Empower Your Outliers

Every church has outliers—people who don’t quite fit the mold. I’m not talking about unbelievers who try out church for a while but then leave because they don’t actually love Jesus. I’m talking about zealous Christians, passionate believers, people who would much rather feed the poor than listen to yet another sermon.

My cousin Paul is one of these outliers. From the time he was nineteen years old, he was a rebel, but he was also a Christian. He tried to attend a conservative Christian college, but they kept telling him to cut his hair so it wouldn’t touch his collar. (After three haircuts, he finally got it right.) He dropped out after a year, not because he didn’t love Jesus but because he didn’t fit into this Christian subculture. “I just couldn’t play that game. I wanted to spend my energy engaging in meaningful work.” He thought about becoming a pastor, but the thought of preparing and preaching sermons every Sunday to Christians seemed like a nightmare. He wasn’t really into “church” as it’s traditionally understood.

Paul ended up finding one of the most unreached countries in the world. I’d tell you the name of the country, but it could get him killed. He bought a plane ticket, and that’s where he’s spent the bulk of his life—pursuing a mission that 99 percent of Christians would never think of doing. He was run out of the country by terrorists a couple of years ago, but he’s now returned with his wife and two small children. He’s spreading the gospel in a gospel-less land by creating small businesses that provide jobs in an impoverished country. Jesus’ kingdom is breaking into this unreached country through the radical missional ventures of a wild-eyed outlier.

My friend Josh Stump is another outlier. He’s a pastor and church planter who has planted several churches in the Nashville area. Nashville is an interesting place. There are more churches in Nashville than delis in New York. It’s the Vatican of the Bible Belt. But the churches there are largely focused on reaching middle-class suburban dwellers. Josh’s heart is for the outcast, the marginalized, the ones who would never set foot inside a megachurch, even if it has a great sound system. And Josh is the right guy to do it. Although he’s a pastor, he owns a cigar shop in east Nashville (the part of the Nashville that you probably didn’t visit when you were touring the city). Selling (and smoking) cigars is his full-time job. If you entered his shop, you’d never know that he’s a pastor. He’s got more tattoos than Elvis had shoes, and his hipster beard puts David Crowder to shame.

“You know, Preston” Josh told me, “I talk about Jesus and do more pastoring here in this cigar shop than I do at my church.”

“Your church sounds pretty Christ-less,” I jibed back.

Josh laughed with a lingering grin and kept going. “My customers don’t just come to smoke cigars. They come for relationships, community, and to talk about religion. Yet they would never go to a traditional church. And I fear that if they did go to a traditional church, they wouldn’t engage in the same depth of spiritual conversations that they do here in my shop.”

He’s right. As I sat there in his shop, coughing on a cigar, I kept seeing customer (friend) after customer (friend) wanting to engage in meaningful conversation with Josh. Religion, politics, sports, cigars, BBQ—they were all fair game. But it wasn’t long before Jesus came up in conversation. Josh’s Monday through Friday vocation is saturated with the presence of Jesus, whose glory shines through a smoke-filled room filled with misfits. 

My friend Tasha was raised in a Christian home that was all but Christ-like. I’ll save you the details. Let’s just say that she was so spiritually abused that I’m surprised she’s still a Christian. Tasha’s not your typical churchgoer. She’s an outlier. She attends Sunday services, but beyond that she would score pretty low on the discipleship activity meter. She’s tried out various Bible studies and women’s groups, but they just don’t really fit her. Maybe she should attend anyway, or maybe she should do something different. She’s always wrestling with her place in the church.

One day my wife was hanging out with Tasha in her neighborhood. As they were walking Tasha’s daughter to school, at least half a dozen women greeted her. “Hey, Tasha, thanks for bringing that meal last night!” “Tasha, thanks for praying with me yesterday.” “Hey Tasha, are we having our knitting group tonight?”

My wife was amazed. She had no idea. She never knew that Tasha had invested so much time and relational energy in the unbelievers in her neighborhood—people who would never set foot in a church. She’s been running that knitting group now for a couple years, and all of her friends who attend are unbelievers. “Some of them are starting to ask questions about religion!” Tasha said with child-like joy.

Tasha doesn’t fit the typical Christian subculture. She’d probably have a great time talking about Jesus at Josh’s cigar shop.

Every church has its outliers. They’re zealous for their faith, but they seek to live it out in unconventional ways. They’re often creative, energetic, and eager to reach the lost. They would rather be with unbelievers than with Christians, especially Christians who would judge them for not going to church more often. Many of these outliers end up leaving the church. They’re hungry to pursue God’s mission, yet they find that the church often stifles their passion.

A church that believes in holistic discipleship will empower its outliers. Rather than seeing them as a threat or a nuisance, holistic churches will value them and the unique call God has placed on them. Discipleship doesn’t come with some prepackaged formula that looks the same for all people. Rather it meets people where they’re at and honors the diversity of God’s calling.

Some people are called to be pastors. Others are called to run cigar shops. Both are called to ministry. And it’s the church’s job to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12).

This blog is taken from chapter 5 "On Earth As it Is in Heaven" of my new book Go: Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faithwhich releases this week.