Book Review: “Radically Unchurched: Who They are and How to Reach Them” by Alvin L. Reid (2002)

Bibliographical Information

Reid, Alvin L. (2002). Radically Unchurched: Who They Are & How to Reach Them. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

Author Information

As Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and as world-renowned speaker on the topic of evangelism, Alvin L. Reid has a great deal on his plate. But through his busy schedule of speaking, teaching and evangelism, Reid has found time to author and contribute to many books on youth ministry and evangelism in the current culture.  He holds an M.Div and Ph.D from Southwestern Seminary and a Bachelor’s degree from Samford University. He and his wife and two kids have lived in North Carolina since he began teaching at SBTS in 1995.[1]

Content Summary

In his book, Radically Unchurched: Who They Are and How to Reach Them, Alvin Reid has combined a thorough approach to reaching a specific community of unbelievers: the radically unchurched, a community which includes the majority of the world (though Reid focuses primarily on the unchurched of the United States). They have unique characteristics and beliefs, and they live all around us. Many Christians either fear this group of people or view them not so much as “unchurched” but as “unreachable.”

Reid breaks his book down into two convenient parts: one containing the profile of those he dubs “the unchurched”; the other containing a plan to reach these often forgotten or ignored people.

In his first section, “The Profile of the Radically Unchurched,” Reid explains just what exactly he means by the term “unchurched.” After defining this group by saying  basically that the radically unchurched know little-to-nothing about who Jesus really was, what He came to achieve and what the Bible as a whole or the Gospel in particular are really all about (21), Reid explains that the radically unchurched population does not consist of any particular race, gender, creed or philosophy (Reid, 25). In fact, he goes on to explain that the radically unchurched population contains elements of all these elements. Comparing them to the first century Gentiles (22), Reid says of the radically unchurched that “some are religious, some not,” some have strong standards and convictions, impressive education or wealth, and others lack these things entirely (25). Therefore, we must recognize that these people live among us all right now, they fill our towns and cities and stores, and while we sit under the preaching of the Word each Sunday, they continue with life-as-usual, still unaware of who Christ is and what He has done for them.

Reid continues Part One by discussing our purpose as Christians, to not avoid the unchurched (38) but to instead obey the Great Commission by meeting the radically unchurched where they are with the meat of Christianity and the good news of the Bible. While such a work can be done individually (as seen in the great testimonies of Jeremiah Nietz [54-55], Rachel Scott [58] and John Wesley [56]), the Church working together as a single unit will be so much more effective (62).

Next, Reid stresses the need for changes in our methodology in order for our efforts to prove viable for the radically unchurched. By our need for change, Reid does not suggest the church change its message to make the post-modern, radically unchurched individual happy, but that it must repackage that old gospel message (120, 161) so that the post-modern can see it and understand it. Because thought-processes have changed with the culture, citizens who accept Christ before ever entering a church are rare, for the “try before you buy” post-modernists (140) of today desire a first-hand glimpse of what church is all about before they will ever commit themselves to Christ. Reid encourages changing the stagnant and stubborn thinking process of the church by pointedly stating that “Christianity existed before modernism, and it will be around after post-modernism” (85). What we cling to now is cultural and it worked in the modern era, an era which is fleeting; and so must our outdated methods also get ready to leave. Unless Christians are willing to take the Message back 2,000 years to the Bible, as Billy Graham once said (110), the Christian Church as we know it will die along with modernism.

Reid also recognizes our hope for the future in the growing heart of today’s Christian youth who hunger for biblical meat and substance (101) and among whom God is stirring (91). As Jonathan Edwards one stated, “When God has begun any great work for the revival of His church, He has taken the young people and has cast off the old and stiff-necked generation” (96). Therein lies our hope.

Reid continues his book through Part Two in which he discusses first proper methods for  changing the church and its delivery of God’s Good News (109), and then ideas for sharing that Gospel through creativity (157) and Church planting (178). The methods for changing the church ought never to affect the foundation upon which the Church is built (113), he points out, for to trifle with the biblical foundations of our faith is damnable heresy (114). We cannot lose the Truth, the preaching, the worship, the evangelism (121). But the peripherals in how we implement these are open for discussion. He writes at length on how our personal testimonies, preaching styles, music and worship can affect immensely the effectiveness of our churches. He also encourages believers to not become satisfied with waiting for the unchurched to come to them, but should instead let the church to go to them.

Evaluation

From the outset, Reid’s approach to introducing his readers to the radically unchurched seems shocking. One begins to question the existence of such a massive group of the uninformed (41% [21]) among whom, he claims, we walk daily. But as the book progresses, and as Reid begins to define the “radically unchurched” and break down their characteristics, the reader begins to understand the reality that such a large population truly  exists, and that they live all around us, they work and play and eat right before our very eyes.

