This semester, our college ministry created a campus organization so that we could try to more effectively reach the students at the University of Texas at Arlington. For the first meeting, we even got free catering from a nearby Asian restaurant to help attract people. However, we are very wary of HOW we grow, not that just we get numbers. If we just wanted 50 random Asian people to show up, we would have just advertised that we were offering free Asian food at a room at UTA. Instead, we clearly said that there was Bible teaching on campus first, and then we were going to actually move to church to have our prayer meeting, and THEN we were going to have food at church. From a pure marketing perspective, that’s not the smartest thing to do if you want to nab those college students who are always on the lookout for free food (and we know there’s a lot of those). We basically made any newcomers go through our program in order to get to the food. To top that all off, after our prayer meeting, I did the announcements and said something like this:
“We won’t always have free food every week. It’d be nice but it ain’t gonna happen. What we WILL have every week is teaching from Scripture and prayer and praise. We welcome anyone, whatever ethnicity you are or whatever worldview you hold. We want to get to know you and converse with you. But this is who we are, and we are going to be upfront about it. We are going to be about Christ.”
For people more partial to the seeker-sensitive movement, that whole strategy probably seemed unwise and “unwelcoming.” I’ve heard it a lot from Christians who argue that we should remove references to Jesus and the Gospel in our outreach efforts: It’s “heavy-handed” to teach the Gospel and the Bible to new people. It makes them “uncomfortable.” It “forces” our beliefs on them. It’s not “loving.” It’s too “theological.” So on and so forth. Instead, to reach people, we need to be culturally relevant and “speak their language” so that we can get them to church.
I’m not denying that we should be culturally informed, nor do I think we should try to ram our beliefs down anyone’s throat. The former helps adapt, but not fundamentally change, our message to our context, and the latter is unhelpful and unloving. However, the above “seeker” attitude is foolishness because it misunderstands our mission as Christians, the nature of biblical love, and, quite ironically, the desires of many people–Christian or non-Christian–who come to church looking to learn.
What’s the mission of the church? The Great Commission. Duh, right? However, one part of the Great Commission gets routinely overlooked. In verse 20, Jesus commands that we are to teach people to obey his commands. Teach. As in, informing them of what Jesus commanded and telling them they need to follow all of that. What is biblical love? Two verses will suffice: In John 14:15, Jesus says that if you love him, you will obey his commands, and in 1 Corinthians 13:6, a passage that is NOT restricted to marriage, it states that love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. So what does all of that imply? Well, to teach people Jesus’ commands, to obey them, and to rejoice in the truth, they are going to have know what those commands are, what truth is, as well as how they are to go about obeying. And all of that is in Scripture. In other words, if you truly love people, you are going to want to teach them from the Bible. Accurately. Comprehensively. Not just using the Bible as a launchpad to talk about whatever you want, but to actually inform them about the text.
Such a methodology sounds outdated and way out of step with the culture. Basically, people reason, if you just try to teach straight from the Bible, people aren’t going to want to listen, especially young people who are much too hip for that stuff. This is, however, not entirely true. As this article talks about, many youth leave the church precisely because they were NOT taught about their faith, a faith that is informed by the Bible. Ironically, it was actually some churches’ efforts to be “culturally relevant” without sound teaching that turned off many of these students. Our young people aren’t stupid. If the surrounding culture is challenging them to think on deep issues and we do not, we are insulting their intelligence and not equipping them to handle their own beliefs.
How do you teach people the fundamentals of our faith, that they are condemned sinners but that we have a Savior? Teach from the Bible. How do you teach people to live godly lives based on their faith? Teach from the Bible. How do you teach people how to be good husbands and fathers? Teach from the Bible. How do you teach people how to be good deacons who don’t try to rule over the church but who actually want to serve? Teach from the Bible. How do you help a nonbeliever actually understand what we believe? Teach from the Bible. I’m not saying the Bible answers every question we have, because it doesn’t and it was never meant to. But when it comes to informing us about what is necessary for right belief and practice, it covers it. Why ignore our greatest resource when we are trying to teach people to believe in Jesus and obey him? It is absolutely puzzling that Scriptural teaching is often the first thing to go when we try to reach people and “be relevant.” Even nonbelievers want to hear it because they want to know why the heck we believe what we do.
In our college Sunday School, that is all I and my coworkers do: We teach from the Bible. And that Sunday School steadily grew so that even young adults, who are graduated and not even involved in the college ministry, started to come. That’s not to toot our own horn because there is nothing snazzy about it, and at least for myself, I know I am not a gifted, charismatic public speaker. We teach from the Bible, and people want to learn from the Bible. Will everyone? No, and good luck trying to please every single person. But for those who are actually serious about their faith or serious about learning what Christianity is, the Bible is exactly what they want to hear.
Our main aim shouldn’t even be just getting numbers; it should be reaching people intentionally through evangelism and discipleship. Still, I think many churches will find that if they just focused on teaching from the Word, they might get more numbers than they thought. Probably not droves of people, but certainly a few people that God brings so that they can minister to them. To do otherwise ironically makes church decidedly irrelevant, because really, there are more “fun” things to do on Sunday morning.