Tuesday afternoon Lifeway Research released the results of a survey that should give every pastor and church member pause. The information will call into question some of the strategies churches and church leaders have relied on for many, many years. Now, about a third of non-church attenders are now open to attending a worship service with a friend. Fewer are interested in a small group for people curious about God.
It may be that “invest and invite” should be reconsidered if the invite is to a “churchy” type of activity.
As Christians in America hope to reach our communities with the gospel, we should learn from the current realities. According to Lifeway Research those realities include:
1. Unchurched Americans remain open and interested in conversations about faith.
This puts the burden of gospel work squarely where it belongs: on the shoulders of believers empowered by the Spirit of God. It may be too much to say non-churched people are waiting for someone to bring up the subject of faith, but they are still open to such conversations.
Followers of Jesus must not be fearful. We should be as natural with the gospel as we are with any other subject, trusting that God will use such conversations as seeds on fertile soil. If we aren’t talking about Jesus we won’t reach the people who would give us a hearing.
2. Just over half of unchurched Americans do not think about the afterlife very often. But, those who do think about the afterlife do so more than once a month.
Many years ago the question “If you were standing before God and He asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’” was the starting point for a witnessing encounter. We now live in a time when many non-churched people do not think about the afterlife at all. Such a question might not move them into a spiritual conversation.
On the other hand, around 3-in-10 non-churched Americans think about life-after-death at least once a month. One in ten people think about it daily. This is still pretty open territory.
The key to being effective in our culture is getting to know people well enough to know what they think and tailor our gospel approach accordingly. We won’t be effective if we assume everyone has an innate concern about dying. Many people simply do not.
3. Most unchurched Americans are not interested in a “seeker” small group.
For many years churches have featured the “evidence the demands a verdict” type of seeker group for those curious about God. Today, a full third of unchurched Americans are “extremely” unlikely to attend such a group with another 41 percent “unlikely” to attend. Together, nearly three-fourths of all unchurched people surveyed indicated no interest in such groups. It is notable they eschew seeker groups “sponsored by a local Christian Church.”
The survey found among those who would be willing to learn in a small group, 23 percent would meet in a church—more than any other specific location, including homes, coffee shops, and at work. As such, both organic and structured groups could be helpful, but training people to recognize organic/relational opportunities should become a new priority for churches. We can’t put all our eggs in a basket no one picks from.
4. Most unchurched Americans would be interested in a meeting that is community oriented, such as a neighborhood safety meeting.
A number of years ago one of the pastors on the staff where I was lead pastor asked me, “Why don’t we have a dog grooming class at the church one Saturday?” I almost choked.
We never did the dog grooming, but maybe he was onto something by thinking about what was important to the people in our community. Why not host community meetings with the local law enforcement on personal safety, or how to spot human trafficking, or something related to where you live?
If large segments of the unchurched American population are uninterested in worship services and uninterested in seeker groups, what does capture their attention? The answer might be finding out what is important to the community and meeting them there. Perhaps they’ll be more interested in our community of faith when they know we are interested in their community of residence.
5. Most unchurched Americans would help a church with a community project.
Just over 50 percent of unchurched Americans would join a church in an activity that benefits the community where they live.
To take advantage of this interest means churches will need to accept unchurched community members as part of their community crew. Church members can’t worry what some might think about the smoker, the tattooed woman, the dude with the nose-ring, or the businessman who drinks too much working alongside the chairman of deacons picking up trash in town. Working together in the community isn’t the same as unregenerate baptism.
Community activity without a direct gospel connection is unpalatable to some church leaders. They perceive it as “watering down” the gospel. But, until we have earned the interest of the uninterested they aren’t hearing our gospel presentation anyway. Community activity, instead of being a substitute for the gospel, may be a bridge to it.
We have to provide unchurched and unbelieving people an opportunity to trust us with a life-changing message before we assume they have declined it. More than ever we must plant and water with patience. Germination takes time and fruit isn’t born overnight, but God still gives increase.