Lead Pastor or Lead Missionary? Understanding Context in an Urban Environment – California Southern Baptist Convention

Lead Pastor or Lead Missionary? Understanding Context in an Urban Environment

Published Aug 08, 2023

I have lived in Santa Cruz, Orange, and San Diego Counties – all quintessentially Californian. However, my recent move to Los Angeles County has prompted me to reevaluate cultural context as it relates to evangelism. As a result, I have identified three specific contexts that will directly inform how we point the people in our communities to Jesus.

  • A Christian context is one in which Christianity, while not necessarily believed by everyone, has influenced the culture significantly enough that even unbelievers understand the references of Christianity. Think of a city, where to become mayor, the cultural norms require you to say you are a Christian, even if everyone knows it’s not true.
  • A Post-Christian context is one with moderate-to-significant Christian influence in the near past. Christianity has shaped past generations, but the current generations are wrestling with whether Christ is still relevant today. Imagine an individual whose devout grandparents were pillars of their church, but whose parents were more moralistic than devout. Growing up, this individual witnessed her parents fighting all the way to church, but then putting on a smile when the doors opened in the parking lot. This individual probably finds it challenging to view religion as genuine and may disagree with the church’s adherence to seemingly outdated beliefs and values.
  • A Pre-Christian/Pagan context has no actual or significant Christian influence. There is either no understanding of the Christian faith or a caricature of Jesus and Christians. Think of children who grew up in non-religious households or whose parents or grandparents were of a religion other than Christianity. In California, this is more prevalent than is generally acknowledged. Why does this matter? In “The Celtic Way of Evangelism,” George Hunter III writes, “When you understand the people, you often know what to say and do and how. When the people know that the Christians understand them, they infer that Christianity’s High God understands them too.”[1]

To steward our ministry well, we must understand our community. Many of us serve in locations that have transitioned or are transitioning to a new cultural environment. Evangelistic strategies vary depending on the context, so the approach must differ for Christian, Post-Christian, or Pre-Christian/Pagan settings.

In a Christian context, evangelism is an appeal to what they should know to be true, even if they don’t yet believe it. The language may safely rely on Scripture, Biblical characters or principles, and a shared understanding of morality.

It is difficult to use this approach in a Post-Christian context because there is often little to no shared common agreement on morality or its application. Additionally, because many have rejected Christian tenets, the appeal to return is already outdated and even offensive. No matter how kind, evangelism in a Post-Christian context is always an argument. It may look something like, “I’m sorry you experienced that from the church, but that is not the Jesus or the church of the Scriptures” or “Have you followed that thinking to its logical conclusion?”

Engaging in a debate with individuals who hold Pre-Christian/Pagan beliefs can be challenging as they generally accept others’ beliefs if those beliefs don’t infringe on their own. Therefore, any attempts to engage in an argument come across as unnecessarily aggressive. All signs point to our contexts moving towards a Pre-Christian/Pagan reality. To this end, we must learn to embrace new evangelism methods, even while affirming our commitment to the unchanging gospel.

Ultimately, pastors must move from being the Lead Pastors of our congregations to the Lead Missionaries. Viewing ministry from a missionary mindset means building relationships, earning the right to speak by how we live and love, and redefining success by changing what we measure. Like Hudson Taylor, we must break from the past practice of converting a foreign culture to our preferred culture as a part of their conversion process… but how can we do this?

First, we must foster healthy relationships with Pre-Christians and create ways for people to belong before they believe. Pre-Christians are seeking ways to belong, as seen in connected communities like CrossFit, Meet-Up app groups, or even Biker Clubs. Being part of a connected community can provide a sense of belonging, but only Jesus can fulfill our deepest desires. Building relationships in these communities could be the first step towards connecting Pre-Christians to a relationship with Jesus. Like Taylor, the goal is not to remove people from that context but to equip them to become missionaries to the connected communities they are already in.

Then, we must earn the right to speak by being consistently faithful, kind, and on mission. People will watch for years to ensure we are authentic before believing and engaging. Showing genuine love and service to the community means caring for them without expecting to receive anything in return. Our motivation should be pointing people to Jesus, not increasing our church attendance.

But we can’t even start shifting our evangelism methods to fit our current context if we aren’t willing to be honest about where we are. What context is your ministry in? Do you see a shift coming? What would need to change to meet the next cultural context? How does the language we use from the stage impact how people hear us? May this journey bring glory to God as He leads you into evangelism in the new cultural context.

[1] Hunter, George G. III. The Celtic Way of Evangelism, Tenth Anniversary Edition: How Christianity Can Reach the West…AGAIN. Abingdon Press, p.44.