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Discipling non-practicing Christians

steeple, cross
Unsplash/Oskar Kadaksoo

Economists say we’re in the middle of “The Great Resignation.” People are redefining their work expectations and leaving their current workplaces at a staggering rate.

We’re seeing that this season of reevaluation is not exclusive to the employment sector. Many Americans are also reconsidering what their faith and spiritual practices should look like. They’re trying to determine what’s real and what’s worth investing in. They’re searching to find something worth living for. 

Part of my work at American Bible Society is tracking national trends in Bible use and perception. Over the last several years, we’ve seen growth in what we call the Movable Middle — people who are “test-driving the Bible.” Our latest annualState of the Biblereport showed the Movable Middle has swollen to include 95 million American adults who are exploring Scripture, many for the first time. What may surprise some is that 9 out of 10 people in this undecided group already call themselves Christians.

The study also shows the label “Christian” means different things to different Americans. Therefore, if we want more people to embrace a sincere Christian faith, we must be nuanced in our approach to evangelism and discipleship. We found that Non-Practicing Christians look markedly different in both their engagement with the Bible and in how they live from Practicing Christians (those who identify as Christian, attend church regularly, and say their faith is very important).

Instead of turning to the Bible for wisdom and truth, many people treat it like an object that is good to have around, even if it’s just on a shelf. Our research shows that 75% of Practicing Christians read their Bibles weekly, but just 28% of Non-Practicing Christians say they do, citing reasons like not having enough time and finding the text difficult to navigate and to relate to.

There’s a significant opportunity here to help Non-Practicing Christians find truth and hope in God’s Word. As a researcher with a pastor’s heart, I have identified three ways we can help others deepen their faith and find full life in Jesus Christ as a result.

First, take an honest personal assessment

We cannot effectively preach what we do not live out ourselves. If we are to reach those not experiencing the hope of Jesus, then we first need to take a personal assessment and ask ourselves if we are living proof of that hope. In a recentarticle, Russell Moore says, “We are losing too many of a generation — not because they are secularists, but because they believe we are. What this demands is not rebranding, but repentance — a turnaround.”

Does our reflection of who Jesus is make others want to spend time with Him? Leading others to transformative faith begins with a close relationship with Jesus and a true love for those around them. We must continually do heart checks as we pursue God’s desire to see all people trust in Him. Good reflection questions include:

●  Am I spending time in God’s Word because I want to continually know Him more?

●  Am I connected to a vibrant church community that can encourage and challenge me to orient my life to the Gospel?

●  Am I more committed to God’s Word than I am to my own traditions and culture?

Second, listen well to those who are seeking something more in life

For seven years, I helped train missionaries — many of whom served overseas. When you train to be a missionary, you’re taught to anticipate that the people you’re serving will see the world differently than you do. It turns out this kind of cross-cultural awareness is equally valuable in what might first look like a monocultural setting.

Many U.S. pastors today craft their messages assuming their audience shares their worldview. But people in our communities aren’t always like us. Generational and socioeconomic differences give individuals unique perspectives on practically everything, including faith. And with increasing globalization, communities in the U.S. and abroad are increasingly heterogeneous. Sherwood Lingenfelter said it well in his book Ministering Cross-Culturally:

The communities we form include some and exclude others...We include those people who reaffirm our values and relationships, and we exclude those who in some way do not measure up to our standards or do not fit within our prescribed sphere of social relationships. This pattern of inclusion and exclusion often prompts us to fear and even reject the very people with whom we serve.

When we become shortsighted in how we see the world and the Gospel in it, we lose our relevance and our right to speak to people from a wide range of backgrounds. Pastors like me increasingly realize we’re answering questions that culture isn’t asking. Many pastors and church leaders were trained in methods that are decades old. Our apologetics often aren’t sufficient for today’s story-based society, asking hard questions about pain and loneliness.

The best thing we can do to create permanent seats for those on the periphery is to listen and do it well. Jesus was a master at this as He ministered to lepers, widows, the blind, and others. The truth of the Bible is critical for people to understand, but our methods of teaching must be adapted to meet today’s audience — by sitting with people to learn the language they speak, we can in turn pour biblical truth into their lives.

Third, share the truth about God with the awareness that people long for a full relationship with Him

Even though we’ve experienced God’s goodness through Scripture, too many of us don’t feel comfortable discussing our faith with others. But our study revealed that virtually all (9 out of 10) Practicing Christians and 72% of Non-Practicing Christians want to read their Bibles more.

Instead of taking a defensive stance in our faith, what if we believed that people are still seeking and longing for that which the world cannot offer? Much of the time, they are.

The good news is the Gospel brings comfort — and people need to hear it. Practicing Christians have experienced God’s healing and goodness themselves. Our research reveals that Practicing Christians reach for the Bible for a variety of reasons, the primary one being “it brings me closer to God.”

In his book Christians in an Age of Outrage, Ed Stetzer writes, “Because God is in control and will redeem all things, I can be calm, bold, and gracious as I share the Gospel.” God desires all those far from Him — and all those nearer to Him — to draw closer. As the Church, it’s our responsibility to identify the needs of our culture and help point people to Jesus for the answers.

Final thoughts

In his article, Moore states that “…we must rebuild our integrity without yielding to cynicism.” Our goal is to help people overcome barriers like disbelief and laziness. And we should prepare ourselves to answer the questions they are asking — both with our actions and our words. As we do this, I believe that many Non-Practicing Christians will be drawn into the vibrant community of faith they’ve been on the edges of for too long.

John Farquhar Plake is American Bible Society's head of research.

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