Reaching the Unchurched

Reaching the Unchurched
Paul Campbell

Although the United States still has a higher level of church attendance than any other country, “red flags” abound showing that the number of Christian followers is declining. Consider these facts:

* Most mainline Protestant denominations have lost membership the past few years.

* A recent survey by LifeWay Christian Resources, a Christian research firm, showed that most young adults aged 18 to 29 (65 to 67 percent) don’t pray, don’t worship and don’t read the Bible. Fifty percent do not attend church at least weekly.

* A 2007 study by LifeWay found that seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30, who went to church regularly in high school, said they quit attending by age 23. And 30 percent of those had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30.

* The percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Christians dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 77 percent in 2001, according to Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. This is an unprecedented drop of almost 1 percentage point per year.

Some Dallas County churches are responding with new approaches. These include reaching out more to the community; changing the music and structure to appeal to youth; creating a more informal setting; placing less emphasis on buildings and more emphasis on people; and using modern technology such as the Internet, e-mail and Facebook to reach potential church goers.

Reaching Out to Community

Twenty-five years ago, most people naturally “came to the church,” according to Doug Earls, pastor of Calvary Chapel Free Will Baptist Church in Buffalo for the past 21 years. That’s not true today, so the church must “go to the people,” according to Earls.

Ken Morris, pastor of the Tunas Christian Church, agreed, saying that 30 years ago it was difficult to find a person who had never been in a church, whereas today, “there are two or three generations of non-Christians,” he said.

To counteract this trend, many churches are now reaching out to the community more than in the past and are spending more time and money to help solve community problems. They are often doing this, however, in low-key ways without being too aggressive.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Earls said, “and people can see when you are trying to help people rather than just talking. Jesus was a man of action when it came to helping people.”

One example of this new approach is Heart2Heart, a local food bank that was started — and is now supported — by several Buffalo churches, including Calvary Chapel, Buffalo First Methodist, Grace Community United Methodist, First Christian, First Baptist and Bible Baptist. Also, the Dallas County Emergency Response Unit, headed by David Beltz, started out as an organization of mostly Calvary members, but now has expanded into a community organization.

Prairie Chapel United Methodist Church near Urbana and The Lord’s House of Prayer and Praise in Buffalo also have food banks. Calvary Chapel also has held a free dinner for the public each July for 18 or 19 years, along with a fireworks display. In the past four years, the Tunas Christian Church, pastored by Ken Morris, has taken a similar approach, sponsoring an antique car show in July as a form of “outreach.” “We don’t try to indoctrinate people at the car show,” Morris said. “But there’s a man who will soon be baptized, and his first contact was the car show.”

Tunas Christian, which is an independent church not affiliated with any denomination, also started a food bank approximately three years ago. In addition, church members — particularly current and retired Skyline teachers  — have tried to become more involved with helping the Skyline school system, including offering after-school tutoring.

Grace Community United Methodist’s sanctuary was built with the idea of also being a community center, complete with basketball goals. Many community organizations have held events there, and it hosts an annual Easter egg hunt every year for all interested kids. Both Grace and Calvary Chapel were used as community shelters during the 2007 ice storm.

Grace Pastor Ken Johnson pointed out that the Methodist Church’s membership nationwide is aging. With this in mind, the denomination has initiated what is known as the “healthy church initiative” to try to make changes in how the church reaches the public. Johnson and church members are now exploring ways to “build bridges to the community.”

Keith Pyles, pastor of First Assembly of God church in Buffalo, said churches have been too restrictive in the past. For example, for years churches didn’t open up to homosexuals or drug users. “Many youth are trying both worlds,” Pyles said. “We must preach against the sin, but love the sinner. We must open our doors to them or they can’t be saved.” He added that churches have been too slow to change. “We must put our face in front of the community,” Pyles said.

The Bible Baptist Church in Buffalo is perhaps one of the most conservative churches in town in some ways, but also is progressive in making changes in music and its approach to getting children active in the church. Pastor Robert Baker is concerned, however, about offering so much entertainment that the central message of Christianity is forgotten.

He stressed that too many Christians can’t express what their church is all about and can’t answer questions posed by the unchurched. He said the old-fashioned way of getting people to come to church — what he calls multiplication — is still the best. “We’ve got to stop thinking in terms of thousands, and get people to church one at a time,” said Baker, who has seen average church attendance increase from 90 to 180 in the nine years he has been pastor. His formula is:

1. Encourage our church members to bring their family to church.

2. Encourage them to bring their friends to church.

3. Encourage them to invite to church people they meet throughout the week.

Allen Howell, pastor of the Buffalo United Methodist Church, emphasized that each church needs a more defined mission. “We talk more about our history than our future,” he said. “Too many churches don’t have a vision. If we wait for people to walk through the door, the church will die.”

He agrees with Baker about how to reach people outside the church. “Members should invite someone to our fellowship dinners, and they should encourage one person once a month,” he said. “Encouragement is free, and I would challenge everyone to purposely look for someone to reach out to.”

This article “Reaching the Unchurched” by Paul Campbell was excerpted from: website. June 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”