You’ll often hear people connected to The Gospel Coalition critique so-called seeker-sensitive churches. And for good reason. We don’t survey unbelievers to find out what we should do in church. Much has been lost in discipleship from a mistaken effort to treat Sunday mornings like evangelistic meetings. It’s hard to teach the cost of discipleship when you’re trying to make everyone feel comfortable.
At the same time, we can understand why seeker churches took off in popularity. TGC doesn’t simply propose turning back the clock before the megachurch boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Rather, in this time and place where fewer and fewer have experience with church or knowledge of Scripture, we must labor to make the gospel message understandable. And we must be welcoming as we see our churches through the eyes of outsiders, so often bewildered by our peculiar practices and vocabulary.
My guest on today’s episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast is Erik Raymond. He’s senior pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church outside Boston and a TGC blogger. He is also the writer and presenter of Gospel Shaped Outreach, a small-group video and book study published by TGC with The Good Book Company. It’s based on point two—evangelistic effectiveness—from TGC’s five points of gospel-centered ministry in our Theological Vision for Ministry. We talked about how gospel-centered churches can grow in this priority.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: You’ll often hear people connected to The Gospel Coalition critique so-called seeker-sensitive churches. And for good reason, we don’t survey unbelievers to find out what we should do in church. Much has been lost in discipleship from a mistake in effort to treat Sunday mornings like evangelistic meetings. It’s hard to teach the cost of discipleship when you’re trying to make everyone feel comfortable. At the same time, we can understand why seeker churches took off in popularity. TGC doesn’t simply propose turning back the clock before the megachurch boom of the 1970s and 1980s, rather, in this time and place where fewer and fewer have experienced with church or knowledge of Scripture, we must labor to make the gospel message understandable and we must be welcoming as we see our churches through the eyes of outsiders who are so often bewildered by our peculiar practices and vocabulary.
My guest on today’s episode of “The Gospel Coalition” podcast is Erik Raymond. He’s senior pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church outside Boston and a TGC blogger. He is also the writer and presenter of “Gospel Shaped Outreach”, a small group video and book study published by TGC with The Good Book Company. Our conversation in “Gospel Shaped Outreach” are gonna be based on point 2 of our theological vision for ministry at TGC, evangelistic effectiveness. We’re going to talk about how gospel-centered churches can grow in this priority of evangelism. Erik, thank you for joining me on “The Gospel Coalition” podcast.
Erik Raymond. Hey, my pleasure Collin. Good to talk with you.
Hansen: Erik, you’ve recently moved from Omaha to Boston. Does evangelism look different in one place compared to the other?
Raymond: Yeah. In many ways, it’s the same and in some ways it’s different, right? So you still have people that don’t know Christ and you still wanna talk to them about the content of the gospel and you wanna urge people to believe it. You wanna try to persuade people to repent and believe the gospel. And in Omaha, for example, people were really inclined to talk. So people are very open, just have a conversation. People would talk to you on the street or whatever. But people there were real familiar with Christianity and even evangelical Christianity, so it wouldn’t be uncommon to meet somebody that was another church member or they were another…the church of different part of the city or had grown up Christian, gone to VBS, or something like that. So it wasn’t like you were, you know, talking in a different language to them. But in Boston, I find that people are a lot less inclined to talk. I mean, everybody’s, you know, got their earbuds in or they’ve got their phone out and there’s people everywhere, but people aren’t really talking. And if you do have the opportunity to talk with somebody, I find that people are very unfamiliar with the gospel. And so, I think once you get to talking with people, I think there’s a lot of curiosity and I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations. So, you know, same needs, same issues. But in terms of people’s backgrounds and familiarity with Christianity, they’re worlds apart.
And then even with the universities all over the place and all the industries that we have here, there’s people from all over the world. So then you’re meeting people that are new from other countries and there’s this curiosity about Christianity. So if you talk to them and like, “Oh, you know, I’ve read about Christianity, I wanna learn about it,” there’s tremendous openness to just listening to what it is. So I find that to be a difference from where we were in Omaha. But then another area which would be heightened here, it was somewhat felt in Omaha, but it was more so here, is the tremendous distrust from people towards organized religion because of the controversies in the Roman Catholic church. It reminds me of kind of the burned-over district after the Second Great Awakening. The hard soil was doubly hard when you’re talking to people who have been, you know, maybe altar boys or members of a Catholic church where one of those scandals broke out. There’s just a tremendous distrust. So I think that when you put all those things together, there’s certain nuances there that require some careful listening and engagement with the gospel.
