Ever heard of the word fungible? It’s a law term that means interchangeable. For example, a dollar bill is fungible; one is the same as another.
In my work with evangelism, I’m often reminded that non-Christians are definitely not fungible. Each individual comes from his or her own experience, background, and worldview. And we err when we plan outreach events without first thinking through which “species” of nonbeliever we’re trying to reach. What might be effective for reaching some may actually be counterproductive for others.
I think it’s incumbent on the Church to consider the spiritual condition of the people we’re trying to impact. Are they far from God or close to receiving Christ? Are they receptive or resistant to the Gospel? To help us strategically think through these issues, I’ve defined four different types of non-Christians:
When I was an atheist, this term defined me. Cynics respond with sarcasm or anger when you bring up Jesus. They may have had negative experiences that poisoned their view of the Church. If you invite a cynic to an event or worship service, you’ll get an earful!
Even so, certain outreach strategies can help move cynics toward God. Mark Mittelberg and I once staged a breakfast for people who otherwise would never have darkened the door of our church. We brought in a popular local sportscaster to tell colorful stories about famous athletes. Our goal was not to try to lead these cynics to Christ in a single event. Rather, it was to get them inside the church to see that Christians can be normal and to encourage them to become more open to attending a service.
We knew we had succeeded when a woman wrote later: “I’ve never been able to get my husband to visit the church before. But when he heard you were hosting a breakfast with his favorite sports commentator, he told me he wanted to attend. Well, he loved it! Afterward, he told me he’s ready to come to church with me Sunday.”
These folks might be a bit more open to spiritual issues, but they’re plagued by doubts about God or the Bible. They’re not actively pursuing God on their own.
Skeptics may be open to outreach efforts that address the evidence for Christianity. For example, I have been involved with debates in which Christians and atheists argue their positions. These kinds of events can help skeptics see the credibility of Christianity.
This category described my wife Leslie during the first part of our marriage. She was in “spiritual neutral”—indifferent to God and oblivious to Christianity’s relevance.
Often, spectators can be influenced by outreach events that demonstrate the relevance of God to life issues like child-rearing or finances or an event at which a Christian testifies to how God has made specific differences in his life.
Some spectators are spiritually numb, having grown up in a home where Christianity was a lifeless ritual. They may respond to “worship evangelism” as they witness authentic Christians expressing heartfelt love for Jesus.
These folks are expressing interest in Christianity. They’re open to information about the Bible, and they’re honestly pursuing answers about God.
Many of them respond to seeker small groups, in which a Christian interacts regularly with them. Curricula to try include Tough Questions by Garry Poole and Reality Check by Mark Ashton. They may also benefit from seeker-oriented church services.
As intentional churches, we have countless outreach strategies available to us. The key is to identify at the outset whom God is calling you to reach—then to plan an event or service to meet that group’s specific needs.