These people make up three specific groups in America, according to Reid: the devoutly religious (26), the open and searching (27), and what he calls the “happy pagans” (28). While reading through these definitions, one cannot help but picture those in his own life who fall into each of these three categories. And oddly, once placed under one of these names, these individuals suddenly become recognizably reachable, for they at once cease to be the frighteningly antagonistic coworkers and neighbors, as which he once saw them, but instead become the lost, misguided, sad souls who are at this very moment craving something better. After dispelling his old, even arrogant view of the lost people around him, and once ridding his mind of the common myths Christians tend to believe about the unchurched (25), a Christian can then prepare his heart to first change what he must in his own life and then set out to reach these people for Christ.

To achieve this necessary change in a believer’s life (or in the life of an entire church, for that matter), the believer must first recognize the truths of James 1:27 and  I John 2:15, applying the principles rationally to himself and to the world today. While a Christian must remain unspotted from the world, he must not completely remove himself from it (38). And while a believer ought to be distinct from society, he ought also to be a “good citizen in it” (39). In the opposite manner, the believer must look carefully at his own “biblical convictions” (and on those of his church) to see if he has confused them instead with mere preferences (38) to the detriment of his community. Has he become, like those in his church, a “courageous crusader” who has lost all heart for evangelism because, to him, “the church is a place of fellowship and ministry to its members” (111) alone, the world be damned?

The believer and church willing to change their old ways and to view the radically unchurched as the ripest of mission fields have only to equip themselves with the proper Christ-like outlook and evangelize the lost. They need to claim the Great Commission not as the Great Suggestion (37), they need to magnify the Christ of their experience rather than their experience with Christ (135), and they need to “love to fish as much as [they] love to catch” (186).  And they need to do all this while claiming the power of God and the Holy Spirit through prayer.

Christ exemplified the man of prayer, and Paul followed well that role himself. And it was this quality that forced the demons not only to recognize these men in Matthew 8 and Acts 19, but to fear them as well. With such an illustration as Acts 19 in which Paul, through his exemplary life of prayer and action, assaulted the kingdom of hell, Alvin Reid challenges his readers to weigh their own prayer lives, their own action taken against the evil realm of Satan, to see if they too are recognized by name by the demons of hell (52). Throughout the book, Reid makes constant references to the school and church shootings of 1999, asking what tragedies it will take to get us on our knees before God, begging for the lost souls around us (51). With how American churches have failed time and again to increase by even one converted soul in a year, Reid declares that such poor growth in our churches demands a very long season of national prayer and fasting and “public humiliation before the Lord, who deserves far better” (23).

But while these particular changes in outlook and prayer are necessarily and, ultimately, foundational, they will not prove enough to reach the growing post-modern world in which we live. Each Christian needs to be built on this foundation by discovering and creating news way to both get the gospel out to the radically unchurched in their community and to get the radically unchurched into the Christian circles within their community, for as mentioned above about the post-modernists, they desire a first-hand glimpse of what church is all about before they will ever commit themselves to Christ (140).

Thus, it is imperative that Christians be willing to change, and this can best be seen in the area of worship, which Reid defines simply as meeting God and leaving changed (146). In worship, as Reid points out, some things need to be abandoned, some kept, and some simply repackaged (120). Christians need to be willing to change the substance of their worship back to the foundational, doctrinal truths of God’s Holy Word, separating from the watered-down, self-serving, Scripture- and preaching-replacing worship songs so popular today (147-148).

Christians also need to be willing to change the style of their worship (148-149). With new generations come calls for new methods. And while these changes must have been occurring since the very first church 2,000 year ago as generation has morphed into generation, still we Christians find it so hard to change. Jesus neither wore a three-piece suit  nor played the organ, so why do so many Christians hold these outward, peripheral matters in such high regard? Why do they fear so greatly the idea of “contemporary” Christianity, which according to Reid simply means “to relate the truths of God in a way people understand” (149)? So long as the contemporary methods we employ continue to reflect the unchangeable biblical values of selflessness, holiness and modesty (150), we ought not fear this change that could very well become a major influence in evangelizing our communities (144).

With this truth in mind (that the intent of worship is not evangelism, though evangelism certainly ought to be a by-product of worship [144]), Christians must also be willing to change the spirit of worship (151-152). The early church in Acts 4 offers an amazing example, a glimpse of a first-century praise-and-worship service, in which the participants first focused on the power and greatness and holiness of God, and then asked Him for boldness to accept their responsibilities (151).  It is with these three necessary yet changeable ingredients to worship, substance, style and spirit, that we can begin to first re-catch a vision of the power and greatness of God, and then introduce this new and understandable form of worship to the radically unchurched people around us. For one clear sign of a truly worshipping church (or person, I believe) “is an external focus on reaching the world” (146).

