Reaching secular people

The early church also faced the challenge of secularism.

Mark Finley is the speaker/director of the It Is Written telecast.

The Western world presents a formidable challenge for evangelism today. Traditional approaches have generally produced meager results. It's becoming increasingly more difficult to draw sizable crowds. Methods that once worked are no longer as productive. Advertising that once drew respectable audiences is less effective. This leads to some serious questions: Where is the power of the gospel in this secular age? Is it possible to see entire cities shaken up for God today as they were in New Testament times? How can the gospel penetrate secular culture? What does it take to influence secular minds for Christ and the kingdom?

The problem of secularism, materialism, and lack of interest in spirituality is not new. The first-century world reveals striking parallels with today's god less humanistic pleasure-seeking society. Society was dominated largely by Greek philosophy, Roman materialism, Jewish traditionalism, and pagan superstitions. Nevertheless, imbued with the Spirit's power, consecrated to the task of world evangelism, the disciples moved an entire society with the power of the gospel.

The first-century society

Let's briefly review secularism in the first century and note how the power of the Spirit penetrated it. In his monumental work Caesar and Christ, Will Durant describes New Testament society as one of moral decay in which prostitution flourished, abortion was commonplace, and homosexuality was rampant. It was a society stimulated by physical pleasures. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, commented, "They vomit to eat and eat to vomit." Packed Roman theaters deified the crowd's favorite actors and actresses. The stars of the stage became the idols of society. Singers and dancers by the thousands entertained the multitudes. Horse races and sporting events mesmerized minds. The hypnotic enchantment of competitive athletics captivated Roman citizens. The Roman population of approximately 1 million regarded human life with an astonishing indifference. When Titus dedicated a temple in Rome he reenacted a major battle with thousands killed in the sporting entertainment. Roman prize fighters, with their 31<=>2" thick metal knuckles, not only knocked one another out but barbarically murdered each other.

Possessions became the gods of still others. Acquiring things became life's chief ambition. Philosophical thought patterns dismissed the idea of the reality of God. If secularism pursues materialistic values in life and dismisses God in the process, Rome was certainly secular.

In spite of this hedonistic, humanistic viewpoint, the gospel of Christ penetrated secular society. Honest hearts were won for the kingdom because secularism didn't meet inner heart needs. Secularism was totally powerless to meet people's inner love hunger. Secularism could not provide meaning and purpose and could not satisfy the inner longing for eternity and assurance for life after death.

The triumph of the early church

Christ promised His disciples unusual spiritual power to meet the unusual challenge of Roman secularism: "Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). And today wherever there are unusual challenges, there is unusual power promised. Where there are obstacles to the gospel, the power of God as promised is greater than those obstacles.

Our focus, it appears, is more on the problem of secularism than on the power of the Spirit. I've sat in committees where some expressed the idea that since society is becoming increasingly more secular, evangelism just won't work. It's passe, outmoded. It needs to be retired like the eight-track tape player. What a travesty! The gospel is just as powerful today as it was 2,000 years ago. God's method of reaching the masses is still powerful evangelistic preaching.

Acts 2 describes how Spirit-filled preaching met the needs of secular hearts and resulted in the baptism of 3,000 people.

Acts 4:4 records that "many of them which heard the word believed; and the number . . . was about five thousand." Acts 6 dis cusses the rapid growth of the church and a reorganization to facilitate growth: "The word of God increased; and the number of disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith" (verse 7). In Acts 8, there is cross-cultural growth. Philip, imbued by the Spirit, touches the heart of an Ethiopian traveler. And God opens the door to the continent of Africa. In Acts 10 and 11, cross-cultural growth continues when Peter reaches out to Cornelius—and another door opens for the gospel.

By the time we come to Acts 17, the gospel has penetrated everywhere. It's touched the hearts and lives of thou sands. And the disciples "have turned the world upside down" (verse 6).

Acts 20:20-23 points out that the disciples were so compelled by the Spirit that "they taught publicly, and from house so house." The barriers inhibiting the gospel came tumbling down. The gospel was taken from city to city, from country to country, from continent to continent. According to Acts 21:20, in a few short years thousands of Jews believed. Acts 22:21 testifies that the gospel was taken to the entire Gentile world. Acts ends on this triumphant note: "Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that THEY WILL hear it."

In 30 short years the gospel triumphed. An entire secular society was reached in a relatively short period of time.

