2-2 The Potential Of The Unchurched In The West
It seems to me that much of our doctrinal preaching is aimed at converting members of one church to another, i.e. ourselves. We mark our Bibles and become expert at explaining why, e.g., Revelation 12 doesn’t mean that a personal devil literally got thrown down from the 99th floor. But rarely do we succeed in shifting the world view of the person with whom we are debating. Yet other such contacts, such as many who attend our seminars, are favourably impressed with our teaching, our Bible knowledge, but they see no need to change churches. We’re not getting very far with converting this world to the wonderful truths with which we have been blessed. One of the things that perhaps holds us back is the fact that we are still very tied in to our 19th century roots. Then, our community grew through doctrinal argument and persuasion of other denominational members to join us. But now, the times have changed. The truth remains the same. But the environment is so different. For whatever reason, we’re not attracting that many people to cross over from other churches into ours.
In Europe, it is widely apparent that the continent is now well and truly
" post Christian" , even if our history leaves us with a residual
culture of 'Christendom'. " Western civilisation is still defined
by Christianity, but as a civilisation that used to be Christian"
(1). Writing in a European context, James
Berkeley observes: " That dubiously vain rooster called Christendom-
the organisational inbreeding of religion, culture and state- has gone
the way of all flesh... Make no mistake: the cultural phenomenon of Christendom
is dead" (2). " The church has
indeed lost its role as the keystone in the arch of European culture"
(3) . " In unprecedented numbers, the
British people since the 1960s have stopped going to church, have allowed
their church membership to lapse... the two generations who grew to maturity
in the last thirty years of the twentieth century, stopped going to Sunday
School, stopped entering confirmation or communicant classes, and rarely,
if ever, stepped inside a church to worship in their entire lives"
(4). And this is not just true of Protestant
groups: " Attendance at mass in Roman Catholic churches [in the UK]
fell from nearly two million to just over one million between 1965 and
1996" (5). All this creates a huge challenge-
how to reach the masses of unchurched people? No longer can we see our
witness in the Western world as doctrinal persuasion of existing Christians
to leave one church and enter another. We're dealing with a mass of people
who truly have little clue about Christianity at all.
My suggestion is that we turn our attention away from those who already are active Christians, towards the “unchurched”, defined as those who haven’t recently attended a church service. George Barna has recently published the results of an extensive survey of America’s “unchurched”(6) . The results are really fascinating.
There are about 100 million “unchurched” people in the USA, and many millions more in the other Western countries. In Barna’s surveys of this group in America, he found that 66% of them believe that “my religious faith is very important in my life”. They are potentially interested. They’ve not switched off to God, they’ve not become atheists. Half of them pray to God once / week. One fifth of them read Christian magazines; a quarter of them listen to Christian radio.
Amazingly, 70% of them said that they believe that “the devil, or Satan, is not a living being but is a symbol of evil”. Barna, an evangelical, laments this; but for us, this should be an amazing encouragement to reach out into this group of people, who have already come to agreement with us upon an area where we usually run into insurmountable differences with those of other churches. And again Barna has to lament, but we take courage, that 63% said that they believe that “the Holy Spirit is a symbol of God’s presence or power but is not a living entity”. Just pause and realize what these figures mean. 70 million Americans believe that “the devil, or Satan, is not a living being but is a symbol of evil”. And that’s just in America… And 38% of the unchurched interviewed said that they “probably” will return to a church- but they’re still looking around.
We tend to feel that we can never sensibly compete with the charismatic preachers of other groups. But amongst the unchurched, “the least stock was placed in whether the leader of the organization is “articulate and charismatic”: only 12% said they deem that to be very important”. Likewise the size of the church or the travel time to the meeting placed were seen by the unchurched as insignificant.
I have very often heard Western believers lament that their societies aren’t interested in the Truth because they are too wealthy. I’ve never been sure that this really is a major factor, and Barna’s data confirm this; for he shows that the household income of the unchurched is actually lower than that of the churched in America [$36,697 compared to $39,245 for the “churched”].
Barna enquired as to the personal characteristics of the unchurched compared
to the churched. He concluded: “One of the important revelations
in this research is that unchurched people are not “people persons”.
They tend to be more combative, less relational, lonelier and less
flexible”. And it’s hard to get such types to easily fit in to ecclesial
life and structures. Yet these very characteristics were the hallmark
of 19th century converts to the true Gospel, from what
we can tell. The message of the Truth surely appeals to these types
in a way which other religions don’t. Yet if we accept that many
of our converts may be “less relational, lonelier…more combative”,
it will be fatal to bring them in to a community where, e.g., they
are expected to follow a certain rigid dress code, or articulate
their separation from the world in the way that “we” generally tend
to. If we want to seriously attract the unchurched, then we have
simply got to make our ecclesias places where those who aren’t “people
persons” and tend to be “more combative” can the more comfortably
The West is an individualistic culture- people locked up in their
apartments, obsessed with their job, few friends, small and often
dysfunctional family, and with little permanence to relationships.
We can usefully approach this culture through internet contact with
such people- and offering to baptize people simply into Christ rather
than into any church membership has proven attractive (7). Following
up through online breaking of bread likewise has proven useful.
And yet of course the whole point of true Christianity is that it
can't be lived alone, in front of a computer screen, by merely tapping
keys on a keyboard in a certain sequence. It may start out like
this, but ultimately, it mut go further, into the very things which
21st century society finds so difficult- personal relationships,
patiently continued in, forgiveness, commitment, loyalty, long term
care for others... And of course one of our roles in this world
is to give other people a vision of what life can be like freed
from the bondage of selfishness and total individualism (8).
