As we seek to present the message of hope and wholeness of the story of Jesus to the people around us, we need to be aware of what they bring to the conversation.

A Closer Walk 1 | The Unchurched

As we seek to present the message of hope and wholeness of the story of Jesus to the people around us, we need to be aware of what they bring to the conversation.

In Western culture, the largest segment of the population is the “unchurched.” Nearly half of Americans, for example, are not affiliated with any denomination or faith. In addition to the people who have no religious affiliation, a third to a half of the 55 percent who are included in the membership statistics are dropouts who have not attended a local congregation of their faith for a year or more.

When these individuals are included in the picture, it leaves no more than about a third—and perhaps as few as one in four—who regularly participate in some religion.

In much of Western  culture, especially the large cities and their suburbs, the church today faces a secular mission. Although 95 percent of Americans indicate to pollsters that they believe in God, only 31 percent say religion is “very important” in their lives. In fact, 72 percent state a religious “preference,” a faith that they identify with even though they do not participate in its activities.

If your county has more than 45 percent unchurched population, then this is an issue that you cannot afford to ignore if you are serious about the mission of Christ. The unchurched group includes more men, younger persons, residents of the East and West coasts (in North America), and single adults. By contrast, the active member group includes more women, older persons, and residents of the Midwest and the South.

The word “Christo-pagan” is sometimes used to describe the secular, yet formally religious culture that dominates North America today: A culture in which religion is defined as entirely private, and therefore unrelated to public issues, business, professional behavior, and common values.

Secular culture includes many individuals who have no spiritual commitments and function on the basis of two principles: “If it feels good, do it” and “If it is to your advantage, control it.” Mental-health professionals report in recent decades that “narcissists”—self-centered, self-pitying persons—have become the dominant type of patient.

People who operate on these self-gratifying principles, without any spiritual reflection or discipline, often avoid getting closely involved with others. They fear becoming emotionally dependent and find it easier to handle instantaneous intimacy than deep, long-term commitments. They may be sexually promiscuous or use psychoactive substances. They often express a sense of inner emptiness and dissatisfaction with their lives. They tend to crave vivid emotional experiences and feel that others should gratify them, yet they have little interest in helping others. They are terrified of growing old and of death.

It is very difficult to interest the typical unchurched person in any type of church-related activity. They tend to be distrustful of the institutional church and uncomfortable with organized religion, even though they may have a strong interest in spirituality. These attitudes have been powerfully reinforced in recent years by various public scandals involving religious leaders.

At the same time, a 1989 survey by the Barna Research Group indicates that as many as one third of the unchurched would consider visiting a religious event under certain conditions. This survey also suggests that among those who do not attend church of any kind, the people who make up this group are more religious than they were ten years ago. Though Barna’s surveys consistently give a more conservative picture of American public opinion than do most other pollsters, it is still interesting that they indicate that 72 percent of the unchurched believe “Jesus is God or the Son of God,” 63 percent believe “the Bible is the literal or inspired word of God,” and 44 percent say they once made a commitment to Christ.1

Gallup also shows that the unchurched are less active than the churched in non-religious civic, social and charitable activities. While 35 percent of church members are active or very active in community events of a non-religious nature, only 14 percent of the un-churched report the same level of involvements. The majority of the unchurched say they are not active at all in civic, recreational, or charitable programs.2

The unchurched are not so much hostile toward Christian ideas as they are uninitiated and disinterested in the kinds of activities characteristic of church-related programs. For example, when Gallup’s interviewers asked the unchurched, “Are there any programs in which you or someone in your immediate family might be interested in participating?” the largest number mentioned summer activities for children and youth, programs for meeting human needs, family-oriented dinners and outings, recreation and camping programs, youth groups and “a place where we could go for emergency needs.” Fewer than one in twenty mentioned prayer meetings or Sunday School, and fewer than one in ten stated an interest in weekend spiritual retreats or neighborhood Bible study groups.

Bill Hybels, who founded Willow Creek Community Church in a suburb of Chicago in 1975, has formed a successful ministry with the express purpose of reaching out to the un-churched. He began with a door-to-door survey in the neighborhood and 125 core members. “Most non-churched people we talked to,” remembers Hybels, “said that church is (1) boring, (2) predictable, and (3) irrelevant.” The unchurched “do not want to be asked to say, sing, sign or give anything.” When they visit a church they “are confused by un-written rules about when to sit and stand.” Hybels “took this information very seriously” and designed a worship service that would “provide a non-threatening environment for those who wish to investigate the claims of Christ” and make it possible “to establish significant relationships with non-churched people.”3 Today he has more than 20,000 members.

When you visit Willow Creek, no one will ask your name, give you a name-tag or other device to wear, or a card to fill out. You won’t be asked to sign a guest book, to stand or even raise your hand. “Our church has visitors each week who are Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, or completely unchurched,” says associate pastor Don Cousins. “Many of these first-timers are uncomfortable with even our basic songs and prayers, not to mention the suspicion that they might be asked to speak or to find a Bible verse.” So public prayers are simple, basic and conversational; using every-day language. Worship leaders are relaxed and somewhat informal, make use of appropriate humor and try to project a feeling of warmth. The service is focused on the need for creativity. “If you traditionally start slowly or tend to get the announcements out of the way first,” says Cousins, “it is hard to pick up the momentum. We try to start strong, usually with music, and then vary the intensity level. It’s better to do a few things well than a lot of things poorly.”4

Experiments like Willow Creek and a number of Adventist congregations demonstrate that the unchurched can be evangelized. The difficulty is that it requires a different approach that many church members find comfortable.

Ministry with the unchurched often creates significant tension within the congregation; a tug-of-war between the tastes and needs of long-term church members and the needs that must be met to reach out to the unchurched in the community. To start an outreach to the unchurched, it is essential that church leaders “count the cost” and determine if they are ready to “go on mission.” It often involves a choice between faithfulness to tradition or faithfulness to mission.

1. George Gallup, Jr., The Unchurched American-Ten Years Later (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Religion Research Center, 1988).

2. Ibid.; George Gallup, Jr. and Timothy Jones, The Next American Spirituality (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Cook Communications, 2000).

3. Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002).

4. Ibid.

5. Adapted with permission from the iFollow Discipleship Resource, ©North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.