OUR SUFFICIENCY FOR OUTREACH
An interview with John MacArthur, Jr., about his controversial new book.
October 1, 1991
John MacArthur, Jr., believes in outreach-fiercely. Through his pulpit at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and through his radio ministry "Grace to You," he has taught thousands to scatter into the world and spread the gospel. He has unambiguous feelings about how church outreach should be, and should not be, conducted.
In his new book, Our Sufficiency in Christ (Word, 1991), MacArthur criticizes, among other things, the trend in church outreach toward pragmatism, as seen in church growth theory, seeker-oriented services, user-friendly churches, and entertainment in worship (what he calls "evangelical burlesque").
He also blasts mysticism (the "Signs and Wonders" and "Spiritual Warfare" movements) and psychology (even Christian counselors). Such trends, he believes, undermine the core of the gospel.
The LEADERSHIP editors sat down with John one Friday afternoon to probe his heart and practice as a pastor as well as a polemicist.
Many people come to church for less than ideal reasons: to be part of something exciting, big, and thriving; to be entertained or inspired; to get a spiritual uplift to help them through the week; to give the kids some religious training; to see the preacher they've heard on the radio. Is it legitimate to use these motivations to attract the unchurched to hear the gospel?
Thinking up a strategy to get an unbeliever to church isn't difficult. All you do is find out what their hot buttons are and press them. If they like dancing elephants, you get dancing elephants. If they want to be successful in their business, you hold a business success seminar. If they're worried about their kids, you hold parenting workshops and invite the whole world.
I realize that's true about people, but I'm not guided by that. My calling as pastor is to lift God's people before the Lord, to bring his Word to his people, and to equip them for their calling. Unbelievers, in a sense, are incidental to that primary purpose.
I would never think, How can I structure this service to accommodate unbelievers? or, How can I appeal to unbelievers to come? because that's not our purpose-unless we are gearing a special meeting for evangelism. We do have an evangelism outreach on some Saturday and Sunday nights. But we would primarily ask our people to bring those they know.
Legitimate outreach events can be done alongside the regularly scheduled believer's services, but the biblical pattern is that the church gathers to worship and be edified. It scatters to evangelize.
What attracts newcomers to Grace Community Church?
Primarily personal relationships. The strength of the church has always been people bringing people. In our first six years here, the church doubled every two years, without doing any advertising.
From the outset we concentrated on life-changing truth. People had their lives changed and began bringing others, and that continues today. Our church continues to have a tremendous response from unbelievers. I give an invitation every service, and there's not a service we don't have people coming into the prayer room to respond to Christ. We baptize anywhere from five to twenty people on a Sunday night, every week, 90 percent of them led to Christ by somebody else in the church.
Even when we hold a special concert, we don't advertise; we just let our people know that this is a special time for them to bring unbelieving friends.
How do the non-Christian guests benefit from your preaching if it is focused on those who are already believers?
Church is for worship and edification, but the effect is often evangelism. Last Sunday night in our baptism service, the last guy to come into the water announced during his testimony that he had been a homosexual for twenty years. He was HIV positive, and he knew he was going to die.
"I came to this church," he said, "because somebody told me that this was the church that preached the truth for a desperate man. When I walked in, the first thing out of your mouth was Psalm 107, which you stood up and read during worship. God directed that at my heart; that whole Psalm described me.
"Before that hour was over, I had heard enough of the gospel to commit my life to Jesus Christ."
You are adept at keeping people's interest. When you explain the Bible, you focus on the things that people find significant. You illustrate well. What's the difference between maintaining interest and merely entertaining?
The purpose of it all. Is it for the sake of being interesting, or for the sake of truth and spiritual transformation? It gets back to the preacher's motivation. I'm not concerned with whether they think I'm novel, witty, or entertaining. I'm concerned that they get the truth.
I'm not really a student of communication technique, but I have learned how to keep people's attention. What rivets people is anticipation, the expectation that I'm about to say something they want to know.
As long as they think I'm about to say something funny or helpful or informative, I will have their attention, and as soon as they decide I don't have anything worthwhile, they're gone.
I don't try to hold listeners by entertaining them in some superficial way, but by giving them the sense that I'm going to say something worthwhile.
When you train people to share their faith, how do you teach them to connect with the dreams, desires, and aspirations of non-Christians? What do Christians have that non-Christians want?
Unbelievers come in different shapes and sizes, with all different kinds of felt needs, the most compelling-even more than "how do I fix my marriage?"-being that tremendous burden of sin. By sticking on a Band-Aid, we may fail to address the need for a transformation of life.
So I basically instruct people: "Honor Christ with your life, take every opportunity to present the gospel, be aggressive in scattering your seed. It isn't the skill of the sower; it's the state of the soil."
It isn't a marketing strategy; it's letting others see the obvious benediction that Christ has become to your life, your marriage, your family, that makes the gospel attractive.
Don't you need some point of contact with a non-Christian?
Right. I don't want to be misunderstood. I'm not saying we never address felt needs. We just don't want that to become a diversion from the real issue.
