7 Ways to Reach the Dechurched

By Boyce Bowdon –

“Making Disciples has to be more than our slogan if the Church of the 21st Century is faithful to what Jesus calls us to do,” observes the Rev. Stephen Hale. “It has to be our focus.”

As executive associate pastor of Chapel Hill United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, Hale believes that Jesus commissioned us to reach beyond our church walls and take the Good News to all God’s children, including those who don’t look like us or live like us.

One group that may be the hardest for us to reach, he said, are the dechurched – people who have left the church and don’t intend to come back.

Hale said it’s not always a church’s fault when people give up on it. Some people have unreasonable expectations and demands that are far beyond a church’s mission and means. But he acknowledges sometimes the church is at fault.

“A church can degenerate into an exclusive club focused only on it’s own survival and success,” he said. A church can also be an organized judgment machine that sorts out the sheep from the goats, a rumor mill that manufactures and distributes gossip. It can tear people down instead of building them up, depress people instead of inspiring them, run people off instead of welcoming them, weaken their trust and commitment to God instead of strengthening it.

Two Oklahoma City  Thunder cheerleaders are shown here with Stephen Hale. They came by to wish bikers good luck before they left on their ride to raise money for Chapel Hill’s Mother’s Day-Out.

Two Oklahoma City
Thunder cheerleaders are shown here with Stephen Hale. They came by to wish bikers good luck before they left on their ride to raise money for Chapel Hill’s Mother’s Day-Out.

He knows from experience why people leave the church and decide to never go back.

“During my teens, I wore my hair long,” Hale recalled. “Church folks would look at me and make comments. So would the preacher.” Numerous other experiences in church made him feel these people didn’t think he was good enough to be one of them. He was inferior, damaged goods.

“I reached the conclusion that these people who talked about God loving everyone and claimed they loved everyone, were just pretending,” Hale said. “They didn’t love me. They didn’t live by what they said they believed. So why should I mess with them?”

Hale said he not only gave up on the church he attended, he gave up on all churches. What matters much more, he gave up on God. Decades passed before he decided to give church another chance. “For a long time in my adult life I did not believe there was any such thing as God. I was an atheist. But there was still something missing in my life, and I still wanted to find it.”

What finally led Hale back to the church and ultimately restored his faith in God? It started when an acquaintance invited him to a backyard barbeque sponsored by a singles group at Christ United Methodist Church in Tulsa. He says he had fun at the party.

“While I was there, one of the people invited me to come to church the next Sunday. Reluctantly, I decided I’d go,” Hale remembered. “The singles group had an assembly between Sunday school and the worship service. When I walked through the door and into the room where they were meeting, these new friends greeted me with warmth and enthusiasm. The way they treated me was so powerful. It was like water in the desert for me. They didn’t care whether I was damaged merchandize or not. I can’t explain it. All I know is that God’s love passed through those new friends to me and suddenly I knew they loved me and God loved me. I found what I had been searching for so long. Finally, I was home.”

Stephen not only became a leader of the singles group, he became involved in other ministries at Christ UM Church. “The divorce recovery ministry at Christ UM Church in Tulsa was especially helpful to me. It taught me that no matter how broken I was, God still loved me.”

For years, Hale had been employed in the medical field. Now he had a new passion. “As I grew as a Christian disciple, I felt God calling me to the ministry,” he said. “And I accepted.” He became a local pastor in the United Methodist Church. While serving as a pastor, he earned his theology degree, and was ordained as an elder in the United Methodist church.

After serving as a pastor of several Oklahoma churches, Hale was appointed in 2010 to the staff of Chapel Hill. The senior pastor, Robert Rose, knew of Hale’s heart for reaching unchurched and dechurched people and asked him to direct the church’s mission and service area.

Chapel Hill already had an extensive ministry aimed at reaching persons who were not part of any church. Robert asked Stephen to share any additional ideas for ministry that might help reach the unchurched or dechurched. He soon came up with an idea for a ministry that he wasn’t sure would be appropriate for the middle to upper middle income church. He wanted to start a ministry that would appeal to dechurched people who — like him — were “crazy about motorcycles.”

When he presented his proposal, he pointed out that more than 9 million motorcycles are licensed in the U.S., and that a wide range
of men and women of different ages, socio economic conditions and life styles — including pastors and church leaders — enjoy riding bikes.

“Many people in our society are so busy and so stressed that they need to disconnect from the routine before they can unwind and relax,” Hale said. “The wind therapy renews them.”