Reasons for rapid growth

How should one account for the rapid growth of the early church? First, consider the persons behind the proclamation. The disciples themselves were led to genuine repentance, a spiritual revival, and a corresponding reformation. They had a unified purpose and a single-minded objective to win the lost for Christ. They were constantly aware of the necessity of intercessory prayer. Second, consider how the Holy Spirit enlarged the thinking of the disciples, enabling them to be open to cross-cultural possibilities for evangelism. As a result, they preached the Word in both private and public settings, and their ministry was accompanied by super natural signs, wonders, and miracles. They believed that God had called them to proclaim His message everywhere, and no power on earth could stop it. They focused on God's power to meet human obstacles.

Without the return of the Pentecost power, there is no way to reach today's men and women. And yet we need to understand the secular society and its mind in order to approach that society intelligently. To understand the secular mind will help us to develop better methods to reach it and apply those methods in actual real-life evangelistic settings.

Understanding the secular mind

To understand the secular mind, let's consider briefly the philosophies that have shaped thinking in the past 200 years. The basic questions of life are threefold: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? These are questions of origin, purpose, and destiny.

The molders of the modern mind believe that we sprang from an impersonal beginning. Darwin's theory of evolution has permeated all aspects of life today. Jacques Monod, the French Nobel Prize winner, summarized evolution's view of origins in these words: "Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, [is] at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution."1 Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, novelist, and playwright, adds: "Every existence is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance." 2

Now think-this through carefully. If indeed it's true that life is simply the product of fortuitous chance, then human beings are simply enlarged protein molecules. This view dismisses the thought that we are created by an infinite, personal, caring God. A fuzzy view of origins leads to a fuzzy meaning of life. In a society based on evolutionary culture, self-esteem will naturally be low. Is it any wonder that suicide is the number one cause of death among college students? How can existence have any meaning if I am here simply by a random accident? The breeding ground for secularism is a failure to understand human origins and life's true purpose. For the secularist there is no meaning to life except the here and now. An eternal destiny is nonsense.

A message to meet the secular culture

Does Adventism have a message for the millions who have embraced this secular worldview? Do we have any thing relevant to say in an age of pessimism steeped in a culture of despair? Can we speak with meaning to those drowning in affluence? Seventh-day Adventists believe that God created the world. We understand that order and design indicates a Maker, that randomness is incapable of explaining the complexity of the universe. Beyond this, we affirm that the intelligent personal life on Planet Earth could not have been produced by the unintelligent and impersonal. Therefore, we believe that this world was made by a God who is Himself the ideal of intelligence, the essence of love, and the grand designer—a God who is infinite yet personal. What does this say to men and women filled with despair and hopelessness? It says, "You are worth something because you were made by this God."

Paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and sculptures by Michelangelo are price less because each of them is one of a kind. Human life is valuable because each man and woman is unique. Just as every snowflake has a unique configuration, so each human life is different from every other. Every human being is precious, valuable, worthwhile. Adventists say to the secular person today, "You are created uniquely in the image of God. You are a person of value—value be cause you are you, and no one else is like you! You are irreplaceable." Adventists say, "God thought you were so valuable that when human beings fell away from Him, He gave His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for them." The Christian faith is simply not a system of ethical values and moral philosophy. It is the belief that God Himself plunged into the arena of human affairs, dying for men and women, redeeming them.

And further, with our awe-inspiring hopeful doctrine of the Advent, we confidently shout to a hopeless world, "Hope is on the way!" Christ is coming again soon to put an end to sin. Suffering, sickness, and death will surrender to a glorious new tomorrow. So Adventism is distinctly relevant to contemporary society. It speaks to the needs of our time. It answers those three basic questions of life.

Also, consider how the Sabbath meets the basic human need for rest, security, roots, and a home in the arms of God. Or think of how the biblical concept of healthful living meets the secular need for physical, mental, and spiritual wholeness.

From message to action

Yet how can we translate this needs fulfilling Adventist message into action? What are some possible approaches to the secular mind? I don't pretend to have all the answers to reach secular people, yet there are some principles that we've used in western Europe—in bastions of secularism such as Copenhagen, Stockholm, and London; in Eastern Europe—where Communism and atheism reigned for decades; and in the great metropolitan cities of America.

The principles are not "surefire" methods to reach secular audiences. They are rather approaches that we have wrought out in the crucible of city evangelism over the past 25 years.