Hansen: So point two on evangelistic effectiveness says that the gospel produces people who do not disdain those who disagree with them. But, Erik, I sure see a lot of people who talk a lot about the gospel and really seem to hate people, especially people who disagree with them about politics. What does that do for our evangelistic effectiveness?
Raymond: Yeah, I definitely don’t think it helps, right? Evangelism is hard enough as it is without adding any extra unnecessary impediments to it. I think about the Lord Jesus when he was asked about matters of the law and he summarized it. He said, “You need to love God and love your neighbor.” Right? So if one mark of being a Christian is to love other people, I have a hard time seeing how we can obey the teachings of Christ while conducting ourselves in a manner that seems to be, by reasonable people’s standards, hatred, right? So if you’re thinking about politics, I just don’t know. I’m confused why people spend our limited relational capital on this area. Right? I mean, why are we using up the limited supply of capital on the conversations to fight about politics with people or even to be characterized with hatred in that area? I mean, as a Christian, I don’t want politics or those other issues to be the things that I find my identity in and I don’t want people to be confused that that’s where I find my identity and it’s not my ultimate purpose here, right? If one’s political engagements or discussions undermine the gospel, then I think it’s wise to reevaluate why we’re interacting and how we’re interacting. So I think if it’s hindering gospel effectiveness, I think it’s wise to take another look at it.
Hansen: We’re also encouraged in this section of our theological vision for ministry to, “Winsomely address people’s hopes and aspirations with Christ and his saving work.” Now, I think we could probably both identify some ways that might masquerade as winsomeness, but not actually is. We’re not talking here about hiding what we believe, or being ashamed of what we believe, or changing what we believe. So what does it mean to be winsome in evangelism?
Raymond: Right. So, I mean, if we’re just thinking definition winsome being attractive or appealing with it, so I mean, where… I think we back up and we say, “Look, the gospel itself is good news, but it’s also offensive before it becomes good news for the one who is gonna believe it.” So, I mean, we’re telling people that we’re imperfect. We’re basically spiritual failures. We need a savior. And we’re in a mess and you’re in a mess by your own making and you can’t get out of it. I mean, how humbling is that? That is offensive, but it doesn’t mean that we as evangelists need to be offensive. I mean, it’s been said many times the gospel is offensive. We don’t have to be offensive ourselves. We can present the gospel in a way that’s faithful and winsome. So I think one of the ways we do that is by listening to people as we’re talking with them. So often, it’s like we gotta get through our checklist and we’re just gonna run through our main gospel points, our alliterations, our outlines, or just kind of do the data dump on somebody with the gospel. And then when we do that, we’re oftentimes not even listening to what they’re saying.
If we’re listening to people, you know, we can hear how they might be particularly hungry and how the counterfeit gods, so to speak, have not satisfied them. We could find out where they’re hurting and feeling guilt and shame from sin and bad choices and just going through the world as it is. And so, we can faithfully, and I think, winsomely, press upon the particular areas where the gospel might apply in a particular way. And so, by listening and hearing people in their pain and their hurt and then maybe even restating things back and asking questions and then applying the gospel and showing how Christ is the ultimate answer, I mean, it’s not in any way to edit the gospel like you’re saying. I mean, that that’s not what I’m advocating at all, but rather, just to listen and hear where people might be broken and show them how the gospel actually makes people new through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Hansen: Test-drive something on you, Erik, okay? I just thought about this, you tell me if it works or if it’s accurate. We know that there’s bad news before there’s good news. Maybe part of what we’re talking about here is it’s often difficult to start to convince somebody that they are bad, at least in places like where you are, people who are upwardly mobile, people who have been taught a lot of self-esteem, it’s a bit difficult to come at them with the whole, “You’re a sinner” angle. Now, it’s true and you’ve got to get there because, without that, there’s no repentance. But maybe a way of saying is that we start with their bad news and then take them to the gospel from there as opposed to starting with the bad news of them being sinners. Is that possible? Is that wrong? Like I said, I’m just test-driving this.
