Critical Book Review
Radically Unchurched: Who They Are & How to Reach Them by Alvin L. Reid
Reid, Alvin L. Radically Unchurched: Who They Are & How to Reach Them. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2002.
Born in 1959, Alvin Reid is a self-proclaimed product of the Jesus Movement. He received a B.A. from Samford University, and a M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southwestern Seminary. Since 1995, Reid has served as Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Although much of his leadership experience comes from his time serving the Southern Baptist Convention he believes his teaching on culture and evangelism transcend denomination (p. 13). In addition, Reid is the founding Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary an in he was recognized in Who’s Who of American Teachers. According to his ministry web site, alvinreid.com, Reid is a member of the Evangelical Missiological Society, the Academy of Evangelism in Theological Education, the American Society for Church Growth, and the Evangelical Theological Society.
Reid has authored over 200 publications on evangelism, spiritual awaking, and church growth. His many books include, The Convergent Church: Missional Worshipers in an Emerging Culture, Join the Movement: God Is Calling You to Change the World, Firefall: How God Has Shaped History Through Revivals, Raising the Bar: Ministry to Youth in the New Millennium, Raising Up a Generation to Live Radically for Jesus, and Introduction to Evangelism. He has publicly spoken in nearly every state and on every continent, in over 2,000 churches and colleges. He has a passion for the inclusion of youth and says, “In times of revival, evangelism is a priority, often fueled by the zeal of youth” (p. 97). He and his wife have a son and a daughter, both college aged. And, Alvin L. Reid has an unusual passion for large snakes.
Radically Unchurched is a book that identifies a present cultural trend in America and then shares methods and ideas to reach the unchurched of the culture. As Reid explains, “Part 1 of this book addresses why we should seek to penetrate the unchurched culture. Part 2 addresses how to go about it. Many books cover the subject of part 1. Far fewer move into the practical implementation of "strategies or methods" (p. 107). In Radically Unchurched, Reid attempts to do both.
Part 1 opens with a description of who the radically unchurched are. As most authors on the topic do, Reid shares a story that describes one of these individuals, but the character he describes is not a perfect portrait of the radically unchurched so he goes on to provide a definition. “The radically unchurched,” writes Reid, “are those who have no clear personal understanding of the message of the gospel, and who have had little or no contact with a Bible-teaching, Christ-honoring church” (p. 21). He goes on to say that approximately 41% of America’s population falls into this definition (p. 21). Even more surprising is that “To some of the radically unchurched McDonald’s golden arches present a symbol that has more meaning than does the cross” (p. 22). It is explained that most of the radically unchurched are post-moderns, but it is a mistake to think that they all are (p. 31). Once he has defined who the radically unchurched are, Reid takes a number of pages to express his observations of the problems that arise when so many are not connected to Jesus in an intimate way. Much of these individuals are seeking spirituality, now more than ever before (pp. 26-27).
Reid than uses the remaining chapters of Part 1 to discuss what the church’s evangelistic efforts look like, what the unchurched look like, and what the Church really aught to look like given the unchurched culture today. In many ways, these chapters are more of a lesson from Reid’s observations of the world outside the safety of the church bubble. The general theme of these chapters is to get out of that bubble and get into the culture for Christ. “We must penetrate the culture of darkness with the gospel of light” says Reid (pp. 80-81). One specific observation worth noting is Reid’s ideas of how the church deals with culture. He suggests that the church can evade, pervade, or invade (pp. 37-39). By evading, he means that the church “avoids the world at all costs” (p. 39). To pervade is to “overpower the word politically” (p. 39). Both of these approaches “can be good” writes Reid (p. 39), but to invade is to be most like Jesus. To invade is, according to Reid, to “penetrate the culture with the gospel” (p. 39).
