Editor’s Note: Vince is known in church planting and leadership circles and beyond for his activism in reaching lost people. He has served as lead pastor and planted two churches—the most recent is located just off the strip in Las Vegas, where they have reached many prostitutes, gamblers, and more. The churches he planted are distinctive because the majority of the people they reached and built the church upon were previously unchurched people. Vince continues to reach lost people, but now as an everyday church member because he turned over the leadership of the church in Las Vegas and now focuses on a personal ministry as a writer.
I came from a completely unchurched background. When I came to faith, I desperately wanted to reach everyone I could.
Later, I became a pastor and wanted to figure out how to preach in a way that 1) honors God, 2) honors the Bible, 3) grows Christians, and 4) reaches non-Christians.
Most pastors are focused on and are good at the first three in that list—the fourth is the issue. But we want people who are far from God showing up at our churches and if they do come, we want them to come back, and eventually to come to faith in Jesus.
So, how can you preach to reach people who do not yet trust and follow Jesus? I’ll share four principles I’ve learned along the way.
1. Be relevant to who you are.
When you get up to preach, an unchurched person who is at your church is not thinking, “Oh, good! It’s the dispenser of Bible truths!” No, they’re wondering, Who is this guy? Why should I listen to him? Is he anything like me? Would he like me? They’ll probably be skeptical and cynical about you as a person. And the way you break through that is by authentically sharing who you are. Non-Christians need to see that you’re a real person, who’s on a journey, that you have a past, and that you struggle in the present, and that you have hopes, dreams, and fears about the future.
“They’ll probably be skeptical and cynical about you as a person.”
That means you will, at times, need to be vulnerable. I’ve told stories about being abused by my father. One Sunday I shared one of my earliest childhood memories. I was about five years old and sleeping but woke up to the sound of yelling downstairs. I ran down, afraid of what my father might do to my mother. They were standing in the living room, inches apart, and my father was screaming. Afraid for my mom, I grabbed my father’s leg and tried to pull him away. I couldn’t. When my father realized what I was doing, I think he got embarrassed. So, he shook me off, stormed over to my mom’s most prized possession, something her mother had left her when she died, broke it, and threw it at her.
She started crying and he stormed out of the house. My mother and I sat on the living room floor crying together and holding this broken heirloom.
I shared that story and the next Sunday a girl named Jacquelyn bounced up to me. “Guess what? Ed said he’ll come every week now!” Jacquelyn had been coming for four years. Her husband had come maybe six times, but he happened to be there the previous Sunday. When they walked out, he told her, “Ok, I’ll come every week.” She was stunned, “Why?” He said, “I didn’t know Vince’s father was like that. He understands me. I can listen to him now.” It turns out Ed’s father was abusive. Guess what? Ed ended up putting his faith in Jesus and getting baptized.
You need to share your life. Not just what makes you look good, but also the things that make you look bad. Just be honest.
“He understands me. I can listen to him now.”
2. Be careful about being “relevant” to your culture.
The people God has called you to reach are not a part of your culture. They don’t know what you know or get what you get so be very careful about using your culture.
By that, I do not mean the Bible. If you want to reach lost people, you can use the Bible. You better! You have to.
But be very careful in not using your culture: Christian culture, church culture. Be cautious in using insider language or jokes.
Do you know why? You need to be careful about the assumptions you make, because your assumptions will create your crowd.
I think what happens is the way you speak, the words you choose, will ultimately determine who you get at your church, and who will stay at your church. I want to encourage you to think through your sermons carefully and ask yourself, “What do my words assume? What background is necessary on the part of the hearers for them to get it?”
“What do my words assume? What background is necessary on the part of the hearers for them to get it?”
I’ll give a few examples…
You’re preaching a sermon and you just made yet another amazing point (because that’s all you ever do), and then you say, “Ephesians 4:12 says…”
Question: What is an Ephesian? Who is Ephesians? Do you think if you say, “Ephesians 4:12 says…” an “outsider” will know it’s from the Bible? If you assume that, it will be true for your church. If a new, uninitiated person comes and continually hears things like, “Ephesians 4:12 says…” they’re going to start thinking, This is obviously not for me. They assume that everyone here knows Ephesians and is a Christian, and I’m not, so I guess I shouldn’t come back.
What should you have done? It’s a simple fix; just say, “The Bible says in Ephesians 4:12…” People who don’t know the names of the books of the Bible will think, Oh, this quote is from the Bible. Got it, and will feel comfortable in your church because even though they don’t know the Bible, you’re helping them understand and feel like they’re a part of it.
Another example: You’re preaching one Sunday when you say, “You know how sometimes when you’re praying, your mind will start to wander…”
What did you just do? You assumed that everyone in the room prays. How would the person who isn’t sure if they believe in God and doesn’t pray feel? This isn’t a place for me. This is a place for people who already pray. People who already know God. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not coming back.
“Even though they don’t know the Bible, you’re helping them understand and feel like they’re a part of it.”
What should you have done? I would say,
“You know how sometimes when you pray, your mind starts to wander? And let me pause for a moment because maybe you don’t pray. You might have come today but are not be sure what you believe about God. If so, that’s awesome. You’ve found a safe place where you can investigate faith and get to know the God who loves you. And, when you do, you’ll want to talk to him. He loves that, and that’s what prayer is. And . . . sometimes, when you pray, your mind will start to wander.”