Let me begin with the obvious. Personal evangelism is still the best way to win secular people. It takes people to win people. Programs don't win people; loving people who graciously develop relationships win people. Usually people respond to kindness. Genuine friendship breaks down prejudice. One thing is for certain: you won't win secularists to Christ by trying to out-argue them.

Every human being has felt needs in his life. These felt needs are areas where the individual senses a need for help. They might include better health, help to quit smoking, a low-fat diet, stress reduction, happier marriage, a more satisfying job, friendship, forgiveness, freedom from guilt, or inner peace.

I know this for sure. If church members are sensitive, loving, caring individuals looking for opportunities to help meet the felt needs of their friends, the walls of prejudice will break down.

Closed minds will open. Opportunities will present themselves for us to share the gospel.

According to A Summary of Qualitative Research of the Unchurched? secular people have four basic negative attitudes toward the church. First, they feel the church is too materialistic. It's become big business. Money is more important than love. Churches are too much like corporations. Second, they believe the church has become too powerful—it tries to control thought. There's no freedom of expression; there's mind manipulation. People are told how to live.

Third, the church is hypocritical. The gap between what the church teaches and how it lives is too large to span. There's a discrepancy between words and actions. To many the church is so much like a social club that they don't want to be a part of it.

And fourth, the secularist believes the church is not relevant—it's not kept up with the changing world; it has failed to become a part of real life. Secular people have a feeling of boredom and detachment during religious services.

Surprisingly, this same research indicates that many would consider at tending church if they could discuss their religious doubts openly with some body. If they found that the church was an institution seriously concerned about working for the betterment of society, if they discovered a church where spiritual preaching met their inner needs, they would attend. A good solid religious education program implanting moral values for their youth and children is extremely important. Secular baby boomers are coming back to church by the thousands because they' re concerned about their kids.

When you look at Christ's strategy for reaching secular people in His day, you will notice that Jesus began where they were and He didn't begin where He was! Jesus always began by lovingly ministering to the needs of those He met.

In fact, the book of John is really a case study in how Jesus met these inner spiritual needs. Early in His ministry Jesus noticed two men following Him, and He asked them this question, "What seek ye?" (John 1:38). It seems to me that Jesus is always asking us that question—What are you seeking? What's deep down within your heart? What are you looking for?

Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus answers this "What seek ye?" question. He attempts to discover what people need and then acts to meet the need. At the wedding feast in Cana, the host of the wedding was about to be embarrassed socially. Jesus met those social needs by turning water to wine. Nicodemus' needs, however, were spiritual. Formal religion was not satisfying the needs of his heart, and Jesus met the need by sharing the necessity of inner spiritual rebirth (John 3).

The woman at the well had emotional needs, and Jesus shared that her love hunger could be met in the Father's love. The man by the pool of Bethesda had a need for physical healing and the hungry multitude had a need for food. And Jesus met those needs.

By meeting their needs, Jesus broke down every prejudice. As barriers of opposition tumble down, hearts and minds open to the gospel. The oft-quoted statement of Ellen White is still true today: "Christ's method alone will bring true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, 'Follow Me.'" 4

The church is God's people equipped to serve, lovingly meeting needs every where in Jesus' name. The church is the body of Christ, with each member having Spirit-imparted gifts for service. Each member of the body is valuable. And God has given each member gifts to be used in service. When church members sense that, they can reach out in love to minister to the needs of their friends and neighbors. Then there will be an explosion of interest in the gospel. Sensitivity to the heartaches, longings, and concerns of others will produce positive results. Demonstrating genuine interest in the needs of another is a God-given method of winning hearts. And as church members with the unique gifts that God has given them reach out to their friends and neighbors, there will be guaranteed results.

I have found it particularly helpful simply to share the plan of salvation in the context of my own experience. Sharing His gospel of healing love is disarming. It wins hearts. It changes lives. The cross is the strongest argument in favor of Christianity. Even secular hearts long for the love that the cross reveals.

I have seen the Holy Spirit break hardened humanistic hearts through a simple presentation of the plan of salvation. A debating spirit evokes the spirit of debate. Arguments from the mind meet resistance from skeptical minds. But a message of God's grace from a loving heart will touch hearts.

