REACHING THE UNCHURCHED IN AMERICA
A number of studies have been done on the unchurched in the United Sates. There is much less information on the unchurched in
Canada. On the whole, Canada is less churched than the U.S., with the percentage of the unchurched increasing as one travels from the Atlantic provinces to British Columbia. There is, however, enough similarity between Canada and the U.S. to make the
following material relevant also for Canadian churches.
The following summary of research on the unchurched in America is based on Who are the Unchurched? by J. Russell Hale
(1970); The Church and the Unchurched in America by David A. Roozen (1978); Why People Join the Church by Edward A. Rauff
(1979); The Search for America’s Faith by George Gallup, Jr. and David Poling (1980); The Apathetic and Bored Church Member
by John S. Savage (1976); and Who Do Americans Say that I Am? by George Gallup, Jr., and George O’Connell (1986).
Polls show that 80 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christians but that only about 50 percent attend church regularly. The rest are unchurched-at least one hundred million people. Others stress that many more millions are only
nominally churched, so that the number of the unchurched in America should be put at 150 million. The most highly unchurched
areas are the West Coast, the mountain areas of Colorado, the Appalachians, and northern Maine. In Canada, roughly 65 percent
of the population have a formal church connection. Thirty percent of the population attends church on Sunday.
The unchurched share many basic beliefs with the churched. Many believe that Christ is fully God and fully human. More than 60 percent of all Americans believe Christ will return to earth some day. Thirty percent of Americans have had a “born again” conversion experience. There are very few atheists; 98 percent of all Americans profess to believe in God. However, some say that the importance of religion is declining for them.
Why Don’t They Go to Church?
When the unchurched are asked if a person can be a good Christian without going to church, nearly 90 percent say yes. And 25 percent of the unchurched say that they are members of a church. It is true that their name is still on the membership rolls, but they have not attended the church or participated in a church activity for many months or years. They may have moved away and never notified the church.
The largest single reason why the unchurched don’t associate with a church is mobility. Over 40 percent were church members at one time but never rejoined when they moved to a different community. Thirty-eight percent say they are too busy with work or recreational pursuits to attend church. And 37 percent believe the church’s belief system is too constricting.
Other reasons given for staying away from church: the church’s moral teachings (28%), too much emphasis on money (38%), and a dislike of traditional liturgy (23%). The poor, the elderly, and the handicapped often feel uncomfortable or unwanted in
church. Others are burned out from too many responsibilities and activities in church. Still others express bitterness towards the church, citing unhappy experiences that turned them off. Frequently the unchurched feel that church members are hypocrites who are no better than they are. Many also complain that sermons are boring.
A growing percentage of Americans were never exposed to the Christian faith as children and never evangelized. This is
especially true of many newer ethnic groups. Still, 76 percent of the unchurched have attended Sunday school, and 75 percent
want their children to do so also.
Returning to Church
When the unchurched are asked if they are open to returning to church, 52 percent say yes. More than 30 percent say they would go to church if they could find a pastor or Christian friend with whom they could openly discuss their religious doubts and spiritual needs. Fourteen percent are looking for a church that has good preaching and a genuine concern to work for a better society. Seventy-five percent would like their children to attend Sunday school.
The point of all this is not, of course, that church membership is an end in itself, or even that all would be well with people’s souls and with the world if they would attend church. The point is that genuine discipleship demands the communion of the saints. Growth in grace and service is not accomplished in isolation but in the company of God’s people.
Nevertheless, some general conclusions may be drawn from all this research. There are millions of Americans who believe
but do not belong. Often what they need is not so much a vigorous defense of the gospel but a demonstration of community.
Americans live by a philosophy of individualism and look for pleasure and happiness. Even when they believe many of the
teachings of the Christian faith, they do not share the conviction that the only real and lasting happiness comes from abiding in Christ in the company of his people. The church needs urgently to share the value of genuine discipleship and to call unchurched believers from cheap grace to the costly grace of following Jesus.
