How To Reach the Secular Mind (and Heart)

There’s not a one-size-fits-all method

Shawn Brace
How To Reach the Secular Mind (and Heart)

I was recently invited by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Canada to present at their annual meetings on how to reach the secular mind. As is well-documented, Canada has become extremely secular, with a mere 11 percent of the population attending religious services each week. And although my ministry context isn’t quite as bleak, I hail from America’s most secular region and have made it the main focus of my ministry to try to figure out how to present the gospel in ways that are relevant and contextualized.

Though it may be hard for us to grasp at times, there’s not a one-size-fits-all method that connects with all people in all times and places. While our core message never changes—while the gospel never changes—how we present that message is sometimes more or less effective, depending on who we’re trying to reach. Indeed, what worked in 1860 may not work in 2024. What works in Lagos or Sydney may not work in Los Angeles or Shanghai.

Ellen White, even in her day, recognized the need for trying new methods and contextualizing the gospel. You can find a whole catalogue of material if you simply type in the term “new methods” in an Ellen White search. We must therefore be willing to prayerfully reflect on what types of people our various approaches tend to reach, and then ask how we can more effectively reach the types of people we seem to have a hard time reaching.

After all, I’m of the firm conviction that no demographic is harder or easier to reach with the gospel. We just have to recognize that—playing off an analogy from Jesus that may seem a bit crass to some minds today—it’s going to take different kinds of bait to reach different kinds of people. It’s not that some types of fish are harder to catch than others; it’s just that we’re trying to catch them with the wrong bait.

I shared with my friends north of the border that we need to embrace three shifts in our thinking and practice if we’re going to effectively reach people who seem to have little interest in even listening to us.

A paradigm shift

1. From “come” to “go.” The stark reality is, most secular people have no intention of ever showing up to a religious building. It’s just not on their radar. Thus, no matter how great or interesting our programs might be, the vast majority of secular people will likely never walk through our doors. A very small percentage will, of course—but that’s probably a tiny fraction of one percent of the overall population.

So if they’re unlikely to come to us, we must go to them—which is what Jesus told us to do all along anyway (see Matthew 28:19 and John 20:21). Thus, instead of trying to figure out ways to get people to come to our buildings and programs, we should be willing to go out to them and meet them where they are.

Indeed, as Ellen White said of the “great commission,” which is the “great missionary charter of Christ’s kingdom,” Christ’s disciples “were not to wait for the people to come to them; they were to go to the people with their message.”[i] Elsewhere, in one of her most famous quotes about evangelism, she said that Christ’s practice of “mingling” with people was the only method that would bring “true success.”[ii]

2. From programs to people. It’s quite staggering how much time we devote to trying to create new and better programs and initiatives—when, in reality, it seems that what secular people are really looking for is caring and loving people. Not that it has to be either one or the other, of course. But instead of devoting the bulk of our attention to trying to develop better programs, perhaps we should spend more time trying to develop and become better people.

What I’ve also repeatedly found is that most secular people have little interest in showing up to a religious program, but they’re often thrilled to sit at a table—at a restaurant or in a home—and share life with kind-hearted people. They’d much prefer organic and informal times of relational connection—where plenty of individual and customized discipleship can take place—over sitting silently in a meeting, being talked at.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s read The Ministry of Healing by Ellen White, who notes the critical importance of “personal effort” over “sermonizing.” Perhaps even more provocatively, she further proposes that “the strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian.”[iii]

Simply put, a “loving and lovable Christian” is more effective than any program we could put on, sermon we could preach, or argument we could make. Indeed, as she says elsewhere, “Our influence upon others depends not so much upon what we say as upon what we are. Men may combat and defy our logic, they may resist our appeals; but a life of disinterested love is an argument they cannot gainsay.”[iv]

3. From dogmatism to humility. Many secular people have become greatly disillusioned with the ways Christians have used power and coercion to compel the behavior of others. Again, this shouldn’t be a surprise for those of us who are familiar with the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, which point to religious institutions that speak “pompous words” (Dan. 7:25) but are corrupt at their core.

Thus, many secular people are very suspicious of religious people who are overly-dogmatic and black and white. They often assume it’s a cover for hypocrisy—which, sadly, is often validated when one influential religious leader after another has a moral fall—and try to steer clear of people who demonstrate such an attitude.

It’s tempting for us as Adventists—those who are privileged to have such a rich and full understanding of the truth—to conclude that we’re the ones who can speak with such directness because we’ve figured it all out. But when it comes to people who’ve been repeatedly burned by “bad religion,” such an attitude is a huge turn-off. We must therefore speak with gentleness and humility rather than dogmatism and certainty.

This doesn’t mean we can’t have convictions or beliefs—or that we must surrender our commitment to the reality of objective truth. It just means we should continue to be learners and not just teachers, admitting that we don’t have it all figured out (because we don’t!), and presenting our convictions more as testimony than prescription.

As powerful as ever

As the late Tim Keller—who had a long and effective ministry reaching secular New York City—often said: a lot of evangelism implicitly reflects an attitude which says, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and I would love to tell you about it.” Sadly, I fear that many of us subtly demonstrate this approach to our evangelism, often unintentionally.

Though there’s certainly other shifts we could make, these are—from my observations and experience—three of the most important ones we could make as we seek to become more effective at reaching societies that are becoming increasingly disconnected from Christian concerns. I could share many stories that illustrate and demonstrate the effectiveness of these shifts—but I’ll leave it there for now.[v]

 The good news is, as I’ve repeatedly found, despite the rapidity with which secularism is growing in many parts of the world, the gospel is still as powerful as it’s always been—and people will always respond to a life of “disinterested love,” as Ellen White put it. No time or place is either more or less reachable with the good news of God’s boundless love. The Spirit is still working on “all flesh,” as the Bible promised (see Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17). We just have to be willing to open ourselves up to the many diverse ways the Spirit reaches people, recognizing that some approaches which may work for some people may be needlessly off-putting and distracting to others. Indeed, we must be willing to speak the “language” of the people we’re trying to reach, refusing to conflate our message with our methods, and commit ourselves to living out God’s love in meaningful and relevant ways.

[i] Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 28. Emphasis added.

[ii] Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 143.

[iii] Ibid., p. 143, p. 470.

[iv] Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 141.

[v] For a number of stories that illustrate these ideas, see my recent book The Table I Long For(Warburton, Victoria: Signs Publishing, 2021).

Shawn Brace

Shawn Brace is a pastor and author in Maine. He’s also a D.Phil. student at the University of Oxford researching nineteenth-century American Christianity.