Raymond: No, I don’t think it’s wrong. I mean, anytime you’re listening to somebody and you’re able to pinpoint on those issues, I mean, if you’ve gotten to the place where somebody’s communicating on past failures, or present brokenness, or shattered dreams, and talking through that and being able to make that connection, I mean, it’s incredibly valuable. I mean, everybody’s experiencing the effects of sin and the curse. We don’t speak in those terms, oftentimes, but to be able to make that connection and show it to a bigger picture, I think that’s invaluable. I mean, and Paul’s doing, some of that in Acts 17, right? He’s listening to the people, he’s observing the temple, he’s observing the worship, and he is hearing the chatter, and he just enters right into that and he sees the brokenness and he sees the weak spot. He presses on it and graciously and faithfully. Now, you might say winsomely, and makes it attractive.
Hansen: So straightforward question, would want to know your answer, what’s the most effective thing you or your church does in evangelism?
Raymond: All right. So the answer might surprise you. I don’t know.
Hansen: Try me.
Raymond: I think, without a question, the weekly Sunday gathering. I think Sunday morning at 10:00 is the best thing that we do for evangelism. And let me explain why. So on Sunday morning, we identify together as followers of Christ, right? So we come together, we get people from different backgrounds, different experiences, and we meet together at a time. We declare…we have shared allegiance to Jesus Christ. We have allegiance to one another as members of the church. And then we read the Scriptures, we pray, we sing together, we confess sin, we lean into the assurance of pardon. We take the Lord’s Supper, we hear the word of God preached. And it’s in this context that as the word of God is unfolded and people that are followers of Christ hear the Word taught, that skeptics and unbelievers who are there are able to come and they’re able to listen, they’re able to watch, and they’re able to see. And it’s in this time of the life of the church, this rhythm, this weekly assembling together that believers are equipped and they’re rehearsing the gospel even through the weekly liturgy and they’re reminded of their commitment to one another in church membership. And then at the end of the service, you know, we fellowship together and we’re sent out into neighborhoods, and schools, and workplaces. And the burden is to go as missionaries of Jesus Christ. So there’s other things that we do throughout the year, right? And there’s ways that people do things organically and there’s organizational things. But I think the best thing and the most effective thing is the weekly gathering of the public testimony of faith in Christ and equipping the saints for the work of service, especially the work of evangelism.
Hansen: Is it common then in your context, Erik, that people will want to attend a worship service even though they don’t believe?
Raymond: On any given Sunday… Well, I mean, we’re not a big church, right? So on any given Sunday, you’ll have, you know, half dozen people there that are, you know, newish coming and listening to the gospel or coming because somebody invited them. Yeah. I think probably 15 or 20 people on a Sunday morning would be unbelievers. Some of them are newer, some of them have been coming a while. But it’s pretty routine to have people inviting people to come and people are curious about it. Now, I mean, it’s not like there’s church on every corner. So, I mean, people gotta drive a ways to come, but there are people that are having conversations, inviting people to church, or people that live nearby that are just coming in investigating these things. But I don’t think it’s… I’m not advocating back to like 1970s where you put up a sign and flocks of people come. I’m not saying it’s like that, but what I’m saying, it’s primarily the equipping of the saints to then go into their respective contexts with the gospel and be faithful as Christians doing the Great Commission’s work. So in wherever they are going in their neighborhoods, their workplaces, they’re equipped to go do these things and they’re reminded of the rhythms of grace through the weekly liturgy that the gospel’s fresh to them and they’re being equipped to go share with others. So it’s primarily on the equipping of the saints, but also the benefit of people coming.
Hansen: What does your church do to welcome people new to your church or outside the faith, whether it’s in that gathering or in a different place where people are just interacting with unbelievers?
Raymond: Yeah. So I think just in backing up to the overall kind of thing that we try to emphasize is trying to be hospitable and welcoming people that are in, especially with people that would be outside of the faith and that are coming. So just an overall context of welcoming and trying to encourage people to go talk to people that they don’t know and to welcome them in. So that’s just an overall culture of it. And then even during the sermon, we try to address unbelievers in a way that I think is respectful and at least trying to listen to things that people are saying and trying to address maybe some apologetic sidebars, defeater arguments that people might have and try to interact with those. And we’re just talking to unbelievers that might come, it’s a context where they’re beginning to ask more questions and interacting with that and they can, you know, identify with that.
But each week, we do something really intentional after the service that has a dual effect of encouraging members of the church, but then also welcoming in people that would not be from the Christian background, and that’s where we have just a time of fellowship in a hall outside of the worship hall. And so, there’s light refreshments and people typically stick around for at least an hour-plus. You know, some people stay longer, some people stay less, but standing around and talking and I’ve noticed, it’s just a heavy emphasis on trying to welcome people that are newer to the church and maybe newer to investigating what the Bible says about Christianity therein. So, there’s lots of conversations and opportunities for people to try to get together and meet together and have coffee and, and try to have further conversations.
