Pastoring People Who Don’t Identify as Christian
This week I’m thrilled to introduce you to my friend and colleague, Pastor Russ Ramsey. Russ joined our team at Christ Presbyterian Church recently as the “Pastor for Seekers.” In the process of deciding what his title would be, and in an effort to be as thoughtful and authentic as we possibly could, we reached out to several men and women who do NOT identify as “Christian” to help us. What follows is a telling of that process from Russ’ perspective. I am struck, as I read what Russ says, by how important it is to listen carefully to the people we aim to serve and to befriend. I hope that you, too, will be challenged by this. I suspect that you will.
It is my pleasure to introduce you to Russ Ramsey…
At the end of April, I accepted a pastoral role at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. My focus is to reach out to people, inside of and outside of the local church, who are either not Christians or who would describe their faith journey as one with more questions than answers.
The pastoral team struggled to find a name for my position. We wanted my role to be inviting, not off-putting, to people who would not call themselves Christians. We also wanted my title to be honest—something that would be respectful and clear and would not mask my desire to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ or help others learn how to do that better.
After a lengthy discussion, the best we could come up with was Pastor for Seekers and Skeptics. We thought we were close, but we wondered if people outside of the church would appreciate being referred to as “seekers” or “skeptics.” Would that title honor those I sought to connect with? Or would it leave non-Christian friends feeling sized up and disrespected?
I am a churchman. I work in the church. I love the church. I have given the majority of my vocational life to serving the local church. And as we tried to come up with a name, I realized that I honestly didn’t know if Pastor for Seekers and Skeptics would be regarded as welcoming to those outside the church or not.
We all have blindspots. To deny it is to prove it.
So I asked.
I reached out to a handful of friends whose perspectives I thought would be helpful. These friends included men and women who would not consider themselves to be Christians, or were Christians who had spent years of their adult lives outside of the church.
Hey friend, I was hoping you could help me with something. I have a new role at a new church, and we’re trying to figure out a title for me. It will be “Pastor of…” or “Pastor for…” something.
My focus will be two fold.
First, I will be working to help equip our church members to engage in and maintain friendships and dialog that respectfully model their faith with their friends and neighbors who may not share their same beliefs.
Second, I will also be working to provide a forum for spiritually open people who are interested in understanding Christianity but wouldn’t consider themselves to be Christians—a place for them to ask their questions without fear of being judged or turned into a project.
So my title needs to be 1.) clear for the church and 2.) honest, respectful, and engaging for people outside of the church.
I have always known you to be a thoughtful person, and I was hoping you might give me your input. The title we’re considering is: Pastor for Seekers and Skeptics.
Where would you put that title on a continuum from “off-putting” to “engaging?” Or are there other titles that come to mind? We want the title to be respectful and clear. I’d love to get your thoughts on this. Thank you.
The responses my friends offered have been amazing and very encouraging. Every last one of them was glad I asked, and I am grateful for their willingness to engage with me on this question. Here are a few of the themes I saw in their responses.
(1) The role itself was generally respected and appreciated
Not one person told me they thought this role was a bad idea or that it felt manipulative. Rather, they seemed to appreciate the direct nature of idea behind my new position. One friend, an agnostic, said:
I love the idea of a pastor reaching out and forging friendships with compassionate atheists, homosexuals, Muslims, skeptics, debaters, etc. To me, that seems like real power and total confidence in one’s faith.
Engaging interested nonbelievers and shepherding believers with doubts and questions, on top of teaching the church about themselves and others, is a beautiful endeavor.
(2) These friends were more comfortable with the word
“seeker” than they were with “skeptic.”
One non-Christian friend said:
I wouldn’t use the word ‘skeptics’ in your title because it might lead a person to think, ‘Oh, he just wants to convince me that my beliefs are wrong.’ Although ‘conversion’ might take place, using ‘skeptics’ could come across as labeling someone with different or confused views as wrong from the start.
Another friend said:
‘Skeptic’ would put me on my guard out of the gate. I think that using a term like that is only fortifying any latent ‘us and them’ mentalities.
Most of these friends, however, thought using the word “seeker” was honest, and not presumptive. One friend said:
If you handed me a business card with that title, I’d be very curious. It promotes dialog. I think it works well. And it’s the most honest, straight forward description of who you want to reach.
(3) The role is admittedly hard to name in a way
that is clear and engaging for both people inside the
church and people outside the church.
One non-Christian friend said:
I slept on it and don’t know anymore than I did yesterday, except that it is very interesting because the right choice in words could mean the difference in reaching a few dozen to a few hundred.
My non-Christian friends struggled just as much as I did think of a name that would carry the same meaning for those inside and outside of the church. That detail stood out to me as a reminder that Christians and non-Christians often speak a different language, and it is an exercise in honesty and respect to try to be clear about our intentions.
All of this encourages me, and it supports the findings of a recent Christianity Today article titled Your Unchurched Friends Want to Know About Your Faith, which reported on a study conducted by Scott McConnell at Lifeway. McConnell found that most “Americans who don’t go to church are happy to talk about religion and often think about the meaning of life… Unchurched folks are not being overwhelmed by Christians talking about their faith. If faith is important to you, then your friends will be interested in hearing about it.”
I know that not everyone will be open to hearing the Gospel, but I also believe that is more the Lord’s business than it is mine. I want my non-Christian friends to know that my desire is to love them and to be a true friend to them. I also want them to know that my prayer is for them to come to know and believe in Christ. But I never want them to wonder if my love for them is based on the condition of their embracing Christianity. What a non-Christian does with the Gospel is not what makes them deserving of a Christian’s love and respect. The fact that we all bear the image of God is enough to oblige me to honor the dignity of every person I meet, and if I am unwilling to do that, that is my transgression against them.
For this generation, the door seems open for Christians to share their faith with transparency. Some may scoff, some may object, and some may even become angry, but I find that when we are genuinely loving, and humbly transparent about our desire for those we love to know Christ, more often than not, that door is left open rather than slammed shut.
I trust in a God who pursues people. And I believe he uses his people to make himself known. So I take up the title “Pastor for Seekers,” knowing it isn’t perfect, and I look forward to seeing how the Lord will work in and through me, the church I serve, and the people we come to know here in this city I love so much, trusting that he is always doing immeasurable more than all we ask or think (Eph 3:20).
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