Only 13 percent of the unchurched appear to be so turned off that they will not consider church as an option in their lives. But even many of these can be won over by love and persistence, especially when the gospel is made relevant to them in a time of transition or crisis.
Many of the remaining unchurched are open to conversations about Christ, the church, and themselves. But these conversations need to take place in a context of nonjudgmental listening and an atmosphere of friendship. When a church member presents the Bible’s promises and warnings as impersonal teaching or as a sales presentation, the unchurched will not hear. But caring concern will often bring a positive and permanent response.
George Gallup and David Poling, in Search for America’s Faith, say,
The majority of our reports indicate that many Americans belong to the “not quite Christian” category. They believe without strong convictions. They want the fruit or rewards of faith, but they seem to dodge the responsibilities and obligations. They say they are Christian, but often without a visible connection to a congregation or religious fellowship. The major challenge appears to be a task for the church as well-how to guide men and women into becoming mature Christian personalities.
Church members who engage in a consistent program of calling on the unchurched and who represent churches ready to meet the needs of the unchurched will find a ready harvest.
HOW TO TALK TO THE UNCHURCHED
by Doug Self, Pastor
Talking to unchurched people about spiritual matters is sometimes uncomfortable. Nervous fidgeting, blank stares, and vague replies seem clues to veiled disinterest. Ever wish the unchurched person was as interested in spiritual life as you are!
I’ve discovered that in many ways they are. Almost everyone has definite spiritual ideas; most have had some sort of religious experience. Some feel close to God and are content with their spiritual beliefs; many are willing to talk about their spiritual lives.
But not if you start with dogma.
I’ve learned that if I lead off with doctrine, people retreat in fear and trembling. They entrench themselves for a battle. In the past my tendency has been to continue to storm their fortifications. It’s not surprising I have not helped many that way.
After several such experiences, I decided I did not know much about the spiritual lives of nonchurched people. I’ve spent my life in church; I needed to develop some open-ended questions to draw the unchurched out-and to draw me in.
Many of the questions I’ve found helpful come from the context I find myself in with a person. No one set of questions works in all situations. But some I have found helpful are the following:
* What turns you off about religion?
* What do you think God is like?
* When have you felt closest to God?
* What person has been most influential on your beliefs and values?
The next part of the conversation is most difficult for me-listening to the answers. I listen to understand, not to correct. I listen for feelings, reactions, motivations. I want to understand what a person believes and why. Only then can I ask more questions. After I understand where a person is, I can begin to help identify spiritual needs and determine some direction, but not before.
Once I know a bit about a person’s perspective, I can introduce some corresponding information from the Bible, preferably a story about a biblical person: “A man in the Bible felt just like that” or “Jesus met a guy with that very question.”
This part of the conversation is not hard for me. I spent years in seminary learning how to talk about the Bible. Neither is this part hard for the unchurched person-but only because I took time to listen to him at the beginning. He is following his own interests into the gospel, and for me, a pastor, that is a genuine pleasure.
Some of the best visitation is done by asking questions that indicate that the church’s primary interest is people’s needs- not its own agenda. Richard Warren has formulated an excellent set of such questions.
Warren, a new church developer in Southern California, developed a large congregation while at the same time spinning off a daughter church every year. He started with the conviction the gospel will receive a hearing only when the church meets people where they are-their feelings, circumstances, and needs. This is his approach:
“Good afternoon, my name is Richard Warren. I am starting a new church in this community and want to find out what kind of a
church would best fit the needs of people who live here. Could I ask you five simple questions?
1. Are you an active member of a nearby church?
2. What do you think is the greatest need in this area?
3. Why do you think that most people don’t attend church?
4. If you were looking for a church in the area, what kinds of things would you look for?”
5. What advice would you give me as the pastor of a new church! What, for instance, could I do you for you?”
Analyzing the Questions
1. Are you an active member of a nearby church!
The purpose of the visitation is to meet the needs of unchurched and unbelieving people. If the people you visit are already
active members of a local congregation, wish them well and move on. Of course, you may want to explain what you are doing and why-and this may result in a good conversation.
