• Survey finds many unchurched would come to church if invited

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Over the past four years, I have been privileged to enter a world that I really did not know very well. It is the world of the unchurched. Now, like many Christians, I have interacted with the unchurched, worked with the unchurched, socialized with the unchurched, and witnessed to the unchurched. But I have been a Christian for more than 30 years. I really did not understand the hearts and the mind-sets of the unchurched until recently.

For the past two years, my research team and I have been involved in extensive and intensive interaction with the unchurched. We have come with our computers and pre-planned questions, but many times we would just sit back and listen for hours.

Our team has covered all 50 states and Canada listening to the unchurched. We have been among a diversity of ethnic groups and socioeconomic groups. We have been in wide-ranging demographic areas, and we have talked to as many females as males. We have listened to the unchurched with modest education, and we listened to the unchurched with doctoral degrees. We have indeed listened for thousands of hours.

Surprises and Then Some

Now we understand that a surprise is only a surprise in the eyes of the beholders. But the information you are about to read defies the conventional wisdom about the unchurched. In many ways, it goes against the grain of some "truths" we have been told.

Our research project involved 308 men and women in the United States and Canada. Every person interviewed was deemed to be both unchurched and non-Christian. While we asked some pre-determined objective questions, we also let the unchurched person speak freely. Some of the best interviews we had went off our planned script. And it was in those contexts that we often discovered some surprises. The surprises below are not listed in any particular order.

* Surprise #1: Most of the unchurched prefer to attend church on Sunday morning if they attend.

Perhaps the unchurched responded this way because that is the time they have always heard church should be. But when we asked the formerly unchurched (new Christians attending church) the same question, they gave us the same response. A very distant preference was a weeknight service other than Friday night.

"If I attended church, it would be the only time I could go regularly," said Al V. of Tulsa. "I work five days a week, and I like to go home to my family at night. And we almost always have some activity that one of our kids is involved in on Saturdays. I just think Sunday is the best time. And Sunday morning is the best time, because we get the kids to bed at a decent hour on Sunday night."

Are there any groups that prefer a day of worship other than Sunday among the unchurched? Though their number is relatively small, single adults and adults who must work on Sunday seem to prefer Saturday evening worship as a fairly strong second choice to Sunday morning.

* Surprise #2: Most of the unchurched feel guilty about not attending church. Though we did not ask a specific question about their feelings about not attending church, the majority of the unchurched expressed guilt in different ways. These guilty feelings were especially prevalent among adults who had children living at home.

"Every Sunday morning I wake up and feel terrible about not taking Shanna and Tim to church," Mary G. if Sarasota, Fla., told us. "Mike [her husband] feels the same way. It's tough to start a habit of doing something you've never done before."

So, if they feel guilty, why did the unchurched continue to avoid church? As strange as it may seem to a churchgoing Christian, the church intimidates the unchurched person. They do not think they can fit in a place they have never attended. And they are uncertain about church protocol. They just fear that they will feel out of place.

Perhaps even more surprising was the generally positive attitude the unchurched had toward the church. For the vast majority of the unchurched, the church is still relevant today. Indeed many of them perceive the church to be the most relevant institution in society today.

As strange as it may seem to a churchgoing Christian, the church intimidates the unchurched person.

Is there anything that could get the unchurched to attend church? That answer led us to the next surprise.

* Surprise #3: Ninety-six percent of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend church if they are invited. Perhaps we need to pause on this response. Perhaps we need to restate it. More than nine out of 10 of the unchurched said they would come to church if they were invited. If you glean anything from this article, please remember this point.

We estimate that 160 million people in the United States are unchurched if we define unchurched as attending church two or less times in a year. If our research is close to accurate, the implications are staggering. More than 153 million people would start attending church if they were invited!

What constitutes an invitation? For many of the unchurched, it was a simple invitation to come to one's church. For others, it was an invitation that included an offer to meet someone at church to show them around or walk them in the building. In either case, the process was pretty basic. If we invite them, they will come.

The next obvious question is: Are Christians inviting non-Christians to church? The heartbreaking answer is "no." Only 21 percent of active churchgoers invite anyone to church in the course of a year. But only 2 percent of the church members invited an unchurched person to church. Perhaps the evangelistic apathy so evident in many of our churches can be explained by a simple laziness on the part of church members in inviting others to church.

Perhaps the evangelistic apathy so evident in many of our churches can be explained by a simple laziness on the part of church members in inviting others to church.

Walk with me through one more calculation. Let us suppose that, instead of 96 percent, only half of the unchurched in America would come to church if invited. That means, out of 160 million unchurched persons, 80 million would be willing to come to church. Can you imagine how many people would be reached for Christ if that happened?

We who are leaders in the church must challenge the church members. When is the last time they invited an unchurched person to church?

The answers they give could make the difference in the eternal destiny of a person. Perhaps it is time we sounded the clarion call to invite the church. It may be that simple, and it may be that profound.

* Surprise #4: Very few of the unchurched had someone share with them how to become a Christian. And Christians have not been particularly influential in their lives. The surprise is no longer a surprise in light of the previous discussion. If Christians do not invite non-Christians to church, we cannot be surprised if they do not share the gospel with or influence the unchurched.

I wish you had the same opportunity we had to listen to these unchurched persons. If you could have heard how many of the unchurched are waiting on someone to explain the way of salvation, you might have a whole new outlook on reaching these people. You might be surprised that, when some Christians may think "the time is just not right," the unchurched are wondering why we are so reticent.

* Surprise #5: Most of the unchurched have a positive view of pastors, ministers and the church. Only a few said the ministers are hypocritical, only after money, always drive nice cars, and have a condescending view of others. The scandal of the televangelists and other Christian leaders is a faded memory for most of the unchurched. And for those who still have vivid recollections of the tainted past, most do not believe that all pastors and ministers are like their fallen brethren.

Perhaps even more surprising was the generally positive attitude the unchurched had toward the church. For the vast majority of the unchurched, the church is still relevant today. Indeed many of them perceive the church to be the most relevant institution in society today.

This surprising response then begs another question. If the unchurched see the church in a positive light, and if they perceive the church to be relevant, why are they still unchurched? The answer seems to be twofold. First, some of the unchurched have visited churches, but their experiences have been negative. Unfriendliness, unkempt facilities, poor signage, and general confusion have been some of the descriptions about the church from the unchurched. What is amazing is that most of these men and women still view the church positively after a negative experience. These men and women tend to be a forgiving lot, even if they are hesitant to return to church.

But the second reason for their not attending church takes us back to the third surprise. Most of the unchurched have never been invited to church. And most of them would attend if invited. If you read little else in this newsletter, hear the main point. The unchurched must be invited to church.

I hope these five surprises have engendered interest. Our time with the unchurched in this study was an incredible learning experience. In the next issue, we will conclude this article with five more surprises from the unchurched.

* This article originally appeared in the October 2002 of The Rainer Report.

User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Deanne Heitkamp
    20577805
    I am one of those who never invite anyone to church. I hardly know anyone who doesn't attend church. Maybe we need to be challenged to get out there where the unchurched are and make some friendships.
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