However, no one approach is singularly designed to reach every individual. There are some secular people who initially respond better to an alternative strategy. There are many who feel that the Bible lacks intellectual substance. They lack confidence in its integrity. Sharing some of the great Bible prophecies demonstrating evidence of the truthfulness of the Bible will in time touch hearts. The prophecies of Daniel are especially designed by God to build confidence in the reliability of Scripture. Old Testament prophecies regarding Jesus as the Messiah are especially appealing. His birthplace in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), the virgin birth (Isa. 7:14), the origin of Christ's birth and His family lineage (Gen. 49:10), as well as events surrounding the Crucifixion outlined in Zechariah 13, Psalm 22, and others, bring great confidence to secular people that Jesus is more than a good man, more than an ethical philosopher, but indeed the divine Son of God.

Understanding some of the prophecies regarding the rise and fall of nations throughout the Old Testament is convincing evidence for many a secular mind. Prophecies like those of the Persian king Cyrus, named 150 years before his birth (Isa. 44:28; 45:1, 2), the destruction of Tyre and Sidon (Eze. 26:1- 4, 19-21), and the desolation of Egypt (Eze. 19:1-9) all establish reliability in Scripture as a divinely inspired document.

I have seen secular people come to our evangelistic meetings and after hearing the prophecies move from skepticism to belief. A young couple in Chicago, graduates of Illinois State University, were led from secularism to salvation as they attended one of my Daniel seminars. A radiologist in Niles, Michigan, hearing the prophecies of Daniel and archaeological evidence of Scripture's reliability, was touched with the gospel.

Countering evolutionary myth

Many secular people believe that evolution is a proven scientific fact. They conclude that a belief in the Scriptures negates the so-called facts of science. It's almost impossible to accept a Christianity that their minds convince them is not true. They reason, "If the Genesis account is wrong, how can I have confidence in any other portions of Scripture? If the human race is evolving to higher states of advancement, why do we need a Saviour? Doesn't religion only produce the neurosis of guilt?" I have found it helpful to approach these select individuals from a scientific perspective. Evolution is not a proven fact, but a speculative hypothesis. There are three scientific laws that call the entire theory of evolution into question.

Evolution states that given enough time and the right conditions, nonliving things will produce living things. But there is no evidence at all in the natural world that nonliving things can ever produce living things. It is a fundamental law of science that only life produces life. Science also declares that like produces like. Evolution says there are links in the gaps between kinds and the species of animals. Yet there is no concrete scientific evidence for such assertions of those links. The evolutionist states that when left alone under certain conditions mutations tend to improve. In the natural world, mutations are genetic deformities, not improvements.

Secular materialists, when presented with the thought that atheistic evolution is a theory and not a fact—that it takes more faith to be an evolutionist than it does to be a creationist—will begin thinking seriously about evolution's underlying assumptions.

The sure answer

Only the Bible can present meaning to the great question of life. The Bible reveals a loving Christ who made us, who personally guides our lives. In Him we can be secure. Our eternal future is in His hands. When you're dealing with secular people, show your secular friend the hopelessness without God and the great joy of being secure in His hands.

God desires to win lost people to Jesus Christ. The power of the Holy Spirit is far greater than all the hellish forces opposed to the gospel. Filled with the Holy Spirit, armed with spiritual weapons of prayer, the Word, and a genuine love for souls, the last-generation remnant will behold Pentecost again, yet this time in more abundant measure. Thousands will be converted. The light of the gospel will illuminate the dark corners of this earth. Some of the world's hardest hearts will open to the gospel. Thousands of voices will proclaim the everlasting gospel. On the printed page, over radio and television, through mass media and electronic genius, the Word of God will go forth. The work on earth will triumph in a blaze of glory.

May that day be soon.

1 Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity (New
York: Vintage Books, 1971), p. 112.

2 Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (New York: New
Directions, 1959), p. 126.

3 A Summary of Qualitative Research of the
Unchurched (New York: Religion in American
Life, Inc., n.d.).

4 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1905, 1942), p. 143.

 

 

Steps to help your congregation reach secular people

 

1. Assist members to discover personally their specific spiritual gifts and
areas of service.

2. Train members in materials and methods that would enable them for
service.

3. Develop a multifaceted outreach approach committed to reaching
people with different felt needs.

4. Consciously weave spiritual thoughts during each felt need presentation.

5. Openly invite those attending felt need programs to spiritual seminars.

6. Teach church members how to "make friends for God" by turning casual
conversations into witnessing opportunities. (The Making Friends for
God videos by HART Research provide excellent resource material.)

7. Freely share appropriate literature with your secular friends.


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Mark Finley is the speaker/director of the It Is Written telecast.

October 1993

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