C+R: Some of your books focus on apologetics at a time when many Christians say that testimony and story are a more contemporary way of reaching people. Why should Christians today work hard on developing an apologetic for their faith?
LS: One of the scholars I interviewed for The Case for Christ predicted nobody would read the book. His theory was that we live in a post-modern culture of radical relativism, and therefore nobody is interested in historical evidence anymore.
As it turned out, he was wrong. People are still interested in what’s true and what isn’t; whether Christianity is a fairy tale or based on history; and whether there are good answers to tough questions about the faith. In fact, the single biggest group of people who have come to faith through the book have been 16-24 year olds. That’s why we subsequently published a Youth Edition of the book. However, I definitely agree that we need to present the evidence in a new way for a new generation.
I believe one of the reasons for the success of The Case for Christ andThe Case for Faith is that they incorporate story. They’re not dry compilations of facts; instead, they tell the true story of an atheist who took the time to systematically investigate whether there’s any substance to Christianity. They use techniques of narrative and testimony to communicate the essential truths of the Christian faith.
I strongly believe that our proclamation of the Gospel must always be grounded in the absolute truth of our message. If we lose that, we’ve lost everything. But we should always be innovating new approaches to communicate this message. Should we use stories and testimonies? Absolutely! But, remember, Hindus have stories, too. Muslims have testimonies, too. In contrast, everything we do to communicate the Gospel in a culturally relevant fashion must ultimately be based on the absolute truth of our faith.
Willow Creek philosophy focuses on providing a ‘safe place for a dangerous message’. What advice would you give to someone who realises that their church service is likely to be a great cultural shock to their friends?
I’d encourage them to partner with the leaders of their church to create a place where non-believers can come and investigate the radical claims of Jesus at their own pace. There are a variety of ways to do this – special services, periodic outreach events, small groups for spiritual seekers, Alpha courses and so forth.
Also, there are small changes a church can make to its regular services that can defuse the tension that visitors feel and thus make them more willing to keep coming back as they consider the claims of Christ.
For instance, when the offering is received, someone could say, “If you’re visiting today, this part of the service is not for you. This service is our gift to you, and we hope you’ll receive it as such.”
As the worship leader asks the congregation to stand and offer a song to God, he or she could say, “If you’re visiting, feel free to stand with us and to sing along, if you’d like. If you’d rather not sing yet, that’s fine. Maybe as you’re standing in the midst of your neighbours and friends as they express their love to God, He will touch your heart.”
As the pastor preaches, he can remember to define terms that non- Christians might not understand. All of these small changes can create an atmosphere where spiritual seekers can feel secure and willing to listen.
Most British church leaders are essentially pastors/preachers, but not evangelists. Can their churches grow?
Yes, if they partner with gifted evangelists to help them. My ministry partner, Mark Mittelberg, and I consult with a US church where the pastor is an excellent preacher and leader, but not an evangelist. He turned to us for advice and counsel on how his church can ratchet up its evangelistic effectiveness. I think it’s healthy for pastors to seek the assistance of others who have spiritual gifts that complement their own. God has gifted many as evangelists; let’s give them a role to really make a difference in the local church.
You moved from Willow Creek with its seeker-targeted approach to Saddleback Community Church and its purpose driven approach. The churches have great similarities. What do you think they could learn from each other?
Actually, the similarities are much greater than the differences. Yes, each has stylistic distinctives. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek and Rick Warren of Saddleback have quite different personalities. But at their core, both churches are dedicated to turning irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Christ.
A frequent criticism of mega churches is that the growth operates on principles that don’t apply to a smaller church (eg quality of services/multitude of niche groups/ease for non believer to be anonymous) Imagine that for some reason you ended up at a church of 100 and the leaders asked for your advice. What questions would you ask them?
I deal with churches of 100 all the time! I ask the leaders whether they’re truly committed to reaching the lost. If they are, then I encourage them to pursue the principles that Mittelberg articulates in his book Building a Contagious Church. This six-stage process is applicable to any church – large or small, traditional or contemporary, denominational or independent.
