There is a special place in my heart for skeptics. You know who they are, right? Skeptics are the ones who are always questioning things. They are always asking questions like, Is this really true? Is that really what happened? Can that leader or organization really be trusted? Are their motives really what they say? Where is the fine print? When is the bait and switch coming, really?
While there may have been a time when skepticism was largely pushed to the cultural margins, that time has long passed. Churches and their leaders no longer get the benefit of the doubt. Instead, doubt is alive and well. Skepticism has become a staple in the increasingly post-Christian West. Sadly, however, many churches continue to go on with business as usual. And many of them continue to shrink and die as a result.
I have the privilege of leading a church that has consistently reached skeptics in the four short years of our existence. What we’ve done is not innovative, but it has been intentional. Here are five things you can do to more effectively reach skeptics:
1. Don’t ignore them.
Make no mistake, no matter how big or small your ministry is there are skeptics already in the room. They may not feel comfortable being open about just how skeptical they are, but they are there. They don’t agree with many of the things you say. They don’t believe many of the things you teach. But they are there.
Don’t ignore them. If you only speak to the people in the room who agree with you, you are missing a good chunk of your audience. Invite skeptics into the conversation. Acknowledge them. Welcome them. Speak to them as regularly as you do those who buy everything you’re selling. Do this on a regular basis and not only will you begin to connect with the skeptics already in the room, you will create an environment where more will be willing to join you.
2. Be upfront with your intentions.
Skeptics are already trying to figure out what your true motives are for doing what you do, so you might as well be honest with them up front.
At Mosaic we don’t dance around the fact that we are going to talk about Jesus a lot. We affirm that some in the room may not buy any of it, but while we’re gathered we are going to explore the person and work of Jesus together. We then go on to share that if we show all of our cards, we are actually praying that in time God will show himself to be real to them and perhaps even do something unexpected in their life. Whether or not that ever happens, however, they are invited to be a part of our community. We have found that those who do not share our beliefs appreciate this candid approach and a lot of them have taken us up on our invitation.
3. Genuinely value them.
We thank skeptics for being present with us and we mean it. Their being present with us is no small thing. It takes an awful lot of courage to walk into a room full of Christians; and the fact that they chose to walk into “our” room is both a compliment and a vote of trust. We don’t take that lightly.
Not only do we love having them with us, the truth is they make us better. They force us to reflect on our motives. They require authenticity. They don’t let us get away with easy answers or Christian clichés. So we invite them into every ministry environment we have, we recruit them to serve on our teams, and we value their contribution. The truth is we are far better with them than we are without them.
4. Invite them around the table.
If you wish to remain blind to all of the ways you are unintentionally missing those inside and outside your church, surround yourself with people who agree with you. But if you want to see with painful clarity what your blinds spots are both as a leader and a church, invite skeptics around the table and listen closely.
I regularly invite skeptics to speak into everything we do as a church. This includes sermon content, next step classes, the weekend experience, small groups, giving talks, etc. Nothing is off limits. The result has been a wealth of input from people who see things from an entirely different perspective than myself. While it isn’t for the faint of heart, it has proven invaluable to our ministry.
5. Be very, very patient.
People often ask me what makes Mosaic so different. I’m never sure how to answer that question. Our ministry model isn’t terribly innovative. No one is going to write a book about our revolutionary ideas about church. But if there is anything that makes us different, I suppose it’s that we decided a long time ago that we were going to strive to be more patient with people than anyone else.
Part of this means not expecting non-believers to act like believers, or skeptics to act like non-skeptics. We don’t ask them to stuff their doubts or fake it until they make it. Instead, we invite them to ask questions, to push back and to straight up disagree with anything and everything we say.
We do this for one very simple reason: we really believe the gospel is true. We are convinced that if we can just help people engage with Jesus and his gospel in the context of his church, then it’s just a matter of time until they come to see and experience the truth for themselves. The question then becomes, how long are you willing to wait? How long are you willing to invite push back, to field questions, to dialog, to extend grace, to love well, and to wait for God to do what only he can do?
As we consider our answer, may we remember just how incredibly patient God has been with us in the past and continues to be with us EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. If we still can’t bring ourselves to extend patience to those who struggle to believe as we do, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we are in the wrong business.
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” – 2 Peter 3:9