Good news in reaching the “nones”

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Good news in reaching the “nones” and a transforming lifestyle decision we can make today

February 13, 2024 -

A pointer finger moves a wooden block from reading "MY" to reading "HIS," which aligns with three other wooden blocks reading "WAY." By Fokussiert/

A pointer finger moves a wooden block from reading "MY" to reading "HIS," which aligns with three other wooden blocks reading "WAY." By Fokussiert/

A pointer finger moves a wooden block from reading "MY" to reading "HIS," which aligns with three other wooden blocks reading "WAY." By Fokussiert/

If we are going to fulfill the Great Commission, we will need to find ways to reach the largest single religious demographic in America: those who say they have no religion. At 28 percent, they outnumber evangelical Protestants (25.4 percent), Catholics (20.8 percent), and mainline Protestants (14.7 percent).

To do so, let’s embrace some good news about the good news. Consider these facts about the religiously unaffiliated in a recent Pew Research Center study:

  • Only 20 percent claim to be agnostic and 17 percent to be atheist; 69 percent say they believe either in God as described in the Bible or in a higher power.
  • Nearly half (49 percent) describe themselves as spiritual or say spirituality is very important in their lives.
  • While 43 percent say religion does “more harm than good,” 41 percent say religion does “equal amounts of good and harm,” and 14 percent say it does “more good than harm.”

It seems to me that we have much cause for encouragement as we seek to connect with those who do not connect with religion. Many are open to spiritual truth as they experience the “God-shaped emptiness” in all of us.

But to reach them, we need to make a simple but transforming lifestyle decision today.

Taking ten minutes to pray

Dr. Gary Cook is the longtime president and now chancellor of Dallas Baptist University and one of my closest friends. When his dear wife Sheila passed away recently, my wife and I were asked to speak at her memorial service. (You can read Janet’s heartfelt reflections about her very special friend here.)

As I began preparing my message, I asked Gary if there were any biblical texts he would especially like me to emphasize. In typical Dr. Cook fashion, he asked for ten minutes so he could pray about my question before responding. Ten minutes later, he sent along two passages I had never used in a memorial service across four decades of pastoral ministry. However, as I began to study them, I realized they were exactly what we needed to hear in our grief.

I have never known anyone who is more attuned to the voice of God than Dr. Cook. He is one of the wisest and most discerning people I have ever known.

However, while he has remarkable spiritual gifts of wisdom and discernment, I believe his most defining trait is his lifestyle commitment to listening to God before speaking for him. I have seen him do this time after time across our decades of friendship. Each time, it was clear to me that the wisdom he then shared was from God, not just about him.

“I have given them the words that you gave me”

I sought to do the same before writing this article. As I did, Jesus’ statement to his Father came to mind: “I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me” (John 17:8, my emphasis).

Jesus was transparent about the source of his ministry: “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). This is why Jesus prayed before so many significant decisions and events, from determining his ministry strategy (Mark 1:35–39) to choosing his apostles (Luke 6:12–16) to preparing for the cross (Matthew 26:36–46).

On my best days, I do the same. I seek the Spirit’s wisdom before making decisions, writing articles, or preparing and delivering messages. I ask him to empower me when facing temptations and challenges. I seek and submit to his power as the day begins (Ephesians 5:18) and all through the day.

On my bad days, I don’t.

Why is this?

“This is my beloved Son; listen to him”

One reason is that I get too busy and efficiency-centered, rushing from one task to another. Another is that I do not always recognize my need for God’s guidance in every decision and action of the day. There are some responsibilities I think I can handle myself, only to discover invariably that I’m wrong.

But upon reflection, I realize that there is another explanation, one I am reluctant to admit: I often want the credit for my work.

If Dr. Cook had answered my question without praying first, I would attribute to him the appropriateness of the biblical texts he selected. If I make decisions as our ministry CEO without praying first, I get the credit for any positive outcomes they generate. If I write articles or deliver sermons without seeking God’s voice, I can credit myself for any affirmation I receive.

Jesus identified my problem: “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory” (John 7:18).

I need to remember the Father’s response to the first Christ-followers who spoke before listening: “A cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him’” (Mark 9:7).

These words are preserved in Scripture because they are as relevant today as when they were first spoken.

What I learned from Billy Graham

I am convinced that the religiously unaffiliated—and the rest of us—are desperately seeking a word from God in these challenging days. If we will listen before we speak and serve, God’s Spirit will speak to and through us in ways that draw people to Jesus and his transforming love.

I’ll close with two of the best examples of such faithfulness in Christian history.

It was my great privilege to lead the team that invited Dr. Billy Graham to come to Dallas-Ft. Worth for what became the Metroplex Mission in October 2002. Dr. Graham listened intently to our presentation, then took six weeks to pray before accepting. The event became one of the largest and most effective in his North American ministry.

Mother Teresa said that when she began her religious life, she spent 90 percent of her prayer time talking to God. At the end of her life, she spent 90 percent of her prayer time listening to God.

If listening to God was important to Jesus, Billy Graham, and Mother Teresa, what about us?

When last did hearing God’s voice in prayer, Scripture, and worship change your life and ministry?

When next will you take significant time to “listen to him”?

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