Podcast Episode 15 | 13 min
Reaching Those Far From God
People are interested in spiritual things, but they need help understanding the Bible.
Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com on Monday Morning Preacher, and I’m here today with our guest host, Dave Ferguson. Dave, it’s great to have you.
Dave Ferguson: It’s good to be here. Thanks for having me, Matt.
MW: So Dave, you are at a church called The Yellow Box. That’s not the real name but tell us how it got that nickname.
DF: Actually, the church I lead is called Community Christian but our first location, we didn’t have any money so we basically built like a butler building, just a box, and rather than painting it gray we painted it bright yellow.
So when people drove by instead of calling it Community Christian they would say, "Oh, I go to the Yellow Box." Literally ever since then we’ve added a few additions so it actually looks decent now, but on the outside it says “Yellow Box.”
MW: I’ve driven by it many times and it is a yellow box.
DF: Yes, it is.
MW: So you and your brother John wrote a book called, Finding Your Way Back to God, and as part of the promo material for that book you guys write, and I quote, “We live in a very important time in the spiritual trajectory in our society and world.” Describe the spiritual trajectory that we’re on.
DF: Maybe different than others, I see it as a time of tremendous opportunity. I think there is an unprecedented amount of searching. We have a generation of people who once had an inherited faith. Now, it’s more of an investigative faith, and they’re looking for something, and they’re looking for this God they believe in but, they didn’t find it at the last place. I think what they’re looking for—and this is why I wrote the book—is for someone to help them find their way back to God.
MW: What do preachers need to unlearn about our approach to preaching given this new cultural context we are in?
DF: People are spiritual, but not biblical. If they’re showing up at your church they’re looking for something. There’s less and less people that feel obligated to be there on Sunday, so we need to assume these people are interested in spiritual things, they just don’t understand biblical things. Which means, as I am preparing my sermon I need to think about how I can make the sermon content accessible. I think the other thing is they’re on a journey, so what is our role in helping them take the next step on their journey.
MW: Tell us, what is the role of preaching in helping people find their way back to God?
DF: I think preaching is a way to shepherd and even lead in creating culture. Think about three expanding concentric cultures. At the center of it are what we call values. Then the second concentric circle is what you call narrative. The third one is behaviors.
I think every time you get up to teach or preach you start with those values. At the core, that’s the biblical truth. Here’s what we value, here’s the thing we’re teaching you today. You begin to use stories that come from your community and words that are unique to that missional context that move people, help them understand that value.
The third piece is what makes the very best teachers and preachers, those who are best able to mobilize people and move them to better follow Jesus. The third part is behavior. They’re able to actually say, "Here’s how I’m attempting—it’s not like you have to be perfect, it’s not like you’ve got it figured out—but here’s how I’m attempting to live this out the way Jesus has challenged us to, or the way the gospel has challenged us to." What a lot of preachers do is they talk about the values and the truth to the story and that’s all we give. It implicitly tells people all we have to do is believe a certain thing and tell stories. Preaching is a way of creating a shepherding and leading culture, and in our case, a culture of helping people find their way back to God.
MW: So we’re going to listen to a clip from one of your sermons that you did, and then you and I are going to break this down.
DF: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That was something that I needed to learn. So when do you tell your story? You tell your story when people know you really care about them. When they really want to hear your story, want to hear about the life change that you’ve experienced. One of the ways that we’ve encouraged people around here our community to be really intentional about caring for people. Whether you ever get a chance to tell your story or not, but you do hope you get to. It is what we call our blessed practices. And these blessed practices, if you’ve never heard these before, these are revolutionary. I’m telling you, these are great ways to build relationship, great ways to care for people.
Here they are. They simply are like this. It begins with B. B is “Begin with Prayer.” You begin by praying for the person. If there is someone you want to really impact, want to influence their life, maybe a neighbor, a loved one, a family member, a person at work, you begin by praying for them. And you could do that every day. The L stands for “Listen.” It doesn’t start with you telling your story, Dave, it starts with listening—get to know them. The E, this little surprise one, is to “Eat.” There is nothing like eating together to actually take a relationship to a new place. For those of you who ever dated, when you asked someone out to dinner all of a sudden something different, a dynamic changes when you go out to eat. Then there’s S. Because after you’ve prayed for them, listened to them, eaten with them, they will tell you how to love them. Then you get the opportunity to “Serve” them. Are you tracking with me on this? And then after you’ve done all those things then you have the opportunity to “Share Your Story.”
Now, what’s cool about these practices, these are some things that we put some titles to but actually we see this in the life of Jesus and we actually see this consistently with the believers throughout the New Testament.
MW: How would you describe the preaching style that you use to reach people far from God?
DF: We always strive for one big idea. Beyond even the teaching, the music, and video, we strive really hard to make sure there’s one big idea that everyone leaves with. One thing that they can do to take the next step of following Jesus and finding their way back to God.
