By Marissa Postell
The Greatest Needs of Pastors study from Lifeway Research found 76% of pastors say fostering connections with unchurched people is a ministry difficulty they need to address.
Pastors and churchgoers know they’re called to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), but many struggle to apply that knowledge to their everyday lives. Chris Julian, an International Mission Board (IMB) missionary in Brazil, says building relationships with unchurched people can be a part of our everyday routines—we just have to start.
Lifeway Research: How you build relationships with unchurched people may vary based on your context. How should your context inform how you go about building relationships with unchurched people?
Chris Julian: We were in Brazil for 21 years then went to Canada for five years, and we just came back to Brazil in April. One thing I didn’t expect was culture shock when I went to Canada. I had many people say, “You’re very South American in the way you do things.”
In Brazil, people are much more open about spiritual things, and they’re much more communal. It’s not hard to have friends in Brazil. When I was in Canada, people weren’t as open to spiritual matters, so having those conversations was difficult.We need to be sensitive to people’s needs, beliefs, and attitudes towards things rather than an agenda we might have. — Chris Julian, missionary Click To Tweet
Spirituality is a very personal matter there, and I found people to be like silos. Whereas Brazilians are like, “Hey, come over! Everybody’s here!” Canadians have their lives—as individuals. And that brings its own set of challenges when you’re trying to befriend people.
A lot of people in Canada don’t want to be your friend. They want to be your colleague, but they’re not looking for friendships exactly. It was so easy to meet with people in Brazil, but not so much in Canada, where they have personalized, set schedules.
We need to be sensitive to people’s needs, beliefs, and attitudes toward things rather than an agenda we might have. Within both of these contexts, there are many different cultures, and you need to be sensitive to what’s going on around you.
LR: What should motivate us to build relationships with unchurched people? How do you evaluate your motives for building relationships with unchurched people?
CJ: I am a very extroverted person, and I like to be with people. But there are different types of people. Regardless of personality, I should love someone enough to look for opportunities to share my faith even though I may never see that person come to Christ. I have to evaluate: Am I OK with that? I may be the one planting the seed.Regardless of personality, I should love someone enough to look for opportunities to share my faith even though I may never see that person come to Christ. — Chris Julian, missionary Click To Tweet
We can also have conversations without having to bring up Jesus every single time. It will turn people off if they see themselves as a project instead of seeing us wanting friendship. And I don’t want that. We need to be genuine. We need to ask about them instead of focusing on our agendas.
For me, I just like people. I like being with people—churched or unchurched. We need to be ourselves. Opportunities will come naturally. In North America, we live in a fast, convenient, and “my way” context, but God doesn’t work that way. Friendships can take time to build, as does trust. We’ve got to take time to build trust—to spend time with people.
LR: Pastors know they should be building relationships with unchurched people, but how can pastors (and other believers) develop a heart that desires to build relationships with unchurched people?
CJ: Building a solid faith in our churches is a priority, but that’s the second part of the Great Commission—to make disciples. Jesus also told us to go. Sadly, a lot of churches see the Great Commission and think “go” means across the pond or over the equator. But if we want to develop a heart for missions, it’s got to begin with the unchurched at home. It’s “go” across the street. It’s “go” where you’re at.If we want to develop a heart for missions, it’s got to begin with the unchurched at home. It’s “go” across the street. It’s “go” where you’re at. — Chris Julian, missionary Click To Tweet
Gen Z is leaving the church. Gen Z isn’t even coming to church. That’s a huge reason why we need to build relationships with people outside the church. This isn’t the 80s when you had week-long revival services or free pizza nights. We still have things like that (especially on college campuses), but fewer and fewer are coming. We need to be careful about an attractional type thing. We need to find ways to be with unchurched people.
Imagine if we popped the Christian bubble—if we went to the gym down the street instead of the one at the church, joined a neighborhood baseball little league team instead of a church league, or had our neighbors over for a cookout instead of Wednesday night supper at church. None of those things are bad, not one. But if we’re going to “go,” we need to leave the bubble. And that’s hard because we can become a “Christian club.”
I wonder how difficult it would be for most of us pastors if we took several Sundays a year and visited random churches, not saying we’re pastors when we visit, to find out how difficult it is for an unchurched person, to even open the door of a church—how awkward that can be.We need to pray that God breaks our hearts for our communities so that we get out of our comfort zones. — Chris Julian, missionary Click To Tweet
But to answer the question directly, I think we need to pray that God breaks our hearts for our communities so we get out of our comfort zones.
LR: Desire to build relationships with unchurched people must be coupled with opportunity. How can pastors (and other believers) develop the practice of being attentive to opportunities to build relationships with unchurched people?