Hansen: Erik, have you ever needed to change your preaching or your teaching because you found it wasn’t understandable to some of these people we’re talking about who don’t know Jesus?
Raymond: Yeah, I feel like this happens all the time. Just as I have conversations with people, I feel like I’m always evaluating what I’m saying and what people are hearing. You know, I think it’s clear on paper or it’s clear in my head and then when you interact with people, sometimes it’s not as clearly received. So I try to figure out why that might be and then, you know, go back at it and see if there’s a way to revise things. I mean, I remember even as a newer preacher, I was preaching in prisons each week and there’d be times people had very little exposure to Christian doctrine. And yeah, I mean, you’d say something you’d assume a ton and you’d have to back up and make sure you filled in a lot of ground there just to make a simple point. And I can just… I was thinking back the last six months or so, just probably a half dozen conversations with people that I might ask them, you know, “Did you understand what we were talking about this morning or was there a particular point in the passage that was helpful or edifying to you?” And I remember there was a Middle Eastern man, one guy, in particular, he just looked at me and he’s just like, “You’d say Trinity. I don’t even know what, what you’re talking about. What is Trinity?” And just a major assumption for me to say Trinity in that context and this guy was newer to the country and he was trying to figure out what I was saying, what I meant by that. And so, just, it reminds me of the need to not assume things as I’m preaching and I look out on a Sunday morning and see a very diverse crowd with different backgrounds and I’m just reminded of the need for the newer believer or somebody who’s walking with Jesus for a long time, the need to try to speak in a way that is understandable and challenging. And I think that is a challenge as a preacher, but it’s something we need to do if we wanna be heard well.
Hansen: So speaking of that diversity, you mentioned here, there’s a statement in this section of our theological vision for ministry that is incredibly ambitious. I might even go so far as to say it almost appears delusional based on what most churches actually look like. Here’s what it says, “We have a vision for a church that sees conversions of rich and poor, highly educated and less educated, men and women, old and young, married and single, and all races.” Erik, have you found any of these divisions to be more difficult to overcome in evangelism compared to the others? And I just think about one example, in particular. I’m wondering, I mean, how do you become a church in a place like Boston or anywhere else that’s just as good at reaching the highly educated as the less educated, especially when we consider how much those groups have pulled apart in recent decades.
Raymond: Yeah. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, just to… because sometimes you, you know, you might feel pressured to be a church that is a very diverse church, ethnically or socioeconomically. And you’re looking at and evaluating what you’re doing and you’re wondering why you’re not reaching certain types of people, why you are reaching other types of people. And I’ve just, over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I think it depends a lot about where the church is located and where the members of the church live. So let’s say you’re in a place like where we are in the Boston area, I mean, our community is extremely diverse. We’re just about three miles right down the street from Harvard University and right close to downtown. So we have all kinds of diversity all the way around us. And so, our church, thankfully, by God’s grace, is a very diverse church.
So we have 80 members in the church and 20 different countries represented amongst the membership. And I think if you were to walk around Mount Auburn Street right outside the church and walk into areas, I mean, that would be what you would see as you walk around. So I think that has a lot to do with the location of where we are, the community that we’re in, where people in the church live. But if you were to take within our context of our church and push that and say, “Okay, well, let’s say you have somebody who’s, you know, blue-collar workers in the church and that’s just where they work and where they spend their time,” I mean, they’re probably gonna have a difficult time reaching MIT professors or Harvard professors just because they spend their time not necessarily interacting with people in those contexts. Whereas we do have people that are professors at MIT or they work at a university, they’re rubbing shoulders with students and other professors each day of the weekend. They’re interacting with them. So I think it depends on where the individual members of the church live, they work, where they spend their free time. And so, if you’re equipping your people to go into those contexts where they are, it’s natural for them to be able to reach or at least have influence in those areas. So I don’t think it’s a delusional statement, but I think it’s somewhat conditional because it depends upon where the church might be located. It’d be very difficult in, you know, maybe a place like in rural Montana or Idaho to have a place that is a very diverse church when you’re talking about different ethnicities. But there are places in the country that are far more diverse and they might be more likely and more representative of the community.