MW: So simplicity, structure, and …
DF: Simple, yes. I think it goes back to what we talked about earlier—accessible. I think a lot of people don’t do the hard work of making it simple and accessible.
MW: It is hard work.
DF: So whatever you have to do, we want to make it really simple, accessible, and absolutely true to Scripture.
MW: How do you handle altar calls? Like, bam, this is a point where you can accept Jesus.
DF: We will do a variety of different things. We just finished up a series not too long ago called “Starting Over” which is actually the follow-up book, John, I did from Finding your Way Back to God.
The graphic we used for the “Starting Over” series was this old dilapidated piece of wood, and it was halfway painted over with white. We went through the series and the subtitle is “Moving Beyond your Regrets.” So we had people deal with their regrets. In the three weeks we went through three Rs. We challenged them to “Recognize Your Regrets”—be honest about them. What are the things that are holding you back in so many different areas of life? Then to “Release Your Regrets.” Then there was a variety with either forgive others, forgive yourself, and in some ways we’ve talked about what does it mean to forgive God. Then the third one was to go ahead and “Redeem Your Regrets.”
So what does it mean to let God take those things that feel like great evil and use them for good. We gave people the opportunity, and said, "Hey, if that’s you and this has been your experience, that you’re ready to let God redeem your regrets, we want you to come forward." We actually had giant pieces of wood up on the stage with buckets of paint and rollers, and people got a chance to come forward and we gave them a chance to be baptized. But before they would actually get in the baptistery they would take one of those rollers and they would roll over that whole piece of wood. Showing them that this is kind of like what Jesus has done for all your regrets—they’re gone. Then they go into the baptistery. So we do a lot of different kinds of things to create those opportunities.
MW: Yeah, that’s really good. Well, let‘s talk about something utterly crucial, and that’s the preacher’s heart. We are all busy pastors, every pastor is busy. In the midst of pastoral busyness, how do you keep a fire burning in your heart for people that are far from God?
DF: I’m convinced you reproduce who you are.
MW: In everything, and in your preaching?
DF: Pretty much, pretty much. So who I am is really important, to get back to what we talked about earlier. Who I am will impact the kind of culture I want to create and who I want to see other people be. It’s interesting as my kids were growing up I kind of made it a point to, almost every week, have a breakfast date with them. So sometimes I’d put it on Facebook, "Hey, I’m out having bagels with Caleb, or I’m at Starbucks with Amy, or I’m at Dunkin’ Donuts with Josh." But what’s interesting is so many guys in our church now, they take their kids out for breakfast. I had someone text me, "Hey, when you’re taking your kids out, now how did that work?" So you reproduce who you are.
When it comes to helping people find their way back to God, one of the things that I’ve tried to do is I journal almost on a daily basis, and we do these things called “BLESS” practices, you hear about them in the sermon clip. But really quick the “BLESS” practices are Begin with Prayer, Listen, Eat, Serve and Share Your Story—spells "Bless." So I have a list of about a dozen people every day that are on my list that I’m praying for. I had one of the guys I’ve been praying for, for three years, who is a friend of mine, we both have kids who run cross country together. A great guy, a real successful business guy, but there’s some stuff going on in his life where it’s all starting over and he had regrets. He was stuck. This weekend, I’ve probably gotten half a dozen texts, a couple emails, a couple calls, just from him. I mean, he’s totally on fire, amped about what a difference this whole forgiveness thing. It’s like he got grace for the very first time. God used me, and it’s a privilege to be able to pray for him. We get together, I listen to him. We had breakfast recently to talk about next steps, and that was kind of a big breakthrough moment for him. He texted me on the weekend and said, "Hey, you know what, my birthday is on Easter, is there any chance I can get baptized on Easter?" I said, "I think we can make that happen."
MW: That’s fantastic.
DF: So I think if I’m not involved and loving people, helping people find their way back to him like that, how can we have a church that does that?
MW: I have seen your prayer journal. You showed it to me. I wasn’t sneaking into your bedroom looking at it, you showed it to me, and it was pretty impressive.
DF: It’s only one page, so it’s not impressive.
MW: But you’re doing it. Not just preaching about it, you’re doing it.
DF: It’s nothing anybody listening couldn’t do in 15 minutes.
MW: Absolutely. Well, Dave, thanks for being with us on Monday Morning Preacher. Thanks for your perspective. I think you’ve given us some really practical, challenging stuff so thanks a lot.
DF: Thanks, Matt.
MW: This is Matt Woodley, with Monday Morning Preacher. Hope you can join us for our next episode.
Dave Ferguson is the lead pastor of Community Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois. Dave provides visionary leadership for NewThing and he is the president and board chair for Exponential. Dave is also an adjunct professor at Wheaton Graduate School and the author of many Christian leadership books including The Big Idea (Zondervan, 2007).