(Sara D Harper Photography)
ALPHARETTA, Ga. – The Drive 2013 Conference, a three-day gathering of over 2,400 pastors and church leaders from 25 countries and 700 organizations, wrapped up last Wednesday at North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., with a call for believers to re-examine and adapt their approach to communicating the Gospel in a culture where Christians are now the minority.
North Point Ministries founder Andy Stanley told attendees assembled from around the world and the hundreds watching online that if they are trying to reach unchurched people, they must be willing to challenge traditional assumptions and adjust their methodology without changing the content of the message. "For many years, evangelicals have been able to speak from a position of authority because we were the majority, but we are no longer a majority so we can no longer speak with the same authority," he said. "But the good thing for us is that a precedent was set for us in the first century, when Christians were in the minority."
"Jesus predicted that we would take the message to every nation and tribe and tongue, and we became a majority world religion," he continued. "But then we began to speak with an authority that I don't think Jesus intended, and we've lost a bit of our message and our leverage."
Stanley's concern is that unless the church – and evangelicals in particular – change their approach in communicating with unchurched people, followers of Christ will lose their voice and forfeit opportunities to share the Gospel in a culture that desperately needs a Savior.
"We have given culture a lot of other things to argue with us about – needlessly – that sometimes keep people from ever coming close to church," he said. "There is a shift that has to take place if we are to speak into the culture of a world that needs to know there is a God in Heaven who has invited each person to call Him Father."
Believers should be willing to go to "all lengths" in order to win some to Christ, said Stanley, referring to the Apostle Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. He insisted that church leaders "pretty much agree on the goal" and that "the problem isn't Jesus or God or the Bible, but the approach that is driving people away," citing historical trends which demonstrate the progressive decline in church attendance, particularly among the 18-25 year old demographic. "We are financing their exit from church," he lamented.
"You assume a culture that doesn't exist anymore, and you don't help those who need to make it up to the bottom rungs of the ladder," Stanley told the diverse group of pastors and leaders. "If we want to re-engage our culture with the Bible, then we have to bring our energy to the Bible and uncover the energy in the Bible."
The goal in preaching, Stanley emphasized, must always be to present the scriptures in a way that is so helpful and compelling to everyone in the audience that the text answers their questions, solves mysteries, and resolves tensions they've been carrying. "There is no one that takes the scriptures more seriously than me – based on how I was raised, and based on the power of the scriptures to change lives," he said, adding that his motivation to share Christ's message comes from the belief that "people will live forever somewhere." "My goal isn't to be correct, to make people happy, or to be right… but to win as many as possible."
"Our Savior knew this best," explained Stanley, pointing to numerous examples in scripture where Jesus interacted with unbelievers. "If anyone could have gone around being accurate and correct, it was Jesus… but He didn't come to be right, He came to seek and to save those who were lost. So He didn't take the 'I'm right, I know, you're wrong,' approach."
Believers should remove every obstacle that hinders or distracts from the central question, "Who is Jesus?" said Stanley, adding that a scripture verse he hangs in his office is Acts 15:19: "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God."
A major reason for the decline of the church, Stanley contended, is that Christians have focused too much on policing the behavior of outsiders without looking at the inside. "If in the past 50 years, the church had done a good enough job policing our own behavior, then we would not be able to build churches big enough and fast enough today," he said, adding that the imperatives of the New Testament are addressed to Christians. "Who doesn't want to be part of a community that loves one another, prays for one another, shares and cares for one another? But that's not what comes to mind when people think of the church."
"The reason the church grew in the first century is because women were valued there like nowhere else in the world, children were treasured like nowhere else, and slaves were attracted because everyone was equal before God. It was all about 'one another' and the culture eventually paused and took a look at that and the Gospel spread."
Stanley acknowledged that many of the ideas he shared during the Drive Conference were unconventional, but urged pastors and church leaders to re-evaluate their approach to ministry and adjust their teaching for greater effectiveness in sharing the Gospel. "I hope you'll take what you've just heard, process it through your grid of education and background and tradition, and go back to our first century roots," he said. "We have to go back and speak the way the first century Christians did. It worked for them, and it may just work for us."