That was the question the conference leader asked a group of about 500 or so pastors and church leaders. “Who are you trying to impress?” I was a very young associate pastor, and being a typical Baby Boomer know-it-all, I answered to myself, “I’m not trying to impress anyone. I just want to be me.” Then, the leader went further and said, “Who would you most like to hear compliment your ministry? A friend? A parent? Another pastor? A seminary professor? Who would you most like to hear say good things about your preaching and your leadership?” Well that brought the question home to me. I thought I would love to have some of my old profs (I was about a year and a half out of seminary) tell me I was doing things the right way. This conference leader had started his church with nothing and led it to be, at that time, one of the fastest growing and most effective churches in America. He said, “I decided when I started that if I could get a compliment from anyone on my ministry, I wanted it to come from the unchurched in my town. That is who I decided to try to impress.”
To me, that was a brand new way of looking at ministry, and it has become the way I have tried to conduct myself as a pastor. Because Jesus’ command to us is to make disciples, I knew I needed to make an impression on those who don’t know Him. How else could I help influence them to join me in following Christ? This idea began to color the way I sought to preach, the programs and events I led my church to do, and even the kind of building we eventually built. Sometimes, it’s meant choosing to do things in a way that was not impressive to my profs or even the older leaders in my church. From time to time, those people made their disappointment with me very obvious. But the Lord did not assign me to impress them. Jesus had the same problem. Most of the religious people of His time were not impressed with Him at all, while the regular folks followed Him.
Impressing the unchurched does not mean becoming like the unchurched, but it does mean sharing the Gospel in ways that get their attention and speak to them. It means treating them with respect and loving them. It means doing your best to make them feel accepted, comfortable and loved in your presence. You won’t have to point out their sin (the Holy Spirit will take care of that), and it’s not your job to judge them (I believe that is reserved for Christ). Your job is to care about them and want them to join you on the journey to heaven.
Too often, the practice of congregations do not match their rhetoric. They say they want to win people to Christ, but they leave the unchurched feeling like they are a bother. When people do decide to join the body, the congregation often keeps them on the fringe of the fellowship for a long time. (Right after becoming the pastor at a church, I heard some of the core people talking about the “new family.” Turned out the “new family” had been attending and giving to the church regularly for five years.)
Lesson for Pastor: It’s easy for your office to become an ivory tower. You can find yourself surrounded only by Christians and people who try to act like Christians when they are around you. Find ways to get to know unchurched people in your community and be Jesus to them. Join a service or hobby club, play on a ball team not sponsored by the church, volunteer as a police or fire chaplain, coach your kid’s sports team. Do anything that will put you in close contact with people you might be able to influence for Christ. Then, get to know them. Become friends. Share life with them and thereby earn the right to share Christ.
Lesson for Church Leaders: Help your pastor develop a culture in your church that expects and welcomes unchurched people. Realize that they will bring baggage with them from the world and be willing to help them deal with it when they’re ready. Don’t expect people who don’t know Christ to act like Him. Be real with them. You probably aren’t as Christ-like as you should be either. Share the road to Him with them.
My mentor, Dan Harman, used to say when I was his associate at First Church in Fresno, Calif., that he wanted there to be three kinds of people in Fresno: 1.) People who are members of First Church; 2.) People who are members of another church, but say, “If I didn’t have a church home I would go to First Church”; 3.) People who don’t go to church anywhere, but say, “If I decide to go to church, I think I’ll try First Church.” We didn’t get that far, but we worked at it. I challenge you to work at it too.
Think about it. From whom would you like to hear a compliment? Who are you trying to impress?