I was recently asked to respond to the following question by the folks at  Building Church Leaders website: “How can a church introduce young people to Jesus in a busy city where no one seems to have any time to spare?”   Here was my response.  Perhaps it will be helpful to some of you…

The fact is that the vast majority of people (young, as well as old) come to faith as a result of a relationship with a Christian friend or relative.  Jesus often modeled the process.  To the demon-possessed man (Mark 5:19) he said, “go home to your friends and tell them what wonderful things God has done for you…”  When Zacchaeus believed, Christ told him that salvation had also come to his friends and family (Luke 19:9).  After Jesus healed the son of a royal official we learn that the Centurion, and all of his family and friends, believed (Mark 2:14-15).  Jesus knew that the way the Gospel would travel around the world would be through relationships.

So, successful outreach builds on relationships. But many Christians today have few or no real relationships with non-believers.  How can such relationships get started?  C.S. Lewis gives us a wonderful insight:  “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.’ ”[1]  To reach young people we must create “relationship greenhouses” where friendships can flourish.

How do friendships flourish?  It’s easy, really.  Just two ingredients are necessary:  1) spending time together,  2) with people who share important things in common.

But, the next part of the original question begs our attention: “…where no one seems to have any time to spare?”

I love the experience shared by the small groups pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Illinois.  Their church was offering group meeting after group meeting…but no takers.  The common excuse?  “We just don’t have any time.”  Finally, they solved their problem.  Rather than ask, “Would you attend our group?” they began asking, “What kind of a group would you change your schedule to attend?”[2]  They found the “hot buttons” of people, created groups around those topics, and solved their participation problems!

I have found that the groups people change their schedule to attend are one of two kinds:  Recreational or Developmental.  The first relates to how people like to spend their free time, and may be on anything from apple pies to zoology.  The second category relates to major life challenges, and usually centers around: health, or finances, or relationships, or employment.  If the felt need is strong enough…if the promise is appealing enough…if the risk low enough, people will change their schedules to attend.

But real relationships do not begin and end with immediate interests or needs.  A good “relationship greenhouse” moves from Felt Needs —> Deeper Needs.  Deeper needs are such things as finding: a place to belong … a sense of balance … authentic relationships … help through transitions … and spiritual answers to life’s issues.

Ultimately, the “pilgrim’s progress” moves from Deeper Needs —> Eternal Needs, and a relationship with Jesus that fills the God-shaped vacuum inside every human being.  But, young people won’t make that jump “cold turkey” based on someone they neither know nor trust.  It takes time.  I recommend Bob Whitesel’s new book, Spiritual Waypoints, for a helpful discussion on facilitating people’s journey from ignorance to intimacy with Christ.

A marketing executive with Ford Motor Company once said to me: “I used to wonder what our ‘product’ would be if our church were a business.  I’ve decided our product is relationships.  First, a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Then, relationships with others in the body of Christ.  And finally, relationships with people in the world that Christ died for.”

I like that.


[1] C.S. Lewis.  The Four Loves. Harcourt, Brace, & Company,  Orlando, FL: 1988 p. 247.

[2] David Stark.  Growing People Through Small Groups.  Bethany Press, 2004, p. 94.

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