Evangelizing Nominal Christians through ‘Inverse Cultivation’

by York Moore

“I feel like I’ve heard it all before. You aren’t going to tell me anything my dad hasn’t already told me. I just don’t think it is going to make a difference.” These were the words Matt started with as I sat down at a conference to share Jesus with him.

Matt is a pastor’s kid, and his dad had come to me desperately seeking help with his teen son who was raised in a Christian home but was living in open, active rebellion and making home life incredibly difficult for the entire family.

Matt continued, “I think it is stupid that my dad asked you to sit down with me.” Sensing Matt’s obvious anger, I began with a series of questions before using a simple technique I’ve developed and used for over 20 years with nominal Christians. These questions and technique appear just below, but first let me define the problem a bit further.

In the West, we are surrounded by ‘nominal Christians’—those who are culturally Christian by context but have never made a conscious decision to follow Jesus. Within the category of nominal Christian are several subcategories, including those who are aware that they are merely Christian by name, those who are ignorant of the difference between cultural Christianity and true faith, and those know the difference but are living in conscious rebellion to Jesus.

Matt was in this latter category.

In many Western contexts, we run into nominal Christians all the time, and sharing Jesus with them is often much more difficult than those who are clearly outside the faith. There are several reasons for this. Nominal Christians are sometimes happy to be ignorant of the difference between true faith and their experienced reality.

Sometimes, they’ve never been challenged with the gospel and invitation to repentance and submission to Jesus’ Lordship. For many nominal Christians, it is nice and easy to bear the social status of Christian for political or financial reasons while paying none of the cost of discipleship to Jesus. For others, their awareness and unwillingness to truly follow Jesus are often guarded by their own theological excuses, twisted scripture readings, and experiences of brokenness and hypocrisy in the Church.

Matt’s heart was hard and I needed to diffuse his anger before I could challenge him with the gospel.

“Matt,” I asked, “why do you think you are so angry right now?”

“Matt,” I asked, “why do you think your dad asked me to meet with you alone?”

“Matt,” I asked, “are you at all open to hearing what you think you know so well in a different way?”

These kinds of questions often get nominal Christians relationally engaged long enough to bridge into the gospel. They show a genuine concern for their perspective and experience. After 30 minutes or so of listening to Matt’s reasoning as to why he was entitled to freedom, turned to anger because of others, he reluctantly agreed to hear the message of Jesus again.

This is where the technique, ‘Inverse Cultivation,’ comes into play. While we teach, preach, and explain the gospel to those who are unaware of it, cultural Christians are often anesthetized to the gospel because of their proximity to it. Cultivating a deeper and right understanding of the gospel comes from ‘inversely’ proclaiming it by getting the nominal Christian to articulate what he or she knows or thinks he or she knows about Jesus. Here’s how it works in steps:

  1. Establishing a Base Point: “Matt, what would you say is the most important thing about having a relationship with God?” This is an open-ended question designed to allow Matt to say enough to expose areas of radical incongruence with the teachings of the Bible or understanding about God. Matt responded, “Well, that you don’t go to hell and that you’ll be a good person.”
  2. Exposing Incongruence: “Matt, so would you say that everyone who is a Christian is a good person and is not going to hell?” This question helps Matt see an incongruence in his thinking and gives him the opportunity to correct his answer. I am not trying to trap Matt in incongruences; instead, I want to give him an opportunity to spot them. Matt responded, “No, that’s not what I meant. I know lots of Christians who aren’t good.” I continued, “So does that mean they are going to hell?” Matt responded, “Some of them.”
  3. Extending Understanding: “So, Matt, does having a relationship with God make us good, or do good people have a relationship with God? And what does all this have to do with hell?” In extending understanding, what I’m trying to do is get the nominal Christian to make the right, biblical connections themselves without having to teach it to them. When nominal Christians realize gospel elements themselves, it proves to be much more of an awakening moment than if it were simply stated. Proximity to the words and ideas of the gospel has made most nominal Christians numb to the gospel’s power.
  4. Expositing Their Answers: This is where teaching comes in. “Matt, let me tell you what I am hearing you say.” Note that in this phase, I am simply telling Matt what I am hearing from him. I will now share ‘the gospel according to Matt’ and use this as a platform to help him understand the full gospel. “Matt, I think you are angry and for many good reasons,” I continued. “The reality is I think your dad asked me to talk to you because even though he’d say the exact same things, you wouldn’t hear it from him because of the relational damage.”“Matt, your relationship with your dad is a small example of our relationship with God.”  I use Matt’s experience to bridge into the gospel and continue, “Matt, you have many of the right ideas about God, but because your heart is hard, you can’t experience the kind of relationship you are supposed to have with your earthly dad or your Heavenly Father.”
  5. Explaining the gospel: At this point, nominal Christians believe that they’ve been heard, believe they have gaps in their understanding of the gospel, and believe that they are missing something experientially and are now ready to hear the good news in a way they’ve never heard it before. I have ‘inversely cultivated’ an opportunity to now share the good news.

As I explained the gospel, I placed special emphasis on repentance and the Lordship of Jesus.  This is almost always the most important aspect of the gospel nominal Christians need to understand and apply to their lives. Most nominal Christians can say they believe Jesus died for sin and was raised to new life, but almost none of them have repented and confessed Jesus as Lord.

I ended by saying, “Matt, God wants to do heart surgery on you today. He wants to take away your hard and angry heart and replace it with peace. That can only happen if you agree to it. When we have physical surgery, we need to sign a ‘release form’ in order for earthly physicians to cut into our flesh. God is inviting you to receive life-giving, radical surgery, but you need to ‘release’ yourself to Him, allowing Him to cut into your heart, your mind, and your behavior.”

As I continued to explain the gospel in this way to Matt, he finally responded, “I am ready. I know I need to do this, it’s long overdue.” I led Matt in a prayer of repentance and submission to the will of God in his life.

Inverse cultivation, of course, is just a technique. The gospel is the power of God for salvation, but so often the hard hearts of nominal Christians anaesthetize them to that power. Leading them to engage using this process often leads to new understanding and new life!


R. York MooreYork Moore (@yorkmoore) is national evangelist for InterVarsity USA. He is the author of Growing Your Faith by Giving it Away and Making All Things New: God’s Dream for Global Justice and the founder of the anti-trafficking movement Price of Life. Learn more: tellthestory.net