How to minister to god-fearers in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, pluralistic society

Photo by fortune cookie via Flickr (Creative Commons)

We all know the church in America is in trouble…

  • More than 50% of Americans, if given a box to check, would label themselves as Christian while less than 10% affiliate with an actual church.
  • While the dominant suburban white church ignores this reality, we are becoming a multi-ethnic nation. (again)
  • While the church is typically racially/ethnically homogenous, our society has embraced multi-culturalism.
  • While church leaders have lacked a thoughtful, tactical response our society has rapidly embraced the philosophical framework of pluralism.

In other words– society is doing things that the church has no clue how to respond to. In any given community in our country on any given Sunday less than 10% of the community is actively involved with a church. (Any church)

The only place the church is seeing growth? Circling the wagons. Big churches are getting bigger, little churches are getting littler, and medium-sized churches are squeezed.

In the last decade we’ve seen three general concepts rise and ultimately fail to reach more people:

  • Political involvement. The early part of the 2000s was marked by the rise of power of the Evangelical politically. This completely backfired. Society was repulsed by our Scarlet Letter-like tactics to try to change society.
  • Church planting movement. The last 10 years has seen a massive mobilization of younger leaders to plant churches. Unfortunately, these church plants are ineffective because they are just re-dressing the same pig. While it’s true that lots and lots of churches have closed in the last 20 years and church plants are supposedly out to replace them, the people aren’t fooled. Putting a nice marketing edge on the same old tactics won’t ever work.
  • Christian hipsters. Also popular in the 2000s was a desire for Christians to quietly embed themselves in pop culture industries like movies, television, and music. The idea seemed to be that if Christians could embed themselves in things seen to create culture we could reach people by interweaving redemptive analogies into our culture. That backfired because it just became a marketing ploy by those industries. (A very successful one at that.)

What does this have to do with the book of Acts? EVERYTHING. The parallels between the first Century synagogue and the 21st century church are shockingly similar. The Jewish people, many of whom had dispersed to other parts of the modern world, struggled to maintain their numbers. Many congregations had shrunk to the point where they couldn’t even hold services because they couldn’t get 10 men there. (Which Jewish law requires for worship.) While they were strictly monotheistic and moralistically concrete, scattered in the Greco-Roman world they struggled to survive.

Several times in the book of Acts you see Luke mention a group of people called, the god-fearers. (Greek derivatives of the word, “theophobes”) These were people who hung out around the synagogue, worshipped with Jews, identified and sympathized with the Jews… but weren’t actually pursuing conversion. This wasn’t a rare thing. This was actually a subculture of people who hung out around the synagogue and in some contexts likely out-numbered the Jews in a community.

They were fans of God, worshippers of God, but they didn’t know God and certainly weren’t on His team.

They just kind of hung around. And the rabbi’s probably seemingly had no idea what to do with them. Maybe they even had conferences to talk about what to do with them? I’m just saying….

Does this sound familiar? 

The American church is full of these people. And I think the second half of Acts gives us a few ways to minister to them. Let’s look at a few.

  1. Present the facts and call them to repent, invite them to join God’s team. (Acts 13:38-43)
  2. Raise the bar and demand painful obedience. Look at how Paul dealt with Timothy. (Acts 16:1-4)
  3. Call them to not only hear from God, but respond to him. (Acts 10)
  4. Ask them to examine the Scriptures for themselves and then ASK them to believe. (Acts 17:10-15)
  5. Stop wasting your time and move on. There’s no time for people who are merely looking for intellectual debate. Move on. (Acts 18:4-7)

Call me crazy on this but it’s all over Acts. Stop calling them Christians. Luke was careful to label them what they were and there was likely a community of god-fearers in every synagogue. They knew who they were and they knew what they needed to do to identify with God.

If we keep telling them they are a duck. And they keep acting like a duck. They are going to think that they are ducks. 

 


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9 responses to “How to minister to god-fearers in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, pluralistic society”

  1. Daniel Griswold Avatar

    Very incisive.  People who minister know this is an issue and it seems that every generation we have these moments where the church seems to be taken less seriously.  With so many negative portrayals of the church and the view that the whole church is blackened by the recent decades scandals, I wonder how long it will take for those who minister and care for the people of our country to regain credibility.  I sometimes wonder what God is doing or thinking and in my prayer life I often see the words “why” and “how” without clear answer.  Honestly, I turn to the prophets for comfort (which may seem strange) and remember that those who care about others should maintain their message of the Good News as it is, to be excited about it despite the challenges, and move forward despite the consequences of image right now.  I believe there will be a time when our culture will decide that wandering in pluralism and ambiguity is a harder road than determining what the truth is.  

    persevere. it is the only option for those who believe

  2. Jared Dilley Avatar
    Jared Dilley

    Great thought Adam, my question is are we unwilling to rethink the sructure because it is failing.  I think we would love a new model, the problem is that model would probably require more of us to get a regular job to pay the bills.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I have an article coming out in the Nov/Dec issue of Immerse Journal which asks that same question. If we really believe that the current model of church can’t reach more than 10% of the population… what are we willing to do to reach more? People like to point to the megachurches…. and 20,000 sounds like a ton of people until you look at the population they draw from. 20,000 among 400,000 is only 5%. I would argue that it’s not the Gospel that’s broken… maybe it’s the model? 

      1. Jared Dilley Avatar
        Jared Dilley

        Taking this to youth ministry we must ask the same question.  I had over 100 students yet we drew from nine hugh schools (plus homeschooler) with a total population of close to 20,000.  I think the future is bi-vocational and many youth pastors working as full-time teachers in the public schools to disciple students on a more day to day basis rather than in the fake culture that is youth group.

        1. Adam McLane Avatar

          I would second that sentiment completely. 

  3. Russ Avatar
    Russ

    @adammclane:disqus You’re right. And perhaps wrong as well. You’re right in that the model is broken. I was at a mega-church before being at the one I am at now and they were content with reaching 5% if possible. I never got that. I still don’t. You’re wrong though (or maybe we’re saying the same thing differently) in thinking that it is entirely a church problem, as it is just as much as a self-identity problem. Those who call themselves aren’t behaving like they should, sharing and loving as they should, etc… And while the church is responsible for creating the culture to where this is normative, Christians must also take ownership of this issue (which you gladly raised). Perhaps it’s my love for church planting, but I think planting is a part of the answer. It’s not THE answer, but it is a part of the answer. Band-aid plants never work, but neither do churches near fifty years of age (the typical age of a dying church). There are a lot of questions wrapped up in this conversation. Thanks Adam for kicking it in the pants. 

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I think we are saying the same thing, at the end of the day, about people in the church. But certainly… pastors like crowds for various reasons. Even if they don’t work at reaching more than say… 5% of the culture they are in. And I think it’s that love of the crowd which has lead them to teach some crappy stuff. Mixing an apathetic culture with a church leadership structure that is power hungry and you have lots of people on the sidelines and nearly no one doing anything of substance, statistically speaking. (See Jared’s comments) 

      Sometimes it’s a lack of hard core understanding of those older congregations that will keep even the best church plant from taking off. (There were some famous failures in the NorthPoint world in the Detroit area… talk about not doing even the basic ethnography…FAIL.) We can’t have a throw away attitude towards those existing churches. It’ll take all kinds of church and neighbors and little factions and indie fundies and crazy liberals and middle of the roaders to make a dent. At least that’s the way I see it. 

      Fun conversation. Totally enjoying it and thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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