An important word in this question is “active.” Many church members seldom participate in worship or any other church activity-
perhaps because the congregation is not meeting that person’s needs. This may lead you to ask the remaining four questions. With all the courtesy you can muster, make sure the person is indeed an active member before you move on. When someone says, “I am a Methodist,” ask which Methodist congregation he or she attends.
2. What do you think is the greatest need in this area? It is probably too confrontational to ask, “What is your greatest need?” The question therefore asks about needs in general, but the answer will reflect that person’s personal needs. If your church has an effective program to meet the need expressed, ask, “Would you be interested in a church that meets that need?” If the answer is positive, explain what the church offers and say, “We’d be glad to send further information so you can think about it.” At that point, it is appropriate to ask for the person’s name.
3. Why do you think that most people don’t attend church?
It is very important to know why your neighbors do not attend church and what they think about the church. This question will bring out many of their reasons. It is crucial at this point not to become defensive or judgmental. You are there to listen and to learn. If the person can’t think of any reason, you may wish to let it go at that or you may suggest what other people have said. The answers will begin to form a pattern that the church ought to examine closely. Frequently the answers will indicate that people think that sermons are boring, that church people are unfriendly, and that the church places too much emphasis on money.
When the church reviews the responses it should ask, “What changes can we make to remove some of these objections?”
4. If you were looking for a church in the area, what kinds of things would you look for! The fourth question gets at these same concerns in a different way and so may elicit different responses. The question attempts again to discover the person’s needs and the kind of church this person might attend.
5. What advice would you give me as the pastor of a new church? What, for instance could I do for you?
The final question will have to be rephrased, of course, if someone other than a pastor does the calling: “What advice would you give our church so we can help people more effectively? For example, what could Fellowship Church do for you?” This question may well come as a surprise for many people because they think of the church as always telling them what to do. This question reverses the roles and makes the issue personal: What can we do for you? On occasion there will be little response to this question. Many times, however, this question will tell people that the church is interested in them and their views-and a good conversation will begin. If there is, indeed, something the church can do for the person, be sure to follow up.
There may also be people interested in the results of the needs survey. If the church plans to summarize the survey results, offer to send this report to anyone who expresses interest. This means opportunity to visit again or to place the home on the church’s mailing list.
How to Use This Approach
Richard Warren’s five questions were designed to help a new congregation, but they can be used in other circumstances also. With minor changes in the introduction, this is an ideal method for the new pastor of an established congregation to get acquainted
with the neighborhood or parish area.
Sometimes the church’s leadership needs to demonstrate a vital concern for meeting the needs of unbelieving and unchurched people. Too often church leaders are busy with the needs of the membership and leave evangelistic work to others. When the leadership is focused inward, the entire church soon loses its evangelistic edge. However, a couple of evenings or Saturdays spent “on the street” determining the real needs of real people will give the leadership new perspective. And it is an impressive and effective way to model evangelism and outreach to the congregation.
Should a church decide to involve its leadership in Richard Warren’s approach, a bulletin announcement should inform the congregation that the elders, deacons, and pastors will be calling in the congregation’s neighborhood. The announcement should
mention specific dates and times and urge the congregation to pray. The leadership should write up results of the visits in a report to the congregation and, together with the evangelism committee, discuss how best to meet the most prominent needs in the name of Christ.
A pastor or other church leader may decide to spend one afternoon a week for the next few months talking with the unchurched. The Warren questions are ideal for this purpose.
Regardless of who does the calling, each caller will be equipped with a clipboard to faithfully record the answers given. Following each calling occasion, the coordinator should assign visits for immediate follow-up where indicated.
Callers should, of course, distribute an attractive pamphlet about the church to each person visited. The new church developer may prefer to give printed information about himself so that he can be contacted.