Hale quickly acknowledged that many people have negative feelings about bikers because they associate them with the small minority of bikers who are described as “outlaw” bikers. “I started riding bikes when he was 14 and had ridden them ever since and was now 60,” Hale said. “I said I had associated with hundreds of bikers, and knowing them had given me a better understanding of who bikers are, how they feel, what they need and want, and how to reach them.”

In his enthusiasm, Hale asked Rose what he thought about Chapel Hill starting a motorcycle ministry. Rose replied by asking: “Are these bikers folks you think God wants in the church?” Hale answered, “Yes, I’m sure he does.” Rose smiled and replied, “Then let’s go for it!”

And that’s what Hale has been doing ever since — developing a ministry that reaches out to everyone who enjoys riding motorcycles, especially those who are dechurched. “I started poking around and found about six or eight folks who go to church here who ride motorcycles and thought starting a biker ministry was a great idea. So we took off from there.”

He began by establishing contact with some of the thousands of bikers in the Oklahoma City area. “There’s a social network like Facebook that some bikers are on. I got into that, and met up with some bikers and we got acquainted. They put on things like poker runs to raise money for different causes. I rode on a few of them, but I didn’t care much for where they had their pit stops, which was usually at bars.

“As I rode with them and talked with them and sat and had lunch with them, I discovered that a whole lot of them either believed in God or had a real thirst and hunger for something more than they had. Some asked me to pray for them. We started having rides after church on Sundays and some of the bikers from our church joined us.”

Hale said the biker ministry allows Chapel Hill to reach out to people who did not feel welcomed in churches in the past. “What we’ve been able to do is connect with people who have never been in church or haven’t been in church in years, perhaps because they have not felt welcomed. After they got to know a Chapel Hill minister and several lay persons, it became easier for the dechurched people to relate to us and to our church.”

Hale doesn’t have to tell the bikers he is a minister. “I wear a patch on my vest that says ‘Chaplain,’ but even when I’m not wearing it, people soon discover that I’m a pastor, and they will engage me in a conversation about spiritual matters.” He has devoted numerous hours to counseling bikers. He has officiated at their weddings and funerals.

Laypeople from Chapel Hill say being in the biker ministry has enriched their lives.  They said they became better acquainted with one another after being together on rides and at other activities. Even more important, they said they have been blessed by getting to know dechurched people.

One of Chapel Hill’s bikers, Dallas Gandy, said the biker ministry is tearing down barriers and building bridges, opening the way for better understanding and deeper trust. “It’s a wonderful tool of evangelism.”

With Hale’s leadership, several other churches in the area are also developing biker ministries, and are already working together on mission and service projects. During the spring of 2012, more than 50 bikers from six churches participated in a ride that produced close to $1,000 for the Mothers’ Day-Out ministry at Chapel Hill. A similar run is scheduled for this year.

Unlike the biker runs that have pit stops at bars, these biker runs have pit stops at churches hosted by church members who serve refreshments — liquor is not on the menu.

Hale’s experiences as a dechurched person and as a minister to dechurched people have given him valuable insights about ministering to dechurched people.

1. Be faithful to the Great Commission. “Even though they have left the church and have no intention of going back, and even though they may have given up on God, dechurched people are still God’s children and God still loves them. Jesus calls to share God’s love with all people — including the dechurched. Don’t look down your nose at them.”

2. Be trustworthy. Many dechurched people left the church because they lost trust in it. Let them see by the way you relate to them, that they can trust you.

3. Connect with dechurched people through interests you have in common with them. Any interests you have that dechurched persons have can help you get acquainted and build relationships.

4. Lead with love, not with judgment. When the time is right, share with them how God has transformed your life.”

5. Develop ministries that dechurched people find relevant. Focus on their needs and interests. For example, if they don’t feel comfortable in a formal worship service held in the sanctuary on Sunday morning, offer a service somewhere else at some other time.

6. Use social media to reach the dechurched. “If you are not using social media, you are missing one of the cheapest and most productive ways of reaching people. It spreads like crazy,” Hale says. He has about 1000 friends on Facebook —hundreds are bikers. He frequently posts down-to-earth reflections that inspire readers. Response has been enthusiastic.

7. Don’t expect overnight miracles. “It takes time for people who have lost trust in the church to trust the church again,” Hale concludes. “Be patient. Let God work through you and leave the results in God’s hands.”

Boyce Bowden, who was a United Methodist pastor for 20 years and Director of Communication for the Oklahoma Annual Conference for 24 years, now writes inspirational articles and books from his home in Oklahoma City.

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