(Picking up from an old series)
North Point’s fifth “Principle for Effective Ministry” is “Listen to Outsiders.” Pretty strange idea, isn’t it? After all, what can we expect outsiders to know? If we want to know what to do as a church and how to do it, we need to listen to the experts, the people who have been there all their lives.
But North Point has the audacious idea that their primary reason for existence is not to take care of insiders and keep them happy. Rather, their goal is to create environments where outsiders can come to faith in Jesus. They reason that if all their language is purely the language of insiders, the outsiders will not be able to follow along- if they even bother to show up.
By “listen to outsiders” they don’t mean “water down the Gospel to make it easier to swallow.” If they perceive in the culture of those they’re trying to reach a commitment to a vague spirituality (whether what Christian Smith calls “Moral Therapeutic Deism” or some variant of the Americanized Buddhism so common today), they’re not thinking about tossing Jesus out the window. “You know, outsiders really want vagueness. Tolerance is the thing. Different strokes for different folks.” Though some might interpret “listen to outsiders” as entailing a change in basic theological commitments, Andy Stanley and crew have nothing like that in mind.
Of course, that’s part of the problem of focusing so much on methods. While it would be surprising to find a book called 7 Practices of Effective Ministry that didn’t focus on method, methodology is not as neutral as we would like. If we just take the 7 Practices, we could lay them on top of just about any organization, religious or not. North Point, though not officially a Southern Baptist church, comes with the basic theology and ethos of that ecclesial tradition. Adapting their practices in an institution like the United Methodist Church – or in a single United Methodist congregation – would be more difficult because of our tendency to lack a shared doctrinal vision. We have folks in our pews who are convinced that we need to “listen to outsiders” and that doing so would leads us away from our narrowness of talking only about Jesus.
In Good to Great Jim Collins describes how the successful companies he studied were ruthlessly narrow-minded when it came to their core purpose and completely flexible when it came to the methods of fulfilling their purpose. Though I don’t recall Andy Stanley mentioning Collins in reference to this, the contexts certainly match. Our traditional UM churches, however, tend to go the other way around. We are ruthlessly narrow-minded when it comes to our methods (we’re Methodists) and completely flexible when it comes to our core purpose. While we have made some progress of late, I think of our official mission statement – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world – we still have a way to go when it comes to gaining a shared understanding of what we mean by “disciple.”
Since most of our churches are institutionally conservative, i.e., focused on doing what we’ve always done, and oriented around taking care of our current members, we can learn from North Point. One of the texts Stanley uses in his exposition is Jesus’ story of the shepherd who left the ninety nine sheep to find the one that was lost. Is it possible that in listening to outsiders and making moves to draw them in, make them comfortable enough to stick around and hear the Gospel, that we might lose some insiders who are unhappy we’re no longer catering to them? Sure. In fact, if we consider previous movements that were effective in reaching people (whether we think of Jesus, John Wesley, or others more contemporary), they always did things that made some insider decide to go another direction. If we are truly reaching people for Jesus, we won’t keep everyone. It’ll be hard, since some – if not most – of those who decide to go another way will be people we count as our friends.
North Point calls their evangelism strategy “Invest and Invite.” Ordinary church folks invest in the lives of friends, neighbors, family, and co-workers, and then invite them to one of North Point’s environments. Two things happen through this approach. First, outsiders are exposed to the Gospel – as lived out by church folks, and as articulated in the environments they visit. Second, those who are investing and inviting are sensitized to the questions and culture of their friends who are outsiders. Because they have listened to outsiders they know that churches have to do more than just engage in insider lingo to communicate with them.
One of the downsides of pastoring a traditional church is that I have plenty to keep me busy just spending time with church folks, limiting my exposure to outsiders. One reason I stay plugged in to Facebook is that it is a great way to stay in touch with outsiders. In our community even most of the outsiders I’m around are only outsiders from my congregation, not from the Christian faith. I’m not out to empty all the other churches by bringing their people to my church. In this kind of setting non-professional Christians can be much more effective in listening to outsiders.
I’m sensitive to outsiders on Sunday morning (“Sunday morning worship” is our main environment attended by outsiders). I want them to be able to grasp what we’re doing and saying. But here’s a twist. I also agree with Francis Chan when he says, “Something is wrong when our lives make sense to unbelievers.” So what is it – do we make sense or not? Yes! We need to be clear enough in our communication that people can understand that they don’t understand – that the logic of following Jesus is profoundly different than the logic of the world. We gain the ability to help people clearly fail to understand by listening to them. And this realization of not understanding is a preliminary to true understanding.