As far as things that are more difficult, one area or the other, I’ve seen over the years, that it seems like the gospel breaks down a lot of barriers and I think in our context, we have a situation where the unifying factor, the highest flag that we salute is the gospel. And when you have a context that does look like the community on the outside but there’s no rallying point amongst people on the outside to get together, but in the church, the rallying point is Christ and so, when we show up to move people, when people are moving on a Saturday, people in the neighborhoods are like, “How did you get all these people from all over the world to come help you?” And say, “Oh, this is the church. This is the church we’re a part of.” And it blows people’s mind because people don’t usually get together, crossing all of these lines. But when it’s the gospel, that’s what bonds people together.
Hansen: Is church planting, Erik, a fad? You’ve got some experience with this. Let me explain some context. It seems like since this theological vision for ministry was adopted in 2007, that a lot of the most vocal advocates of church planting have made shipwrecks of their churches or even their faith and the faith of others. But what TGC believes and what we’ve articulated is that, “Gospel-centered churches will have a bias toward church planting.” Especially because of its evangelistic effectiveness. And I’m wondering, is this a fad or should this still be the case for us?
Raymond: Yeah, I hope it’s not a fad, right? I don’t think the Great Commission’s a fad. And so, I don’t think church planting is a fad or should be a fad. I think that the great commission, when faithfully carried out, necessarily, will bring about churches being planted and churches being revitalized. So we might…. adding that other category in their revitalization of churches. So when Christians are faithful to the gospel and churches are faithful to the gospel, then they wanna go reach people in places that need the gospel. So I’m hopeful to see that continue on. I know there’s probably less chatter about church planting than 10 or 15 years ago. But I think it’s a necessary implication of the great commission being faithfully carried out. I mean, I planted a church, I’ve sent people out to plant churches. I’ve been part of networks to plant churches. I think having a bias towards church planning, a bias towards multiplication, I think that’s good. It’s biblical. It’s right. It’s the burden of the New Testament and I think it should be the burden of our churches. You mentioned some of the advocates of church planting and the issues that have come. I think there’s… I can’t pinpoint, you know, a definite reason why these things are, but I have an observation that I think is important. In addition to mission for church planting and people being all about mission, which is really important, I think we need to emphasize ecclesiology as well because after all, these guys that are gonna go out and plant churches and the church planting teams aren’t just gonna be about evangelism, they’re also gonna need to be about the church at some point. So there needs to be healthy ecclesiology. Churches need to be reproducing healthy churches and guys that are gonna go plant churches, I think not only need to be mission men, but churchmen. And so, I think that would be a nice adjustment in the next 10 or 15 years, is that there’s a heavy emphasis not only on mission in church planning, but planting healthy churches from the beginning.
Hansen: Let me close with this, Erik. Compared to when you started in ministry, are you more discouraged or encouraged now about the progress of the gospel as you see God working in evangelism?
Raymond: Yeah. I would say I’m more realistic and what I mean by that is I think my ratios were off and my reliance was off say, 10 or 15 years ago. I think I tended just by, in retrospect, I tended to be more dependent upon myself. I think I tended to think that I had ability to persuade someone or to be real clear and bring out somebody’s conversion. But over the last 10 years, I mean, even though I was, you know, professing Calvinism and believed in the sovereignty of God and all of that, I tended to get really discouraged when I didn’t see someone converted. And that discouragement wasn’t followed with prayer as much as it was just overall discouragement. And so, I’ve seen times where I’ve been really clear with the gospel and nothing happened and times when I’ve been not very clear, God might use something that I would never expect to bring about somebody’s conversion. So I think more realistic in the sense that it’s really not ultimately about me or our church’s ability to do something, but it’s God, and His kindness, and His faithfulness. So that brings me to dependence and then it brings me to the place where I’m realistic in the sense that I know the gospel is the power of God for salvation. If God attends His word by His Holy Spirit to bring about new life and He calls a sinner into life, He can do that, and He does do that. And I think, I’m overall, encouraged about that as I see people convert and come to faith and I’m reminded of my own conversion. So let me go over, more encouraged and more realistic, and that means more dependent.
Hansen: My guest on today’s episode of “The Gospel Coalition” podcast has been Erik Raymond, senior pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church outside Boston, a TGC blogger, writer and presenter of “Gospel Shaped Outreach”. Go ahead and pick it up wherever curriculum is sold, you can find it at thegospelcoalition.org. Erik, thanks for joining me.
Raymond: You bet, Collin. Thanks for having me.