Another example: You’re preaching through Numbers 22, and read, “Alright, so the Bible says in Numbers 22:28-30, ‘Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” “No, he said.”‘”
Then you say, “You see, the problem with Balaam is that he was ignoring God while his donkey was listening to him. And can’t we…”
What did you just do? You assumed we all believe in talking donkeys. What is the nonbeliever going to think? I guess people who go here think donkeys can talk. Wow! Well, I don’t, because I have a brain. So, I guess I wouldn’t fit here.
“What is the nonbeliever going to think? ‘I guess people who go here think donkeys can talk.'”
What should you have done? After reading the passage, I would say something like, “This story just got really weird! Balaam’s donkey talked. Just to be clear—the Bible does not believe in talking animals. This is like the only time in the Bible where an animal talks. And it’s because God’s doing something special here, an exception, because he wants to make a point with Balaam. And, really, if there is a God, well He can do anything He wants, including making an animal talk.”
I’ve been to tons of churches, and almost every single one violates this principle, and then doesn’t understand why they don’t have any non-Christians in their church.
3. Be relevant to their culture.
I hope it’s obvious that this principle is straight from the Bible. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 (NIV),
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
I think Paul’s idea is that yes, we are going to be different from non-Christians . . . in our character, the way we do relationships, the way we think. But we do have some things in common, and we should use what we have in common to build bridges to people who are far from God.
“We should use what we have in common to build bridges to people who are far from God.”
We see Paul do this in Acts 17, when he’s speaking at Mars Hill to the Greek philosophers and he says, in Acts 17:22-31 (NIV),
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Instead of condemning them because of their wrong beliefs, Paul compliments them that at least they’re searching. Then he quotes their prophets. Paul uses their pop culture as a tool to lead them to his God.
If I can build a bridge from me to a lost person by using their culture, I’ll do it.
“Instead of condemning them because of their wrong beliefs, Paul compliments them that at least they’re searching.”
Of course, we’re still going to teach the Bible, but how can we use the culture of the people we’re trying to reach to build a bridge? So, we might use a popular secular song with lyrics that speak to the theme that Sunday, or talk about a movie or TV show or something in pop culture, and use applications that apply to everyone, not just Christians.
Another way you can be relevant to people who don’t yet believe is to be relevant to their objections. If you say something, and it makes them think something, but you don’t address it, it makes you feel less relevant. So, we work hard to anticipate and respond to their objections.
The way I view a sermon is as a conversation. We don’t have people in the congregation actually comment and ask questions out loud during the message, but that doesn’t mean they’re not commenting and asking questions. And I feel like I would be irresponsible to not think through the comments and questions they’re likely to be asking, and to try to answer them in my sermon.
“I feel like I would be irresponsible to not think through the comments and questions they’re likely to be asking, and to try to answer them in my sermon.”
For instance, let’s say you’re preaching from 1 Samuel 15 and you’re about to tell the story where God commands Saul and the Israelites to destroy the Amalekites, completely removing them from the face of the earth. To kill all the men, women, children, babies, camels, dogs, sheep, cows. What is the unchurched person thinking? Seriously? This is the God you want me to believe in? This is a God of love?
You have to respond to that objection.
Here’s what I said when I preached on 1 Samuel 15.
“A little background: The Amalekites were evil. They had been an evil presence in the world throughout their entire history. They were so evil that God decides they’ve lost their right to live. They need to be removed—for the good of humanity. Now I know that sounds really harsh. But there’s a lot of background here, and God in His wisdom knows what’s best. You may be asking, ‘This is the God of love you guys talk about? How is this love?’ But couldn’t this be love, or at least the most loving option available? Think about it this way: What if you could go back before the Nazis started annihilating millions and millions of innocent people, or even while they were doing it, and wipe the Nazis off the face of the earth? Don’t you think that might be the most loving thing you could do? To save the 60ish million people who died in World War 2 and the Holocaust? . . . Well, regardless, God in His wisdom, and in His love, knows what’s best, and He decides what’s best is to remove the Amalekites.”
That may not be the best way to explain it, but it was the best way I could come up with. And it may not completely satisfy the unchurched person, but it might, and at least I anticipated and tried to answer the objection. It helps me, and the Bible, to not seem irrelevant to them.
“What is the unchurched person thinking? ‘Seriously? This is the God you want me to believe in? This is a God of love?'”
4. Be relevant to…the Hero.
People (all people, church people, unchurched people) want a hero. That’s why so many popular movies and TV shows feature heroes. People are looking for a hero, and we have the ultimate hero: Jesus. And so, yes, your sermon needs to include you—you need to let them know who you are. And it’s great to make it clever. If you’re funny, make it funny. Creatively use their culture. It’s wise to intelligently anticipate and respond to their likely objections. But don’t make yourself or your creativity or humor or intellect the hero; make Jesus the hero. He’s what unchurched people are looking for.
Checklist for the pastor and his team (use this in your sermon debrief time):
- Is your sermon truly Bible based?
- Have you shared something personal from your life?
- Did we use insider language or jokes that made outsiders feel like outsiders?
- Are there assumptions in the sermon/service that non-Christian newcomers won’t understand or that might confuse them? What are they?
- Did we use any popular culture that would have felt relevant to the unchurched and built a bridge?
- Did we make Jesus the hero we’re all looking for and need?