Matching And Mismatching
We must ask whether the Western brotherhood is geared up for this tremendous potential ‘market’. Barna comments upon his surveys: “Unchurched people are more likely to respond to a personal invitation than they are to surrender to pressure to belong to a group. They will be attracted via personal relationships more than media marketing…expect the unchurched to resist highly-polished marketing efforts. They are sceptical of institutions, especially of slick religiosity”. Our ecclesias are making efforts to preach. But the “highly polished marketing efforts” won’t [and don’t] connect to the millions of the unchurched. And we’re falling down again and again because we just don’t preach as we should through personal invitation to these folks. We’d rather, perhaps, put our money in the collection bag towards a slick presentation, than dare talk to our neighbour… Two thirds of the unchurched say they would respond positively to a personal invitation to attend a church if it came from someone they knew. And yet 73% of them said they had not been invited to attend church! The potential here is just enormous.
Barna asked the unchurched what they wanted to be described as by the “churches”. 52% of them said they’d like to be called “inquirers”; most of them strongly disliked terms such as “nonbeliever” or “the lost”. I think back with horror to how in the ecclesia of my youth there were special hymnbooks provided for “the stranger” who dared to come to the Sunday evening lecture! In fairness, here I think we have improved; but we need to bear in mind that searching people want to be validated for who they are. Barna asked how the unchurched wanted to be treated should they enter a church meeting. A large 76% said that they did not want anything special done for them or to be treated any differently than anyone else. We need to bear that in mind. Significantly, Barna in an earlier survey in 1990 had asked the unchurched the same question- and only 56% said that this is how they’d like to be treated if they went to church. So clearly there is an increasing fear of being ‘forced’ into something they don’t want, or being treated in a condescending way.
Only 17% of the unchurched want a “service with little participation, where the people watch the leaders conduct the service”. Clearly enough, the days of lecturing an audience are over and done with. The unchurched want participation, discussion, a chance to express their opinion…and the format of our meetings needs to reflect this need. Likewise 85% said that they did not want “sermons which are based on studying a specific book of the Bible, with a verse by verse explanation of those passages”. All this reflects the overall trend in society towards greater participation in events, to control our environment, and the fear which there is of isolation in a crowd. This is perhaps also behind the unchurched’s preference for small churches rather than big ones. And we have no problem in meeting that criterion!
And once we have the unchurched giving us a hearing, how are we going to relate to them? They are “likely to reject sermons that tell them what to do. They prefer stories and questions that challenge what and how they think” [p. 40]. We have to ask whether our teaching style is still rooted in lecturing at an audience- or whether like Paul, we have adjusted our teaching style to make it relevant to our hearers [consider how he understands the cultural background of his hearers in his preaching in Acts 17]. This doesn’t involve changing our doctrinal content; I’m just referring to how we deliver the same material. And compare Barna’s comments with the teaching methodology of the Lord Himself: “[the unchurched] prefer stories and questions that challenge…”. Isn’t this exactly what the parables were? The Lord incorporated elements of unreality into His stories which arrest His hearers and make them think. For example, no normal shepherd would leave the 99 in the wilderness and go seek one lost one- but such is the enormous value placed by the Lord on the individual. No King would hold a banquet and nobody want to come- but such is the tragedy and hurt of humanity’s rejection of the Gospel.
Then there is the content of what we preach. We have grown somewhat shy of talking about our doctrines up front, because this tends to put off those from other churches. But the unchurched, according to their survey replies, are saying that the doctrinal position of the church they might attend isn’t important to them, it’s not a barrier to them; what they are more sensitive to is how the people treat each other and treat them. We have shown above that some of our key doctrines are actually of tremendous interest to the unchurched. So let’s not be ashamed to talk about them. But we also need to show them the relevance of our doctrines in daily life. Thus 70% of them believe that God created the world; but relatively few of them would agree that God rules the world today. They clearly haven’t thought through the implications of the doctrine they claim to believe; for the implication would be that God created the world only to as it were vanish out of sight, or He somehow lost dominion over it. In this case, we need to draw out the radical implications of believing that God was and therefore is the creator and sustainer of all, and that He is therefore just as active in human life today as He ever was.
Summing up, the unchurched population of the West is probably closer to us than many churched people. So often those who have converted to us from ‘outside’ have told me that what thrilled them about our doctrines was that they had passively understood a lot of them that way too, but it was us who articulated them in a way that made sense, it was us who codified what they realize they had already concluded. I’m not saying we should give up efforts at turning misbelievers into believers. Not at all. But let’s realize what huge potential there is in the millions of the “unchurched” out there.
(1) Robert Jensen, quoted in Stuart Murray,
Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (Carlisle:
Paternoster, 2004) p. 18.
(2) James Berkeley, Essential Christianity
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) p. 10.
(3) Grace Davie, Europe: The Exceptional
Case- Parameters of Faith in the Modern World (London: Darton, Longman
and Todd, 2002) p. xi.
(4) Callum Brown, The Death of Christian
Britain (London: Routledge, 2001) p. 5.
(5) Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom:
Church and Mission in a Strange New World (Carlisle: Paternoster,
2004) p. 6.
(6) George Barna, Grow Your Church
From The Outside (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2002).
(7) For more insight here, see Robert Bellah, et al., Habits
of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); from a different
perspective Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and
Urbanization in Theological Perspective
(8) See Walter Brueggemann, Living Toward A Vision: Biblical
Reflections on Shalom (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1976).