't accept an absolute standard of truth. One man said to me, "I really like Saturday night, but when you answer those questions, I wish you would quit referring to the Bible and tell me what you really think."
I congratulated the man on being so perceptive. The point of our seeker-sensitive service is not to tell people what I think but to help connect them with biblical truth. In a culture committed to relativism, hostile toward notions of unchanging, ultimate truth, the gospel can be an offense, no matter how positive my presentation. Sometimes that can't be avoided.
But sometimes it can. I've found that I can gain a hearing for the truth of the gospel, even in a relativistic culture. As I've conducted seeker-sensitive services and befriended non-Christians, I've gathered several principles for reaching skeptics with the truth.
The spirit of individualism, rather than community, dominates our culture, giving relativism a strong appeal. "You believe what you want, and I'll believe what I want" is the spirit of the times. If a couple on a talk show says, "We've been married sixty years, and we're still happy," the audience applauds. But if they say, "We believe everyone should remain married for a lifetime," they'll get booed off the set.
Pervasive individualism has a positive side. People want what enhances their lifestyles, so I can reach them if I demonstrate that the values I teach are truths beneficial to anyone. I must show the modern skeptic the practical wisdom of biblical principles, particularly those principles that appear rigid or intolerant.
For example, to most people on the street, "Don't be unequally yoked" is the most ridiculous, narrow-minded idea they've ever heard. In their mind, if two people love each other, that's all that matters. They would think it silly, even tragic, for religion to interfere with love.
When I'm speaking on this subject, I focus on the logical reasons behind the scriptural principle: "You can't build a house on two sets of blueprints. In marriage, if one person operates on values rooted in Scripture, and the other operates on another set of values, it's only a matter of time until they collide over how to raise kids, spend money, or use leisure time. Sooner or later competing sets of values are going to hit head-on. God understands that. He warns against being 'unequally yoked' because he wants couples to avoid painful conflict."
Secular people usually respond to such reasoning. Once they understand that God is for them, not against them, they are more open to obeying God out of love and submission, not merely because obedience offers cash value in this world.
Appeal to curiosity about the Bible
While many secular people reject the notion of absolute values, they are curious to know what the Bible says. And if they have come to church, I assume they have at least some interest in biblical teachings or they wouldn't be there in the first place.
When answering the questions of seekers and skeptics, I nearly always preface my remarks with, "If you're asking me what the Bible says, here is the answer." If I dodge and weave around the Bible, my audience won't respect me. Sometimes I must frankly say, "I may not like the Bible's answer, you may not like it, but this is what it says."
One Saturday evening a question read, "I'm a Christian. My brother was not a believer when he committed suicide. I still believe he'll be in heaven. What do you think?"
"What you're asking is whether the Bible gives several options on how to get to heaven," I responded. "I have to be honest with you. Scripture says Christ is the only way to heaven, and there are no other options. You are probably thinking: So what does that mean for my brother? Since you are a Christian, you undoubtedly had some influence on him; perhaps before he made this horrible choice he did turn and commit his life to Christ."
I would have loved to assure him that his brother was waiting for him in heaven, but I couldn't. I concluded, "If you're asking whether people can go to heaven without accepting Christ—no, they cannot. I'd like to tell you it doesn't matter, but if I did, I would be dishonest with the Bible." People respect that level of integrity.
I try to satisfy people's natural curiosity about the Bible in two ways. I preach verse by verse on Sunday mornings, and on Saturday nights I use the Bible to answer topical questions. By going through a book one verse at a time, I'm eventually going to bump into the issue that concerns an individual. The questions on Saturday night force me to deal with listeners' urgent concerns.
Know your essentials and non-essentials
We gain a hearing with a secular audience when we don't confuse essentials with non-essentials.
I try to distinguish between three types of truth: absolutes are truths essential to the faith, truths that never change such as salvation by grace alone; convictions are beliefs over which orthodox Christians may differ such as the ordination of women; preferences are traditions or customs, like musical tastes, that may be compatible with the Bible but aren't biblically based, and they may change with the culture and over time.
Naturally, sometimes people will differ about which category a subject belongs to, but most issues seem to fall into one category or another.
Don't skip the tough topics
When you're trying to gain a hearing from a secular audience, it's tempting to water down demanding Scriptures or avoid them altogether. We're afraid people will tune out the sermon.
But I've discovered that's a mistake. Just when I think I know what the culture wants to hear and what it doesn't, I'm surprised all over again. Our most popular Saturday night series was entitled, "What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?" By any measure—attendance, audience response, or follow-up—it was the most successful four evenings in our Saturday history. Until then I had dealt with subjects like depression, bitterness, and forgiving your parents. The last thing I expected was an overwhelming response to such a simple, straight-forward topic.
I learned a valuable lesson. I don't need to trade away forthright, biblical messages for something faddish or trendy. People have a basic spiritual hunger that only faithful biblical preaching can satisfy.
I've found that I can preach even about the most sticky subject, as long as I balance it with good news. We did a two-part series on Saturday night, one on heaven and the other on hell.
We introduced the subject of the afterlife by telling near-death experiences from popular literature. I wasn't prepared to say these experiences were real, but I pointed out they often paralleled the biblical teachings on death and the afterlife. The evening on heaven was well received.
