Tilting Toward the Skeptic

This article is featured in the The Future of Worship (Feb/Mar/Apr 2019) issue of Circuit Rider

If you listen to the pastors of [rapidly growing] churches preach for any amount of time, you’ll notice a few things quickly. One, they’re really, really good. People don’t turn up to church for lousy preaching. And lots of folks are turning up at these churches. Good preaching is necessary but not sufficient. Lots of good preachers blast away at empty pews. But it is necessary. Two, they’re really, really good at speaking to non-church people. That is, they don’t go on about insider churchy things. (Remember how awesome the bake sale is every year? See Betty to help. . .) They rather speak well to what we call their own “inner skeptic.” That is, their imagined listener is not sure they buy this Christianity stuff. They’re present Sunday under some duress and not altogether happy about it. There may be something more than what we can see and touch and hear—who these days isn’t “spiritual but not religious”? But think of all the terrible things Christians have done in history. All the problems in the Bible and in faith. All the nut jobs who believe. All the preachers who make off with money. All the . . . the skeptical mind is very busy.

The thing is, these preachers know that skeptical mind. In fact, they have one themselves. Olu Brown of Impact Church in Atlanta says simply, “Every time I preach, or do anything related to this vo- cation, I’m coming from that perspective: I’m the biggest doubter.” I defy you to find a sentence in their preaching that hasn’t passed through the skeptical filter. These folks know how they sound to outsiders, and they work that angle brilliantly. They don’t do what’s sometimes called in the church apologetics. That is, they don’t directly bring up objections to faith and say why those objections are wrong or stupid. They don’t go in for frontal assaults on listeners’ doubt. Rather, they notice it. Honor it. Preach toward it. And they subtly find ways past, through, over, under, and around it. Pastors of rapidly growing churches preach well to the skeptic in the pew. Because they see a skeptic in the mirror in the morning when they brush their teeth.

Tilt Toward the Doubt

I don’t mean by calling them “skeptics” to say that they don’t believe. Of course they do. None of this would work if they didn’t. The story is told of David Hume, the great eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and famous critic of Christianity, learning his companion on the road is off to one of the revivals of George Whitefield, perhaps the greatest of the Methodist circuit riding evangelists. “Come on, you don’t believe any of that stuff, do you?” The man on the way to the revival replied, “No, not really. But he does.” The authenticity of Whitefield’s faith itself bore witness. So it is with these preachers. They have a love for God that centers what they do, who they are, and is the most attractive thing about each of their preaching. But authenticity itself is not enough. Flat-earthers and alien abduction storytellers and Sasquatch watchers can be sincere. And that’s where these preachers’ genius kicks in. They know folks out there have reasons galore not to believe. They remember a time when they didn’t. Or they can plausibly put themselves in the mind frame of someone who doesn’t. Skeptics in their midst feel respected. Their doubts are engaged, not disdained. And often they stay, become believers, servants, leaders.

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Tim Keller gives the advice that if preachers preach as though there are non-Christians present, they will start showing up. If we do not, they will not. That is, the folks who casually come our way will notice if we, the preacher, have taken their doubts seriously. And they’ll notice if we don’t—and never turn back up. Church people will notice if they can bring their non-Christian friends or not. And this is not just for new people. Laura Heikes of Bee Creek Methodist outside Austin asks, “Don’t a lot of people have doubts? Lots of believers have doubts and questions and concerns.” And they are disarmed by preaching that knows this, doubts alongside, and finds reasons to believe all the same.

Jorge Acevedo of Grace Church in Florida preaches in lots of different voices. Some try to connect with a “felt need” in the culture. Some try to introduce hearers to a need they didn’t know they had. But in all his preaching, he has a goal: “to tilt toward the skeptic and the person who does not yet believe.” Acevedo brings up great spokespersons for the faith like N.T. Wright today and Blaise Pascal of seventeenth-century France. Wright speaks of the “echo of a voice,” Pascal of a God-shaped vacuum—something in each of us that can surprise us by almost involuntarily responding, “That makes sense! Something inside me says that’s the way to live.” Acevedo imagines that if more of us preached that way, 85 percent of our congregations would not be declining, as they are.

This observation about speaking to our inner skeptic well may be even more particularly Methodist than others in this book. Methodism is nothing if not a revivalist sect. And if we’re not reviving anybody—then what are we there for?! Anglicans were doing just fine at baptizing, eucharizing, marrying, and burying, carrying on the life of a parish without any thought to whether the souls of those turning up (or more often, not) were awakened to grace. These preachers know that the most beautiful thing is a person, who once did not believe in Jesus in any significant way, yet turns around, leaves behind a life without hope or God or thought of others, and becomes one with Christ. Such faith leaves others around him or her convinced things are entirely different now, and that their life is spent focused on others. We Methodists preach for conversion. Or when we remember ourselves we do anyway. These churches remember themselves. And they preach Jesus. And others come and are changed.

This article is adapted from Eight Virtues of Rapidly Growing Churches by Matt Miofsky & Jason Byassee. Copyright © 2018 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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