The Seismic Shift in OUTREACH You Need to Know

by James Emery White

As much as this article, posted at  unsettles me, I am including it in it’s entirety and commenting afterward. I think it defines much of today’s evangelical culture on several levels – at least the purpose driven/seeker friendly segment, which is quite large.

The Seismic Shift in OUTREACH You Need to Know

There has been a seismic shift in outreach that few church leaders are understanding, much less pursuing.

From the 1950’s to the 1980’s, the vanguard of evangelistic outreach was direct proclamation of the gospel.

Whether it was in the crusades of Billy Graham or the creative approaches of Willow Creek Community Church, presentation led the way.

This led to joining a community, and, eventually, being discipled into participation with the cause.

From the 1990’s thru the 2000’s, community took the lead.

People wanted to belong before they believed. Skepticism was rampant, and trust had to be earned. Once enfolded, Christ was often met in the midst of that community.

Cause, again, was the last to take hold.

From the 2010’s forward, “cause” has become the leading edge of our connection with a lost world, and specifically the “nones” (and it is increasingly best to replace the term “unchurched” with the “nones”).

Consider the recent Passion Conference in Georgia. What arrested outside media attention was the commitment to eradicate modern-day slavery, not the 60,000 students in attendance, much less the messages related to the Christian faith.

In a word, “cause.”

This made the gathering of 60,000 college students in the Georgia Dome for that cause become attractive. In other words, then and only then did “community” come into play. Then, after exploring that community, Christ could be — and was — introduced.

Think of this shift in terms of moving people through stages of introduction:


Unchurched >>> Christ >>> Community >>> Cause


Unchurched >>> Community >>> Christ >>> Cause

2010’s and on:

Nones >>> Cause >>> Community >>> Christ

It is important to note how far the message of Christ is from the mind and sentiment of the average “none.”

It’s not that the church should “bury the lead” in terms of putting Christ at the end of the line — remember, we’re talking strategy. It’s just that leading with Billy Graham’s simple “the Bible says” was a strategy designed for people in a different place spiritually than many are today.

The more post-Christian a person is, the more evangelism must embrace not only “event/proclamation,” but “process” and “event/proclamation.” Earlier models were almost entirely “event/proclamation” oriented, such as revivals, crusades or door-to-door visitation. As I’ve written about in other places, this is only effective in an Acts 2, God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem context.

“Process” models are needed in Acts 17, Mars Hill, nones/skeptical contexts.

Like the one we live in today.

The presentation of Christ must remain central to our thinking, to be sure. That is the only reason we are even talking about strategy; the goal is to present Christ and Him crucified. But is that where we start? On Mars Hill, the spiritual illiteracy was so deep that Paul had to begin with cultural touchstones, lead in to creation, and work his way forward.

It took him a while to get to Christ.

And community? It matters, but the average person has tastes of that already. Maybe it’s not functional, but they don’t seem as drawn to it as they used to be. Perhaps it is because of the lure and illusion of social media, or because they’ve simply given up on it, but it’s not the great “search” it once was.

So there has been a great seismic shift. Today, it is cause that arrests the attention of the world.

Which brings us to the challenge.

First, to recognize the seismic shift, and begin to strategize accordingly.

Second, to realize how difficult this will be. If cause is in the lead, and community close behind, the church is at a deficit. In the minds of many, our causes have been mundane (let’s raise money for a fellowship hall!) or alienating (Moral Majority!). And the close second of community? Our reputation for dysfunction in that area is legendary.

But there is great irony in the challenge. Jesus wed mission and message together seamlessly, proclaiming the Kingdom that had come while healing the leper and feeding the hungry. He mandated concern for the widow and the orphan, the homeless and naked, the imprisoned and hungry, while speaking of the bread of life and a home in heaven.

In other words, we should have been nailing this all along.

And if community is lurking in the back of the minds of people as a felt need, that should be a calling card as well. Jesus challenged his followers about the importance of observable love toward one another as the ultimate apologetic for His life and ministry and message.

And even if it takes a while to get to Christ, He should be presented raw and unfiltered in all of His scandalous specificity; as Moltmann proclaimed, “the crucified God.”

So as we ponder the rise of “cause” as the cultural bridge over which to walk, perhaps the greater truth is more elemental:

Do all three.

Imagine a church that had community, cause and the undiluted message of Christ in the vanguard of its efforts.

It might just become the church Jesus had in mind all along that would reach the world.


So we need to understand the ‘seismic shift in outreach’ and develop strategies to adapt to it, in order to become the church Jesus had in mind? There might be a scripture that applies here:

“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.” (1 Corinthians 3:18-19 ESV)

I suppose it works if the church Jesus had in mind solves all the world’s social ills and fallen men have the natural ability to love and serve God. In that case, it might be the perfect plan. So we  ask a few simple questions.

1. Why DID Jesus come into the world?

The Angel who appeared to Joseph has something to say about that:

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:18-21 ESV)

The preeminent missionary of the NT church, the Apostle Paul, reaffirmed the Angel’s words to Joseph years later:

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15 ESV)

2. Do fallen men have the natural ability or desire to love and serve God?

“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” – (Romans 8:7 ESV)

    “The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man,
        to see if there are any who understand,
        who seek after God.
    They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
        there is none who does good,
        not even one.”
(Psalm 14:2-3 ESV [See also Romans 3:11)

“And even if our (Paul’s) gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4 ESV)

Do the ‘nones’ of America love causes and community enough to ‘volunteer’ for the Jesus who came to solve the ills of society, as the article proposes? Sure they do! We even have the latest Passion Conference as an example. According to a report at the CNN Belief Blog Passion 2013 raised $3,170,639 to fight human trafficking.

3. Is is true that “Process” models are needed in Acts 17, Mars Hill, nones/skeptical contexts, as the author suggests?

Here’s Paul addressing the Areopagus in Athens concerning their idols and imaginings:

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:29-30 ESV)

To think that we need to follow the ‘seismic shifts’ and develop strategies to see lost people saved, is clever imagination, nothing more. For lost sinners to be saved only two things are absolutely necessary; a ‘God-opened’ heart and the application of the true gospel message to that heart. (See Acts 16 and the story of Lydia)

One last thing needs to be said here – get the gospel right! The Apostle Paul speaks one last time:

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4 ESV)

4. What should we do, as believers and followers of Christ?

We should pray that God open hearts to hear the gospel as we connect with people in our daily lives, and we should be ready and eager to present Christ to those with whom we connect.

Have a wonderful today and rest of your lives, as you labor in the vineyards!

3 responses to “The Seismic Shift in OUTREACH You Need to Know

  1. Wow…what an interesting slide in direction of how outreach is being done…and a good Biblical assessment on your part especially with question 2 that puts the whole new endeavor of gimmicks short of bold proclamation in perspective.


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