"People just don't come to church anymore!" an older gentleman complained in a small group recently. "I see them walking their dogs on Sunday morning, mowing their lawns on Sunday morning, and doing who knows what else on Sunday morning. Why aren't they in church!?"
Pastors and church leaders everywhere can empathize with this issue. Many churches are struggling to connect with individuals outside of the faith. As our society becomes more motivated by personal feelings than by truth, the church appears to many as a distant and somewhat embarrassing aunt you have to visit on Christmas and Easter. For some, church has lost its relevance. For others, it was never relevant in the first place.
We look around and we see that people are drawn to things with high entertainment value. So we try to make the church experience more relevant by making it more entertaining. While this seems to make sense on the surface, the evidence tells us that it’s not the best way to connect people to God.
Missiologist Paul Hiebert has written that many failures of the Church can be traced to its inability to help people deal with the issues of the “middle level,” the space between science (bottom level), which explains the natural world, and religion (top level), which explains more transcendent issues. Middle level issues are those everyday “questions of the uncertainty of the future, the crises of the present life, and the unknowns of the past.”
This exclusion of the middle level began in the 17th century when science began to distance itself from religion, and the Church reacted by focusing on the top level. In ignoring the middle level, the Church failed to explain the active role that faith can play in dealing with daily challenges. The Church became ineffective, because most people want to see how God is relevant in their everyday lives before they listen to the promise of eternal life. That ineffectiveness continues today. People yearn for answers, yet look for them outside the church, because the church hasn’t met them “in the middle.”
George Hunter tells the story of St. Patrick, who in the 5th century took on the seemingly impossible mission of evangelizing Ireland, a country of “unreachable Barbarians.” He planted communities of faith, where they addressed the everyday issues of the middle “as comprehensively and powerfully as any Christian movement ever has.” As faith became relevant, Ireland went from being a pagan nation to one predominately Christian.
Like St. Patrick, we can similarly reach people today by taking two steps that help them deal with middle level issues:
1. Host large, open gatherings where new people are invited in and are made to feel welcome.
This is best accomplished by large groups (ideally 10-30 people) that reach out to those outside the church by inviting them to events like talks by guest speakers, mini-retreats, art classes, cooking demonstrations, health and wellness workshops, mission projects, etc. If the events are done well, guests will be stirred to hear about Jesus and continue in relationship with the group.
2. Connect people into small closed groups where they can learn to rely on God for life’s “middle issues.”
This is best accomplished by small groups (ideally 3-4 people) that focus on spiritual growth. These groups provide the intimacy and accountability necessary for people to confess their shortcomings and begin using spiritual practices. This step is critical because laypersons who have experienced God’s supernatural grace in “middle level” are the ones who will be motivated to do step #1.
The combination of these two steps will help people experience the Christian faith as something meaningful for their everyday lives—addressing their fears, worries, hurts, losses, failures, and questions. And they will begin to see Christianity for what it really is—true, relevant, and essential for dealing with life’s “middle level” issues.
We've put together a Self-Assessment Tool for gaining insight into how well your church helps people deal with life’s daily struggles. Download it now and begin thinking about ways to become better at meeting people “in the middle.”
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