CJ: We need to just open our eyes to the opportunities all around us. For instance, I joined a gym years ago when I first moved to Brazil. I got to know the guys who own it, a couple of young adults. Neither were Christians at the time. It took years to develop our friendship and trust. They knew I was a Christian pastor and missionary. They asked me if I wanted to leave Bibles there, and they were handing out the Bibles. They even attended our house church a couple of times.
In April, when I came back to Brazil unannounced after several years away, I went up to the gym. When I opened the door, they all cheered. They couldn’t believe I was back. Since then we’ve started a Bible study at the gym. I gave a Bible and David Platt’s book Follow Me to the lady who cleans the gym. She gave that book to her husband. Her husband came to the gym today and thanked me for the book. These friendships are developing. But the same things happened at Planet Fitness when I was in the states. Why? I saw the gym as much more than a place to work out. I saw opportunity.Far too often, we’re laser-focused on the task that we don’t look around. We go about our business blind to what’s going around us. — Chris Julian, missionary Click To Tweet
Far too often, we’re so laser-focused on the task that we don’t look around. We go about our business blind to what’s going around us. Why not take a minute to get to know the person behind the desk? Why not ask about how they are and what they’re doing? You can develop conversations, and that can be awkward. But sometimes we’ve got to take our chances.
People in Canada aren’t as open to conversations about spiritual things, but there are still opportunities. Poutine is a big Canadian dish of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy, and there would be poutine fests. Students would be out there, and I’d walk up to them and say, “Hey, I’m Chris, and I’m one of the campus chaplains. Can I ask you a question? Do you think Jesus would eat poutine?” That wasn’t the question they expected me to ask, and the ice was broken. I’d say, “Look, if I can pray for you about anything, we have an office upstairs.” So those relationships would develop.
Even for me as an extrovert, those conversations were awkward, but sometimes you have to put yourself out there with people. These were students who—if they claimed a religion—were Muslim. They weren’t going to come to a Christian church, but now we had a relationship.
It’s not always easy, but look at Jesus’ example. He was with people. He went into awkward situations. He got Himself in trouble. He went to things that were questionable sometimes—way out of a comfort zone.
Here, I’m a 58-year-old American on Brazilian campuses. It’s awkward, but that’s where God’s called me. So what do I do on campus? There are opportunities there. There’s a languages department. I remember praying for a person of peace. The languages department often wants native English speakers to help out, so I went and introduced myself to a professor named Ruth. I told her who I was, and she said, “We would love to have you come to our class.”God will open up those opportunities, but we have to get out of our comfort zones. We’ve got to pop the Christian bubble. — Chris Julian, missionary Click To Tweet
I remember going to class, and she stopped me and said, “You cannot preach in my class.” I said, “I don’t want to preach in your class. I just want to get to know students.” Afterward, these students wanted to know me. Because she opened the door as a person of peace, I made dozens of friends with students. I would hang out with them, and it gave me legitimacy on campus and opportunities to build those friendships.
God will open up those opportunities, but we have to get out of our comfort zones. We’ve got to pop the Christian bubble.
LR: Pastors should share the responsibility of building evangelistic relationships with believers in the church. How can pastors equip their people to build relationships with unchurched people?
CJ: I think that depends on the pastor, where the church is, the culture, and the opportunities. But pastors need to lead by example. Let’s be honest, we as churches do a lot of equipping—we have Bible studies and Sunday School. But we’re not taking it outside the doors. And there are so many different personalities and even anxieties. But these relationships take time. You don’t need to bring up Jesus the first few times. Just get to know people at the gym, your barista, or other people you come in contact with. And then come back to them.When it comes to equipping, we’ve got what we need. We just have to get out there and do it and not limit what it means to “go.” — Chris Julian, missionary Click To Tweet
When it comes to equipping, we’ve got what we need. We just have to get out there and do it and not limit what it means to “go.” We have to put ourselves out there. You may not see that person come to Christ, but you’re paving the way for that person to possibly come to faith. God will surprise us if we just obey.
LR: How much of building relationships with unchurched people is the result of intentional effort and how much is simply what falls in place according to God’s sovereignty?
CJ: The intentional effort is all a part of God’s sovereignty if we are following Him. God commands us to go and make disciples, whether that’s across the pond or equator, at a gym, on campus, or wherever. Yes, go to the nations, but imagine if we took that same calling much more seriously where we’re at—whether that’s in the Bible belt or Utah—and really became friends with people around us.
Marissa Postell Sullivan
Marissa is the managing editor for LifewayResearch.com.