But the next week, I said, "What I didn't tell you last week was there are other near-death experiences described in the literature that are not so pleasant. In fact, it's incredible how much these experiences parallel what the Scriptures say about hell." I could tell people were uncomfortable in that second session, but they listened intently.
I suppose in earlier generations most preachers could assume their listeners conferred to them a certain level of authority. Many preachers could also assume their congregations had a minimal level of biblical knowledge. Today I take nothing for granted. I assume virtually everyone will question virtually everything I say. Furthermore, I assume most listeners know little if anything about the Bible.
But how do you establish authority with a group that grew up on the maxim, "Question authority"? I've discovered such people will view me as credible if I do the following:
Let the people do some talking. On Saturday evenings, we always take five to eight minutes to let someone share what God has done in his or her life. Listeners will accept my message if they see that it makes a difference for someone who doesn't get paid to spread religion.
I recently renewed the vows of a couple who had been on the brink of divorce. The husband had been living with another woman for over a year. The divorce decree was about to be granted when they both started attending Saturday night services independently of each other. They both ended up committing their lives to Christ.
The husband soon broke up with the woman with whom he had been living. The estranged couple began talking again. They eventually decided, "Hey, if God can forgive us, we can forgive each other. Let's start over again."
So in front of their unbelieving friends, they renewed their vows. I went to the reception afterward. It was fascinating to hear their unsaved friends try to figure out what had happened to this couple. Out of that experience, several of them began attending our Saturday night service. They couldn't deny the difference Christ had made in the lives of these two people.
Practice what you preach. The Scriptures say we can silence the foolishness of ignorant people by our good behavior. That involves going places Christ would go and spending time with people he would spend time with. I've said from our pulpit that if Christ were in my city today, he probably wouldn't attend my church. He would be down among the poor and dispossessed.
That's one reason we've gotten involved helping people dying of AIDS. When the AIDS resource center of my city hosts its annual Christmas party downtown, some of us from our church attend. Such events are a great opportunity for ministry. At one of those parties, I met a woman dying of AIDS who had two children also diagnosed with the virus. I was able to talk with her about Christ's love.
Our church donates money to cover burial costs for those who die of the disease with no funds left to their name. In addition, each Christmas the AIDS resource center gives us a list of names of people suffering from the disease and a wish list that we distribute to our people. We gather the gifts, and when we give them the recipients know it's our church that donates the presents.
Our involvement with AIDS sufferers has built credibility. It's not uncommon for our Saturday night services to attract large numbers of seekers from the gay community. Women have stood and said, "I'm a former lesbian. Christ changed my life through this church."
Accept people as they are. One Sunday morning a man walked into our morning service with the F-word printed on his tee shirt. That wasn't easy for many to swallow. As I heard later, when people stood to sing the first hymn, many couldn't get their minds off his shirt.
But as inappropriate as wearing that shirt was, it was important that we accept that man where he was. When the church requires that people clean up their lives, dress, and act a certain way before we will love them, we lose the respect of our culture.
Keep the playing field level. Someone once complained that our church was soon going to be run over with homosexuals. I responded, "That would be terrific. They could take a seat next to the gossips, the envious, the greedy, and all the rest of us sinners."
I try to communicate that same attitude in my preaching: we all stand under God's judgment, and we all are in desperate need of his grace. Letting people know that I'm not speaking down to them from some lofty moral position helps them listen to what I have to say.
Don't pretend to play God. I have to be honest with people when I don't know the answers to their questions. A woman once asked, "Where was God when my father was molesting me?"
"I wish I knew where he was during your ordeal," I answered. "I just don't know. But I do know this: God loves you and wants to heal the wounds of your past." It's ironic, but not having all the answers helps people better trust the answers I do have.
Use the culture to introduce Good News. Secular people know popular music, entertainment, and news media. So I've used such worlds to help make the Christian case. In my messages on Saturday nights, I cite secular studies, read from news sources, and quote from popular music to bridge the listener's world to the Scriptures.
One night I used John Lennon's famous song "Imagine." I asked the audience to imagine a world with no competing religions, no wars, no fights, where complete peace and harmony reigned. "Will there ever be such a place?" I asked. "Such a world is possible only through Jesus Christ, who gives us personal peace and changes hatred into love."
People in our culture hold many misperceptions about Christians. When I explode those negative stereotypes, primarily with humor, and perhaps satirize now and then the real foibles of Christians, I gain credibility.
One Easter morning, knowing many unchurched people would be in the audience, I wore my doctoral robes to the pulpit. I pointed to the various parts of this beautiful robe—the colors, the hood, the sleeves—and explained what each symbolized. Then I unzipped the robe and stepped out in a tee shirt and blue jeans. People gasped.
"On Easter Sunday, we all put on our robes," I said. "By that I mean we all get dressed up. We all put on our best image. But underneath all the hype, at the blue-jeans level, we often are very different people. We need to ask, 'Does Easter make a difference?'"
Reaching out to committed unbelievers is a great challenge requiring creativity and dedication. Sometimes the results are slow in coming; sometimes we have to endure a lot of misunderstanding and hostility. But sometimes the results are remarkable.