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Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them
By Thom S. Rainer
ZondervanCopyright © 2001 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShattering Myths about the Unchurched
You Christians really need help. -"PM23" in the U4Christ Internet Chat Room
Perhaps the reasons for writing this book are obvious. Perhaps if one wonders why we need research on the unchurched, the answer is easy: because we need to reach these people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Yet in my role as a church consultant, I find a lot of confusion about the lost and unchurched population. Many Christians do not realize how unevangelized and unchurched America has become.
Our Changing Country
Only 41 percent of Americans attend church services on a typical weekend. Each new generation becomes increasingly unchurched. Slightly over one-half (51%) of the builder generation (born before 1946) attends church in a typical weekend. But only 41 percent of the boomers (born 1946 to 1964) and 34 percent of the busters (born 1965 to 1976) attend church on a given weekend.
Our recent research on the younger generation, the bridgers (born 1977 to 1994), indicates that only 4 percent of the teenagers understand the gospel and have accepted Christ, even if they attend church. Of the entire bridger generation, less than 30 percent attend church. America is clearly becoming less Christian, less evangelized, and less churched. Yet too many of those in our churches seem oblivious to this reality. The primary concern for some is status quo for comfort's sake.
The growing ranks of the unchurched are not due to problems limited to certain geographical areas. For certain there are areas like Yolo County, California, in which only 28 percent of residents are claimed by any church, probably because of the influence of New Age and other alternative religions and the presence of the University of California-Davis. While we shake our heads knowingly that Yolo County is 72 percent unchurched, do we realize that areas like Menifee County, Kentucky (population 5,200), are 87 percent unchurched?
Nevertheless, religion and religious values remain vital to people. Over 80 percent of American adults said that "religious faith is very important in [their lives]." Even groups that are often perceived to be less overtly religious affirmed the preceding statement, including residents of the Northeast (77%), single adults (79%), baby busters (81%), and liberals (74%) (see figure 1.2).
Yet with religion being so important in the lives of the vast majority of Americans, church attendance and church affiliation have shown no improvement. The percentage of adults attending church on a given weekend in 1999 was the same level as it was in 1986.
Despite a plethora of resources on reaching those who do not attend church, the population of the unchurched in America continues to increase. Noted one Christian researcher, "At the same time that in America a multitude of new churches are being launched, and the mass media continue to report on the impact of megachurches, the number of unchurched adults is also on the rise."
Our research team has come to similar conclusions. Less than 4 percent of churches in America meet our criteria to be an effective evangelistic church (see the definition in the introduction). And as noted earlier, only one person is reached for Christ for every 85 church members in America.
Paradigm Shifts in Methodologies But Not Principles
Once when my oldest son, Sam, was four years old, he started running a high fever. At first my wife and I were not too concerned, since young children often have fevers with viruses and infections. We calmly rationalized that his doctor could remedy the situation quickly.
The physician came to no conclusive diagnosis, and the fever did not break. We soon found ourselves in an emergency room with Sam, as numerous attendants tried again and again to get his fever to break. At one point the worried doctor looked at us and said, "Pray that we can find the problem. All we are doing now is treating the symptoms."
To this day I remember asking people to pray for his healing and to pray that the doctors would diagnose the problem. Thankfully, Sam is now a healthy young man completing college. The doctors never discovered the cause of Sam's illness. The fever broken without explanation.
Like that worried doctor, too many churches in America today have come to a diagnosis regarding the unchurched and are trying to treat symptoms. Only a small percentage of churches have recognized the problems of a growing lost and unchurched population in America. They have made intentional and successful efforts to reach the unchurched. They have been the "success stories" of evangelism that our research team has reported over the past decade. Many churches, however, have been addressing only the symptoms. A certain worship style, the latest small group, a new church vernacular, or the "right" church name is seen as a panacea to the problem of not reaching the unchurched. Please understand my comments. Many times these "symptoms" need serious work. The church may need to change its worship style or rethink its name. Yet the real "treatment" must be at a deeper and more profound level.
As I have reported different phases of our research across the nation, some people have told me of churches that are growing with methods different than our research indicates. Certainly we have found a few exceptions. Upon further research, however, we found that most of these growing churches were not reaching the unchurched population; most of their growth was from the transfer of active Christian church members from other churches.
The Formerly Unchurched Share the Reality of the Status of the Unchurched
Our motivation in researching the formerly unchurched was to discover the problem that needed addressing rather than treating the symptoms only. Over 350 men and women who gave us their time and shared their hearts taught us much. Indeed, the formerly unchurched themselves shattered some myths about reaching the unchurched population. In this chapter I share nine of those myths.
Myth #1: Most unchurched think and act like Anglo, middle-class suburbanites with no church background.
Most people who read this book will acknowledge that the unchurched come from a variety of backgrounds. Yet most church strategies for intentionally reaching the unchurched in a particular community seem to be cookie-cutter approaches originating in areas that may have little in common with the church's community.
William B. is a twenty-three-year-old African-American with little church background. His grandmother, when asked by William what she wanted for her birthday, said simply, "I want you to go to church with me next Sunday." Reluctantly and seemingly trapped, William agreed.
William was pleasantly surprised. The Memphis-area Baptist church was alive with the hearty singing of black gospel music. The pastor was a great communicator who seemed to know how to speak to the African-American male. He pulled no punches on issues of sin, responsibility, and commitment.
No one had to invite William back to church, although several did. He asked his grandmother questions about God, Christ, and the gospel, and she patiently explained to him how he could become a Christian. He then became involved in various church ministries and programs.
"I just didn't know what I was missing," said William. "I can't understand why Christians aren't beating down doors to share the gospel. Why didn't someone tell me about Jesus before I turned twenty-three?"
William B. is not the stereotypical unchurched person conveyed in books and at conferences. He prefers black gospel music. He is challenged by direct and confrontational preaching, and sermons of an hour in length do not bother him. In fact, many of the unchurched "rules" were broken by the Memphis church when William visited the first time. But he loved every minute of it, and he returned.
One of my favorite books on the unchurched is Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary by Lee Strobel. Strobel, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune with a law degree, was one of the newspaper's authorities on legal issues. He was also an atheist. But through the ministry of Willow Creek Community Church in a Chicago suburb, Strobel met Christ. He eventually became a teaching pastor at Willow Creek, where he stayed for many years before accepting a similar position at Saddle-back Valley Community Church in Southern California (hereafter referred to as Saddleback Church). The book is a fascinating account of Strobel's conversion and how Willow Creek did many things well to reach him. His primary thesis is that the church must understand the context in which unchurched people live.
Unfortunately, numerous church leaders have decided that it is the methodological model of Willow Creek that reached Strobel rather than a philosophical commitment to reach the unchurched in their context. The methods used to reach Lee Strobel probably would have proven highly ineffective in the previous examples of Joe M. in Kentucky and William B. in Memphis. But they may have been effective with Donna C. in Detroit.
Our study has reminded us with no equivocation that the unchurched are not a monolithic group. The next myth is but one example of this reality.
Myth # 2: The unchurched are turned off by denominational names in the church name.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises in our study was that the name of the church had very little influence on reaching the unchurched. For the most part, neither the presence nor the absence of a denominational name influenced the formerly unchurched's decision to join a church.
When we asked straightforwardly, "Did the name of the church influence your decision to join?" we often heard pauses, as if the interviewee was unclear about the question. The pause would often be followed with
Excerpted from Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them by Thom S. Rainer Copyright © 2001 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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