With this strong understanding of the use of preaching, worship and fellowship in a church, it would come as quite an invitation to a believer deeply caring to reach the radically unchurched to venture out into the unknown areas of the United States or the world which lack solid and faithful churches and plant his own. Church-planting poses one of the greatest ministerial opportunities available, and with the apparent growth in religious fervor amongst our youth (102), now is the time to act! And if such an idea as moving into the unknown to try and plant a church amongst the unchurched sounds crazy, do not worry. It probably is. But a Christian’s goal is not to please his fellow-believers or himself. As Reid points out, “You will be more like Jesus based on the lost people you reach than on the saved people you impress” (44). Such a quote rips at my heart, against all the tentativeness inside me, to say, “Now is the time to go! You have no time to lose. Sell all you have, move your family and get out there and serve!”

Personal Reflection

“I would, but…”

These words reflect the thoughts coming from the other half of my heart when I consider getting out and serving. “I must finish my degree first.” “I would have to convince my wife first.” “I need to make just this much more money first.”

All of these excuses course through my brain, and yet as I think back and consider all of the lessons I have learned in this class, I wonder. Will these feelings, these desires to go back to Asia and plant a church today fade as I continue to push through seminary or will they only grow stronger?

Throughout all of the books I have read during these last several months, through all the videos I have watched and all of the Scripture I have memorized, throughout all of the discussions of which I have been a part and all of the evangelistic experiences I have forced myself to experience, the constant theme of following Christ’s Commission and answering the push of the Holy Spirit pervades.

Four practical evangelistic duties that my wife and I both can take on stood out to me specifically during this course. First, as I was reading through Family to Family, I could not get past the brief, one line suggestion of adopting a foreign student.[2] As my wife and I both are pursuing a job in the state university’s international department, and as we both have studied abroad, we feel a deep connection with foreign students and have, since I read the book, begun discussing how we can make one or several of these students part of our lives with the intent of reaching them for Christ.

Another practical duty we would like to take on as a result of the things I have learned in this class is to get involved in the youth drama program at the church we attend (162). With my background experience in writing and acting, I believe I could do well in developing deep, effective and even humorous drama which we could use for evangelistic purposes. Understanding the time, effort and money such an undertaking would require, I would approach this plan delicately. However, as I continue to research this option, I believe the Lord will either open or close this door for me and my wife.

Thirdly, and a bit more big-picture, my wife and I are planning to one day return to Asia as missionaries. So far, our goal has been to complete our graduate education so that we can arrive there with a better opportunity to get good jobs in a university there, since we would prefer to remain tentmakers. However, we understand that the Lord can bless us no matter what our financial situation might be, so we need to trust His guidance and continue following His lead as we pray over our future. In the meantime, we can and will continue to befriend the local Asian people groups in our town here in Wisconsin, as few as there are, and trust God to develop His plan as we continue to serve Him one day at a time. If we could discover a way to cover our costs, and if we could be certain that graduate school online over international borders is a viable option, we would consider such a move back overseas more closely.

Finally, in the realm of moving to Asia as missionaries, another goal we have is to plant a church over there (178). As I have mentioned in several of my papers already, my student, Judy (who recently accepted Christ) has still been unable to find fellow believers in her city of about 5 million. While I am certain there are plenty there, I do not doubt the dire need for more churches in her city, and in all cities there. It pains me to think of this new believer alone in a sea of people, afraid to ask those she passes if they, too, know Jesus. I wish I could share with her all that I have learned so that she, too, could go out and evangelize and, rather than trying to find other believers, she could make her own.  I am encouraging her to be bold as I disciple her, I just believe it will take some time.

God has gifted me with so many things, things I do not deserve. And I continue to try and find ways to use those gifts for Him, like writing Christian books for children, forming Christian Bible studies for people who do not have regular access to the internet and discipling those I have had the privilege to lead to the Lord. I try not to focus on the trials He has brought into my life over the last two years, but instead focus on what He is teaching me through them and see the power of His wisdom in my life. For as Alvin Reid echoes Job’s concluding thoughts in Job 42:5, “When you have seen the fire of God fall, even briefly, you are never the same” (98).

[1] Retrieved on 10 March 2010 from http://alvinreid.com/as-a-speaker/my-bio

[2] Pipes, Jerry, Victor Lee (1999). Family to Family: Leaving a Lasting Legacy. USA, 82.
© 2010 E.T.

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