What working in Christian retail taught me about engaging the inquisitive
By Aaron Wilson
For more than 16 years, I served in some capacity as an employee of LifeWay Christian Stores. Because of this, I regularly engaged with people who are dabbling with the idea of church.
These bookstore visitors range from quilting-bee grandmothers to rough-and-tumble bikers.
While each guest may look different on the outside, I find they often ask similar questions. These questions reveal four types of people who may be future guests at your church.
1. The “How-To” Fixers
These individuals sense something in their life is broken. Maybe it’s a marriage on the rocks, kids living in rebellion, or credit-card debt that’s breathing down their neck.
Regardless of the need, these people are often attracted to the church (or a Christian retailer) in search of a quick how-to fix for their problem.
As Christians, we know everyone’s greatest need is the righteousness of God and the forgiveness of sins offered through Jesus’ gospel.
We extend empathy toward the pressing needs that drive guests to our doors. At the same time, we must explain how only Christ can satisfy one’s deepest longings.
We serve these guests by being honest about our own sinfulness. We can do this through public and regular confession of sin, which is especially effective in an intimate small group setting.
Once a church sets the backdrop of humility, the light of the gospel can shine on those who are driven to God’s people by a spirit of brokenness.
2. The Spectacle Seekers
Spectacle seekers peek at the church hungry for a show. These folks might walk into a Christian establishment because they heard of a new “Bible code” for predicting end-time events.
Others might sample a Christian podcast or website because they want to learn more about the novel ways millennials are “doing church” nowadays.
Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites have trained people to seek and share the new and buzzworthy tidbits of culture.
Spectacle seekers resemble the Athenians of Acts 17:21 who “would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
As biblically informed believers, we shouldn’t feel the need to criticize or cater to this trend. Instead, we should continually direct guests’ interest to the main attraction: Christ and His work on the cross.
While Paul modeled the act of becoming all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22), we must be careful not to repackage the gospel to make it more newsworthy by 21st-century standards.
Rather, Christians can command interest by consistently proclaiming the epic tale of the age-old gospel.
3. Those in Pain
I regularly encounter guests at LifeWay stores who gravitate toward God’s people because they’re experiencing a season of grief or suffering.
Grief can serve as a catalyst for an interest in God, which is why Ecclesiastes 7:2 says it’s better to be at a funeral than a party.
Although the world offers many different kinds of Band-Aids for the hurting, only through Christ can we offer a true remedy for the ultimate source of pain.
When church guests open up about their problems, we should be quick to explain the grand narrative of the Bible: the good creation, the fall, Christ’s redemption, and His promised future restoration of all things.
Since sin is the cause of the curse, all pain points to the fact that things aren’t as they should be.
When guests hear this raw truth spoken, they’re more willing to trade in their “too-blessed-to-be-stressed” façade for a Savior who took all evil upon Himself and promises perfect redemption for this broken world.
4. The Frustrated Legalists
Finally, we have the frustrated legalists—folks hovering around the church because they feel they’re supposed to be there. These people recognize the need for spiritual disciplines but lack the Christ-fueled joy to pursue them regularly.
These individuals use phrases like, “It’s a struggle,” “I lack a passion,” or “I’m inconsistent.”
My experience in the bookstores tells me frustrated legalists usually want a magic pill that will change all this for the low, low cost of just $19.99.
Of course, when we engage a frustrated legalist, we don’t need to push a new book, a trendy blog post, or an evangelistic crusade. The legalists simply need a better understanding of the gospel.
We should get honest about how all Christians struggle with spiritual disciplines and teach them that Christ bore our burden to be perfect.
Legalists want tips and cheats. Let’s give them enabling grace instead.
Living on mission outside the bookstore
These four categories may not be comprehensive, but they do summarize the initial focus of many people who drop by a Christian bookstore curious about God. And more than likely, they are the same people who are visiting your church.
We can prepare to serve such people by training ourselves to recognize the common threads the Holy Spirit uses to draw a lost world to His church.
While most Christians aren’t in the practice of wearing name tags like bookstore employees, all believers sport the name of Christ when they proclaim the gospel.
May this identification spur us to engage inquisitive guests and provide them with lasting joy that comes from following the Savior.
AARON WILSON is associate editor of Facts & Trends.