Adjusting the Model
Successful models such as the one Richard Warren suggests are very useful. People soon discover, however, that they often need to adjust the model to local circumstances. This is what new church developer Dan Gritter discovered when he used the Warren questions. When Gritter began his work in Heart Lake, Ontario, he found that it would take many months to cover his potential parish area and that the questions needed to be changed.
He solved the first problem by recruiting people from neighboring churches and providing a two-hour training session.
“Later, as we gathered on a cold, wet Saturday afternoon in November, we prayed for the Holy Spirit to fill us with boldness and take away our fear (Acts 4). Then we canvassed for one hour.
In that short time we generated thirteen follow-up calls, left many flyers where people were not home, and shared a great deal
of excitement as we gathered to discuss what had happened.” An important serendipity was that the mostly young adults who
participated were freed from the fears they had about speaking the gospel. Gritter writes, “If you are perennially petrified by
the fear of speaking about your faith in Jesus, pray that the Holy Spirit will fill you with his presence. Then practice by going out and speaking to people with the rather nonthreatening questions listed. I predict that within ten to twenty calls, half, if not more, of your fear will be gone. Then it will become a matter of growing in sharing your faith as you take hold of the God-given opportunities that cross your path each week” (The Banner, May 5, 1986).
For the Heart Lake calling, Gritter changed the questions as follows:
1. Are you currently an active member of a local church! If so, which one!
2. Why have you chosen not to attend a church at this time in your life!
3. If you were to attend a church regularly, what would attract you!
4. Have you ever seriously studied the Bible?
Gritter added the last question because the ministry design of the new congregation includes a very intentional emphasis on small-group Bible study.
SIX WORSHIP INVITATION CALLING
It is always appropriate for the church to issue an invitation to worship services. Churches already do this in several ways. Check
your church sign, for instance. It should not only identify your church’s name, the pastor’s name, and the times of the worship
services, it should also make clear that visitors are welcome. It can state this in several ways: “Where Visitors Soon Become Friends” or “Guests Always Welcome” or “You Will Feel at Home at . . .” or “Everyone Welcome,” and so on. The church’s newspaper advertisement should have a similar statement, often the same slogan as is written on the church sign. If you have a regular community mailing, repeat the invitation there.
Never take for granted that unchurched people know that you are glad to have them come. One way to communicate your desire to welcome visitors is to set aside several of the most convenient parking places for visitors. Use a prominent sign for this purpose. This practice also enables parking attendants and greeters to identify visitors immediately and to welcome them
cordially. Churches that have many visitors should specify on the parking signs “Reserved for First-time Visitors.”
In addition to all this, you might canvass the church’s parish area from time to time with an invitation to worship, either by mail or in person.
Such invitations are most effective when they invite people to a specific worship service at a specific time. Research shows that formerly churched and unchurched people are most likely to come to church at Christmas and Eastertimes when the church makes special efforts for celebrating services. This is a good time to share with friends and neighbors the joy of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. Whether issued by mail or in person, the invitation should include information on a flyer or card that clearly describes the church, the occasion, the time, and the location. Be sure to indicate that quality nursery care is available and, where relevant, children’s church and the applicable ages.
Appended to this chapter is such a mailer from Shawnee Park Church for an Advent neighborhood Sunday. Pastor Ken Van De
Griend has given permission not only to reprint the flyer here but also to evaluate it in this manual. The evaluation follows.
The flyer is professionally printed and contains photographs-an effective personal touch. It offers complete information and extends an invitation not only to the worship service but also to the neighborhood Bible class (Coffee Break) and neighborhood Story Hour. The reader is invited to contact the pastor at any time.
A church that wants to print a similar flyer either for mailing or personal distribution may want to consider the following changes:
* The words “we,” “us,” and “our” appear fourteen times in the pamphlet; the words “you” and “your” five times. This proportion
should be reversed. Make every effort in your printed materials to avoid the impression that the church is only inviting people for this occasion because it is really “our” church. Rather, work to give the impression that the church exists for neighborhood as much as for the membership. For example you might change “Join us for this exciting service of worship. We’re a friendly church. Stay with us for coffee after the service” to read as follows: “Join your neighbors for this exciting service of worship. You’ll find
a cordial welcome. Stay for coffee after the service and meet your friends.”