The stages are: first, leaders must own and model the value that lost people matter to God. Second, they must inculcate this value into the congregation. Third, they must empower a gifted evangelism leader to partner with the senior pastor in implementing the church’s vision for reaching the community. This can be a volunteer position. Fourth, every Christian needs to be trained how to naturally and effectively share their faith. Fifth, the gifted evangelists in the congregation – whether it’s one person or five or 10 – need periodic encouragement and training. But instead of isolating them, they need to then be sent back into the church’s various ministries in order to spread the evangelism value. And, sixth, the church should innovate outreach events and services.
These outreach efforts can be on a very small scale. One church in the US started with a congregation of 15 people. They were committed to reaching their sparsely populated area for Christ. They decided that they would hold four outreach events a year – at Christmas, Easter, mid-summer, and the end of summer. Today, the church has grown to 70 members. And the church has brought the Gospel to 350 of the 500 people in their area.
Do mega churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback simply draw believers away from smaller churches?
It’s a two-way street. Yes, it’s true that some believers leave existing churches and opt instead to attend Willow or Saddleback. But this is more than offset by the flow in the other direction. Willow and Saddleback are evangelistic engines. We may have 2,000 people receive Christ at Saddleback’s Easter services, for example. Some of these new Christians then express an interest in a smaller church, or a more traditional church, or a church with a different worship style. So Willow and Saddleback are constantly feeding people into other churches in the area. Actually, I believe Willow and Saddleback pour more people into other local churches than the number of believers who leave other churches to come to Saddleback and Willow.
That’s why Saddleback and Willow tend to have good relationships with other churches in the area.
There are many Charismatic churches that would stress the need to meet with God in a powerful way as part of evangelism. Some would stress seeing evidence of the supernatural, others sensing God’s presence in praise and worship. Do you have any thoughts about this strategy?
This can be a quite valid approach. The Bible says there is one Spirit, but many ministries. I celebrate any approach that any biblical church is using to bring people to authentic faith in Jesus. I’ve certainly seen ‘worship evangelism’ work for quite a few non-Christians. I think churches need to not only tell people about Christ, but help them encounter Him in a powerful way. Not all seekers will respond to this kind of an approach. I don’t believe I would have when I was a hard-bitten atheist. But for the right seeker, worship evangelism can be a powerful and effective strategy.
You’re a speaker and a writer. How do you balance the two in terms of time. If you had to give up one, which would it be?
My passion is evangelism. I express that passion through writing and speaking, and, yes, it can be difficult to balance the two. Frankly, I think I need to do a better job at it! I need to clear off my calendar for a few months at a time to really focus on writing each year, instead of trying to squeeze it in between speaking engagements. In terms of which one I would give up, that’s easy. I love to write about Jesus. I don’t feel a need to get in front of people and speak in a spotlight. In fact, this can be very difficult for me. When God gives me opportunities to speak, especially to audiences of non- Christians, I certainly want to follow through, but if He said I was never going to speak in front of a crowd again, I would be perfectly fine with that.
Most would say that there’s a book that hasn’t been written that they would definitely read. Is there a book for you?
I would love to read a book that tells the stories of how churches around the world – in different cultures, different nations, among different ethnic groups – are faithfully and effectively penetrating their unique communities for Christ. As Bill Hybels likes to say, the local church is the hope of the world. I’m inspired by stories about churches that are taking risks to innovate new ways of bringing an old message to new people.
What has been your biggest strategic ministry mistake? Your biggest success? Do you learn more from successes or failures?
I’ve had more than my share of failures, not the least of which was the launching of a magazine at Willow Creek many years ago. I find that I made the most mistakes when I operate outside my gifted area. For instance, I’m not a spiritually gifted leader. At the magazine, I was in the leadership role, and consequently I wasn’t very effective. When I stay within my gifted area as an evangelist, then God seems to bless my efforts more. So I’ve learned from both my successes and failures.
In terms of my biggest success, I would have to say it was helping lead my children and my father-in-law to the Lord. To see my children, who are now adults, both enthusiastically serving God is very fulfilling to me. My father-in-law was an atheist for 89 years but received Christ and then two hours later had a stroke that destroyed his mind. He lingered for a while and then died. Being used by God to reach my kids and father-in-law is worth everything to me.