Church can be a very encouraging and comfortable place to be…if church life is part of your routine! But imagine what it is like for an unbeliever or someone new to walk into your local church. There are unfamiliar people, odd customs, strange songs, and unknown terminology. For many people, church is a foreign country! So how do we reach people in our community that are not following Christ and not familiar with church life?
Thom Rainer and LifeWay Christian Resources set out to answer that question. To do so, they interviewed 353 “formerly unchurched people.” These were non-Christians, not involved in church, who had become active in a local church and become Christians within the previous two years. In 2001, the culmination of this project was released: “Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them.” Rainer contends that most books and studies done on this topic are based on people that are still unchurched, whereas this project focused on unchurched people who had recently become serious about Christ and active in their church! And as Rainer has said more recently here, the principles in the book still hold true.
Having read through the book, studied the Word of God, and folded in a few insights of my own… I have boiled the wisdom of the book down to seven principles for reaching the unchurched. (Note: in this post I will use the terms “unchurched” and “unbeliever” interchangeably, although I realized you can be “a churched unbeliever.”)
- Build a culture and priorities that demonstrate concern and love for the lost. Jesus received sinners and ate with them; we need to be ready to do the same. Church leaders and regular attenders need to assume that unbelievers are regularly visiting and act accordingly. Be welcoming to visitors. Use language that is down to earth. Explain what you are doing in the worship service and why. This will be helpful to the churched family as well! Yes, we want to be God-centered, not seeker-centered, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also be sensitive to the needs of seekers. After all, we don’t want to be insensitive to the seekers God sends our way!
- Foster genuine and purposeful relationships with people outside the church. Well over half of the formerly unchurch people interviewed indicated that a relationship with someone was a driving factor for coming to the church. Often God will draw people into friendship with other Christians, or even into Christian community, before he draws them to Christ. But, don’t just get to know your neighbors so you can invite them to church! Genuinely care about them and invest in them. Invite them over. Share your life. The apostle Paul and his partners said they were “ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
- Train up a hospitality team – and an entire congregation – that is friendly and attentive. Friendliness was a major reason 88% of the previously unchurched connected to church. We need an open culture that welcomes visitors who might not look, dress, or talk like a typical Christian. When you meet a new person, don’t assume they are a follower of Christ. Practice the 3-minute rule: during the 3 minutes before church and the 3 minutes after church, resist the urge to talk to other church members and talk to people you don’t know! Ask open-ended questions and listen to them. God calls us to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time” (Colossians 4:5).
- Develop pastors and leaders who are relational and passionate. 1 Timothy 3:7 lists that elders are to be well-respected by those outside the church. Over 90% of the previously unchurched people that were interviewed said that the pastor and the preaching played a key part in them coming back to church. Both in their public teaching and personal interaction, pastors and leaders need to be: Authentic (down-to-earth, admit mistakes, connect faith to life), Personable (friendly, relate well with others, good communicator), Resolved (confident, hold deep convictions, meaty preaching), and Passionate (cast vision, committed and enthusiastic about the mission).
- Strive for excellence with church facilities and ministry programs. An unchurched person who visits doesn’t notice the same things as a churched person. But they notice if things are done with excellence or mediocrity. This relates to their first impressions of the facility, but also more importantly the children’s ministry. Visitors want an experience for their kids that is clean, safe, secure, and organized.
- Convey doctrinal beliefs in a way that is clear and uncompromising. People visiting a church because they are seeking truth and looking for hope don’t want something wishy-washy. Churches that teach and present what they believe in a way that is understandable and unambiguous is appealing to newcomers. Speak the truth lovingly, and show how your beliefs drive action and change lives.
- Articulate the church’s purpose and direction. Spiritual seekers and those new to church are often looking to contribute and make an impact outside of themselves. Can the mission of the church be easily communicated? Are others invited to participate in this mission? 62% of the formerly unchurched said that getting involved in ministry was the glue that held them in the church.
So whether you are a leader or an active member in your local church, how are you helping reach the unchurched? What unbelievers are you getting to know and love? How can you help create a culture that welcomes seekers looking for the abundant life of Christ?