* The word “special” is overused in many churches. The flyer speaks of a special guest speaker, special music by the senior choir, and special programs for our neighbors. In all three cases, the word should be dropped. In addition, “special programs for our neighbors” might be taken to mean “you are not welcome in our regular programs” and should be phrased as “neighborhood programs” or “other times to meet your neighbors.”
* One section of the flyer summarizes the beliefs of the church. If the flyer is intended to reach especially those people who are
Christians but not now members of a church, that is an appropriate section. But if the flyer is meant to reach especially people who are not believers and who know very little about the Christian faith, this section on beliefs should be phrased something like this: “You are invited to explore the following convictions: The Bible is the inspired Word of God and the final authority on a life
acceptable to God. A vital relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation.” Carefully evaluate the language used here.
The word “atoning,” for example, is a difficult term for most unchurched. The section on beliefs might also reflect an awareness of the reader’s needs, such as what the church believes or seeks to practice in matters of family life, friendship, mutual support, and so on.
The key to communicating with the unchurched is to think like someone who does not know or understand the Christian faith. Richard Warren puts it this way: “Learn to think like a sinner.”
This evaluation of Shawnee Park’s pamphlet does not imply that Shawnee Park’s flyer failed. On the contrary, the church executed a well-planned evangelistic event. Thirty-five visitors attended the service, five people responded to the call for commitment, and several stayed for a time of praise and sharing after the worship service. A valuable experience!
Shawnee Park mailed the invitations and also canvassed several apartment buildings near the church. Other churches might consider delivering the invitations in person. To do this, divide the church’s parish area into manageable sections and recruit as many members as necessary to distribute them by hand. Choose an appropriate time such as late afternoon or early evening for this calling. At the door callers should say simply, “Good afternoon! we’re your neighbors from Church and we’d like to invite you to a Christmas worship service next Sunday. Here’s a flyer that gives all the details.” Give the person at the door opportunity to respond.
Following are various responses you might encounter, along with suggested replies:
* “No thank you, we already have a church of our own.” Reply: “That’s wonderful, God bless you. Have a blessed Christmas.” Leave the pamphlet and depart with a smile. Or, “We’d be glad if you came anyway, but we’ll understand if you don’t. Have a blessed Christmas.”
* “Well, thank you, how nice of you.” Reply: “Will you be able to attend?”
* “No thanks, we don’t care for organized religion.” Reply: “I wouldn’t want to argue with you about that. But maybe this Christmas time you will want to join your neighbors to celebrate Christ’s birth. We’d be glad to have you even if it is just this once.”
* “I’m having company this Sunday.” Reply: “How wonderful! I hope it will be a good day for you. Perhaps you’d like to come some other Sunday. This flier tells you all about our services.”
* “No thank you; I find it hard to get around.” Reply: “That must be hard on you. Our church is barrier-free-could I pick you up
* “My husband does not care to break up his Sunday.” Reply: “We’d certainly like to have both of you come-but you are welcome to come by yourself. Perhaps you’d like to come to the neighborhood Bible class on Wednesdays.”
* “I have a little one at home that makes it hard for me to get out on Sunday morning.” Reply: “How old is your little one?” And, “We have many others who bring their toddlers to our nursery. It’s well supervised and your little one will enjoy meeting the other
Callers should always remain friendly, positive, and inviting, and listen carefully for any response that might indicate a need the church could meet or further interest in the church. In that case the caller should make a note of the name and address, asking whether a return visit to talk a little more would be welcome. If the need seems pressing, stay and seek to help.
The purpose of distributing the worship invitations in person is to give a friendly face to the church and to make personal contacts that may, upon follow-up, lead to extending the help of the church and the hope of the gospel.