One man came up to me last night after my sermon and said, "I'm not a Christian. My marriage is falling apart. My business is going bad. Can you help me?"
I could have offered some thoughts on marriage enrichment or business principles, but that wasn't the real issue. Instead I replied, "It sounds like you need an invisible means of support."
"Yeah, that's it!" he said. "That's exactly what I need." So I started from there, explaining how Christ could come personally into his life and circumstances.
I trust that by giving our church people a clear understanding of the gospel, they will be able, when doors open, to start where people are and lead them to the good news of forgiveness and salvation.
What's the difference between this approach and the pragmatism that concerns you?
The pragmatism I see mitigates the confrontive character of the gospel. When the church becomes enamored with influence and image as the key to evangelization, it is no longer depending on Christ. Some churches think, If they really like us, they'll like Jesus. I'm not sure there's any correlation whatsoever.
I have trouble with the idea of a "user-friendly church." Does that mean we do whatever people want us to do? No.
We don't want to be personally or institutionally offensive, but we cannot buffer the offense of the Cross.
How do you want visitors to feel at your church?
We put high priority on treating visitors with real love and care. We have a host ministry that moves throughout the whole campus identifying people that look new and integrating them into the flow. In the service I take special care to welcome first-time guests. We give them a booklet that explains all the things our church is involved in.
We do everything possible to let them know we're thrilled they're there. In the worship service, I think most are impressed with the music, which is exceptional.
If they are offended, it is always the message that does it. They don't get offended until I get up to preach!
Do you advertise in the Yellow Pages?
Sure. We do well in the Yellow Pages.
Do you have air conditioning?
How about the size and convenience of your facility?
We have a beautiful, well-manicured facility. In fact, I remember one couple visited, came to Christ, and later said, "We thought if you took care of flowers, you probably cared about people."
I've often encouraged pastors, "Don't let your church look like anything but the most well-cared for property in town. If the bank looks better than your church, you're in trouble. The bank is saying, 'We care more about you than the church.' "
I read a study that ranked the things that determined where people would go to church: Looks of the facility was number one. Parking, two. Nursery, three. Friendliness, four. Pastor, five. So yes, I think our parking, our shuttle service, our nursery care are very important. Those things are crucial.
That sounds like a user-friendly church.
I have no problem with anything that doesn't compromise the message or depreciate worship.
What happens when you're so concerned about unbelievers' reactions, though, is you depreciate worship. You put God-centeredness somewhere down the line.
There's nothing wrong with being creative, doing things that make outsiders take a look at your church, things that attract needy unbelievers, as long as it doesn't mitigate the message that God is central.
What's the scriptural basis for those kinds of expenditures?
You could make a defense for the theology of beauty, I suppose. God has given us a beautiful world, and we ought to do everything we can, as Adam did, to dress the garden. In addition we want to keep as nice as possible the things that represent him.
But apart from that there's really no compelling reason, other than our understanding of human nature: people gravitate toward things that are nice, things that are lovely.
But when you move from there to entertainment, you've taken a major jump.
What's the difference between appealing to human nature's attraction to beauty versus human nature's attraction to entertainment?
We are here to demonstrate the beauty and the graciousness of God. We're not here to entertain people.
I recognize that I'm more of a theologian, not in the academic sense, but in terms of articulating the principles. Sometimes I'm very content to have stated the principles, to leave things in the realm of "what we ought to do" rather than "how do we get there?"
It sounds like you object to the "user-friendly church" idea because even though its proponents may assume the spiritual foundation of ministry, the presentation tends to make people think that the methods are essential. You would prefer to have a book or seminar say, "Preach the gospel, and by the way, don't forget to provide ample parking."
It's a matter of emphasis much of the time.
What response have you received from your book, especially about the parts so critical of the church growth movement, signs and wonders, and Christian psychology?
The mail has been primarily from pastors who have said, "Thank you, thank you." They've been intimidated by today's trends.
They see the exploding seeker church, but the bottom line is, they're not in the same league as its pastor. They can't pull off the techniques. And they can't afford to do it. The creativity isn't there, the money isn't there, and the crowd isn't there. That's a whole different bunch of people than the average guy's got.
Then they hear the therapists on the radio and they read the books of renowned Christian counselors who say, "Pastors often do more harm than non-Christian counselors," and they get intimidated. So these pastors think, I can't counsel anybody. Somebody's going to kill himself; I'll get sued and be in court for ten years. I better not say anything.
They hear about the mystical experiences of the charismatics, and they've never seen a sign or wonder in their life. They wonder why they're in ministry if they can't make the lame walk or have a mystical vision.
They pick up my book and are reaffirmed in what they are doing. One well-known pastor who called me was in tears. He said, "I was beginning to wonder if what I have always believed about ministry was wrong. This helped me realize that what I've always been committed to is what I need to stay committed to. I just needed to hear that what I'm doing is okay."
The bottom line: Our sufficiency isn't in our techniques, skills, or experiences. Our sufficiency is in Christ.
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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