As Reid enters into Part 2, the “how to” portion of his book, he pours a few things into the foundations he builds everything else upon. The first is that the clear message of the gospel must be built upon sound doctrine. “We are in a doctrinal dumbing-down period unprecedented in American history,” writes Reid, “It is apparent that more doctrine should be taught, not less” (p. 113). The next foundational item is that we need to use the narrative, that is, we need to tell stories. Reid believes that “This culture has moved from being propositional in nature to being more narrative in focus” (p. 130). Third, corporate worship is extremely important because “Worship, in the simplest of definitions, means to meet God and leave changed” (p. 146). Worship, claims Reid, brings the church to a place where they are filled with the Spirit and ready to reach the world with the gospel (p. 146). Next, although “Finding new, creative means to communicate the timeless message offers a significant challenge” (p. 158), the church must be ready to face the challenge, seeking new ways to deliver the same, consistent message of the gospel. And finally, the church must intentionally plant new churches where the unchurched are. Reid contends that church planters must get out of the Bible belt in exchange for unchurched areas of America. On this basic message, Reid builds his case for how to reach the unchurched. He fills in gaps and provides examples, continually to encouraging his readers along the way.
While insightful and informative, much of Reid’s “Part 1” is not unlike most every other book on reaching the postmodern culture. This is not to say this first portion is unneeded, just that it adds very little new information to the conversation for one who has read a few books on the topic. If anything, it says that Reid’s observations are inline with the broader observations of many other evangelical authors writing on the same topic. In many ways, “Part 2” is the same, except that fewer books on evangelism in the post-modern culture get into the “how to” information as Reid has. That being said, Radically Unchurched still offers encouragement and motivation for the reader to be more aware of the unchurched and get involved in sharing the gospel with them. Evaluating Reid’s stated purpose for the book, “My prayer is that these pages will encourage you to abandon yourself to live for God, but not you alone. I pray that the light of your spirit and that of others like you, fed, by the Spirit of God moving in you, will flame together and penetrate the darkness of the unchurched in America” (p14), it is difficult to tell if he has achieved his purpose. However, this reviewer finds it easy to speculate that Reid has indeed achieved his purpose in the hearts and minds of at least some of his readers. And if some of his readers are pastors, evangelists, or teachers, it is quite possible that they have imparted the spirit and idea of Radically Unchurched on to others that have never heard of Reid or his book.
The strength of Reid’s work is that his style provides a conversational feel that is both believable and convincing. By mixing examples with more expository information, the reader sees the Reid’s ideas in both theory and what appears to be practical application. The work is written to anybody with a passion to reach the lost, and due in part to Reid’s word choices and style, the book is not too difficult or overbearing while at the same time convicting. The weaknesses of the book, although sparse, are found primarily in the minor details. For example, Reid uses examples of television shows, popular songs, and artists, with little explanation. Some of these television shows are no longer on the air, the songs no longer popular. If the reader is not aware of the content of a popular television show, songs, or artists, he or she may miss the point (see p. 166, or the many references to Marilyn Manson). This traps the book in a time that parallels the pop culture Reid is using for examples. Another example is found in the Internet section of chapter nine. Reid published Radically Unchurched in 2002 when some aspects of the Internet were seen as uncharted waters. He discusses the speed at which the Internet is changing but then shares some thoughts on “Internet Evangelism” (pp. 168-171). Chat rooms are not used as much today as they may have been. Also, his suggestion to send touching e-mails to a large database of e-mail addresses is generally frowned upon and nicknamed “SPAM.” Such was probably the case even when the book went to market. Given the rapid rate of change the Internet sees, Reid might have been best served to keep these details in the realm of generality rather than specific.
Radically Unchurched is a valuable and relevant work for the Church today, specifically for evangelists with a desire to reach the lost in today’s culture. This book might make for a good selection for study in the small group setting as well as an appropriate selection for a seminary class. Used in conjunction with a book like Concentric Circles of Concern by W. Oscar Thompson, Jr., anyone can learn how to become an effective evangelist in today’s culture.
*I have no material connection to this book. This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.