I grew up outside of the church. During my early high school years I was sent to a Christian school—not because my parents had faith, but because the school offered discipline and structure. As a young man entering this new world I felt confused by the ideas and words that were used around me. Today, as a committed Christian I am deeply implanted in that culture. But I still remember how uncomfortable I felt my first few months of being around committed Christians.
The reality is that the Church has its own subculture. And like any subculture it has its own views, assumptions and language, which can be barriers when communicating with those you want to reach.
For me, there were three barriers that I had to overcome in my journey:
1. The barrier of assumption. Assumption is dangerous in communication. It leaves out the possibility that the ideas you are trying to convey have a distinctly different meaning to the person with whom you are communicating.
As a new student at my Christian school we sang a hymn that used a phrase about us being “lowly.” I now understand that this was referring to the humility we feel from the chasm between what we deserve and what we’ve been given. But as a non-Christian the idea of being lowly was counter to any God I might be interested in. We need to understand that the ideas and phrases we use can be misconstrued by people if they don’t understand the whole story.
2. The barrier of exclusion. It was bad enough that people assumed I was in the same place as them. But more painful than that was the discovery that I would be excluded from the community until I fit in. This “club” mentality is easy to acquire, but dangerous to reaching new people in your community.
The school I attended was like every other school where I had gone; there were cliques and subdivisions that were exclusive to the people within them. If your church is not excited and ready for new people to come in then it will be hard for people to stay past the first visit or two. New families should feel a warm sense of welcome when they walk through your church doors. Unless people feel welcome, no amount of outreach activity will grow your church body.
3. The barrier of fakeness. In order for outreach to be effective there needs to be genuine hunger for new people to come to know Christ. Without that passion, the church can just go through the motions. We can shake hands and smile, but not in a way that feels genuine.
When I started my Christian school experience I was asked to attend service weekly. That’s where I saw people that had their act down. They could say all the right things, and do what they were supposed to during the service. But elsewhere their actions told a story that wasn’t nearly as loving. To me, it looked like they were faking it. I wish there were more who were real with me, remembering how much God loves each person we meet in order to share with them the “light of the world.”
Although my first experience with Christians wasn’t entirely positive, I was eventually won over by God’s love. My understanding of God was impacted by the love and influence of one youth pastor at my school. He took the time to know me as I was and cared for me genuinely as I developed my relationship with Christ. His ability to be caring and real pulled me toward a need to understand the God he served.
In turn, I want to do everything I can to remove these and other barriers for the people around me who are seeking answers. I want to be the light that Jesus calls us to be in Matthew 5:14-16:
“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”