Many churches are actively trying to reach the “unchurched” and for good reason. In April 2001
Seeker-sensitive (and the less structured “seeker-friendly”) churches have been criticized for trying to “re-package” the gospel, for focusing too much on the felt needs of the individual and for the lack of a solid teaching or discipleship model. While many of the pastors and others in leadership in these churches have readily acknowledged the limitations of their seeker-sensitive and seeker-friendly models, their remedy has typically been to do either more-of-the-same (but better) or to do much-of-the-same and include more traditional methods of discipleship including bible teaching, Sunday school, and other formal (Wednesday) classes.
A primary assumption that needs to be made however in order for the seeker-sensitive and seeker-friendly models to even be the right response requires that the majority or at least a signification portion of the unchurched people in North America are actually seekers.
However, most data and even a casual observation of society identifies that the fast growing numbers of unchurched Americans belong to what is referred to as the postmodern segment. Categorically, Barna Research, the most respected association doing research and analysis of cultural trends and the evangelical church, shows that within unchurched groups, the fastest growing class of individuals belongs to a postmodern and post-Christian segment of the general population.
Postmodern and post-Christian people groups have the commonality in their belief that religious truths and morals are relative and totally dependent on what each individual or culture regards as truth. The latest research by the Barna group has identified that the majority of the unchurched today do not have even a basic understanding of biblical principles. Post-modern in their orientation, their worldview includes what they would consider a healthy skepticism of traditions, institutions and governments. Their worldview includes a skeptical view of principles held by the church and post-Christians therefore define their religious morals and truths as being relative or self-defined.
According to Brian McLaren (“A Generous Orthodoxy” 2004) Postmodern and post-Christian worldviews are more likely to seek to integrate faith and reason. It is within this integration that the spiritual becomes active and actually much more likely to be fully integrated into one’s life. While certainly not homogeneous in their belief systems, spirituality and faith for those that are postmodern no longer become a “Sunday expression” but a daily walk. Further, this daily walk of faith expresses itself more actively in social change, in environmental issues and other altruistic activities.
Within these different worldviews, legitimacy and permission is central to nearly all personal and society relationships. In the industrial or modern world, “Positional Authority” was the means by which most individuals would take their cues on legitimacy and in turn develop their concept of societal norms, behaviors, moral truths and political systems. With positional authority, individuals gave permission for those in positions of authority to dictate behavior and in many ways define societal conduct and beliefs. Positional authority in the modern or traditional worldview was represented and held by our political leaders, and the heads of our institutions including schools, organizations, the news media and the church.
As mentioned above, many churches, including many of the seeker-sensitive churches continue to rely on positional authority despite its growing non-acceptance. In fact, if possible, many church-goers and their pastor, preacher or priest would even encourage more coercive relationships, i.e.: “all Christian must tithe” or “people that attend this church must be dressed in such and such a manner”. Unfortunately, the only success that may be gained with this coercive approach would be similar to “success” of a robber when he demands “give me your money”.
Tactically, many churches have intuitively understood this very well and have embraced a more relational model. This was wise as relational authority is inherently strategic in reaching the unchurched. In a relationship, the attraction is friend to friend and ultimately grows into, “your friend is my friend.” As this relationship develops, the strategic importance is not only “your friend is my friend”, but “your God is my God”.
Relationships develop trust and with trust authority. From a market perspective, people in a relationship give the others in the relationship “permission” to share their individual worldviews, and discover their similar or dissimilar belief systems and moral perspectives. True relational authority develops because of honest, truthful and open relationships that develop over time. These relationships are not dependent on preexisting conditions regarding belief systems or a code of behavior. The normal ways that these relationships develop within the church are in the form of small groups. Small groups may be individuals, couples, with children or without and meeting in homes, restaurants or offices. While each group develops their own norms, the variety of norms is as broad as the number and the diversity of individual churches. Certain societal norms likely exist that regulate personal behavior and individual personal hygiene but everything else is “up-for-grabs”.
The church that truly embraces a relational authority approach to reaching the unchurched is likely to not only be perceived as friendly and comfortable for the guest or visitor but is also very likely to have individual members that genuinely look for opportunities to develop long-term relationships with the unchurched. The likely mode of developing relationships is in the form of small groups and the formation of these groups is REGARDLESS of any short or long-term success in terms of conversion, change-of-heart or acceptance of traditional Christian beliefs. Strategically, the church will look at these relationships as the primary method that the church will do evangelism and discipleship. Not coincidentally, churches that embrace this method will also be mission minded or what is being termed as being “missional”…from random acts of kindness to the delivery of food, clothing and assistance. Being mission-minded becomes operational and is also typically very relational and accomplished within the small group. As mentioned above, the postmodern worldview is open to full integration of faith and mission and this integration will reinforce the belief that the Bible is “the Truth” and not “a truth”.
It should come to us as no surprise that this method is effective. If we look at the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we find that Jesus came very humbly to this world and He relied greatly on relational authority rather than positional authority. Since he was God, he actually had the choice to use absolute authority. He chose otherwise.
Positionally, Jesus was the Son of God. Relationally, He was the son of a carpenter and the leader of a small group of primarily fisherman. The Pharisees correctly identified that Jesus was a friend of sinners and tax collectors. While He was referred to as “Rabbi” (positional authority), He preferred to call Himself the “son of man” and “son of God” rather than be seen as a king or ruler. The New Testament relates very clearly that He came to serve and to die for mankind rather than to establish Himself as a King.
Relational authority has ancillary benefits as well for the church. Since relational authority is “permitted” by those in the relationship, it is also less likely to be abused. Biblical truths are more likely to be “caught” rather than “taught”. Small group are inherently accountability groups as well. The coercive approach to moral compliance is more likely to be rejected and moral relativism is replaced by Biblical truth as the legitimacy of the Bible is permitted to be embraced after first being questioned and discussed.
Are there disadvantages to the relational authority approach? Absolutely! Quite frankly, positional authority is a much quicker way of achieving compliance, buy-in and acceptance. However, the fact is that positional authority in the postmodern world is severely limited by the number of positions that are accepted as “authoritative”. Another disadvantage is the lack of a centralized focus or control, as relational authority in the form of small-group formation is by nature, decentralized. This disadvantage however is offset by the great advantage of limiting the abuse of power. We also have the promise from the Bible that ultimately and realistically, Jesus is the head of the church and all of us are members of the same body.
A church that has a heart for the unchurched and is desirous of reaching out beyond the walls of the sanctuary to the community would be wise to understand relational authority. Today’s postmodern and post-Christian world view will ultimately limit traditional as well as seeker-sensitive approaches.