Reaching the unchurched
Where do we go from here? (Matthew 28:16-20)
During May to July of 2022, Simon, the Minister, took a sabbatical and set himself the task of investigating why so many in the UK are unchurched and why many of our churches face a terminal decline with ever decreasing numbers attending.
Below is an overview of what Simon investigated.
"Early on in my sabbatical I attended a church that could probably hold around 100 people. On this particular morning there were 13 of us present. I was the youngest there, the average age being around 80-90. A retired minister gave the talk and it was direct and honest. He referred to the disciples of Jesus who, until receiving the Holy Spirit, were locked away “for fear of the Jews”. His point was that we can do nothing in our own strength to further the Kingdom of God. Only Spirit filled Christians had the heavenly authority to transform the world. He then suggested that much of the church in the UK was like a person stuck on a treadmill: going round and round, putting a lot of effort in but in reality getting nowhere – a declining witness, declining numbers, declining vision. And his conclusion was this: under the current trajectory, many of the UK churches will be closed in 20 years time as the dwindling congregations pass away, one by one.
After the talk I put a question to him that he seemed either reluctant, or unable to answer: “With all that you have just shared in mind, where do we go from here?” Over the last 12 weeks I have been reading a number of books concerning the state of the church and why the majority of the population no longer attend a place of worship, who the writers refer to as the “unchurched.” It is true that vast swathes of the church in many denominations are in a terminal decline and yet across the world, there are a number of what the writers call “bright spot churches” that are bucking the trend and actually drawing to their communities the unchurched in their hundreds and even thousands. How are these bright spot churches able to reach the unchurched and grow whilst the many other churches are not, and face decline?
I have identified 3 primary characteristics present in each of these bright spot churches that are determining their success amongst the unchurched. Let’s take a look at them.
A willingness to change:
As I was leaving the church I referred to a few moments ago, one of its members said to me “no-one seems to want to come here anymore.” And unwittingly, she summed up the crisis the church faces in a nutshell!
During the 1960’s around 50% of the UK population attended church on a regular basis. In those days we were living in a culture where going to church was not only normal practice, but also a socially acceptable thing to do. Whole generations of families would attend together. As a child born in 1962, I used to attend church with my grandmother, my parents and my sisters. So did millions of others. And on a scale of 1-10, 1 being atheist and 10 being a born again believer, the majority of the population were around level 8. Just a little extra push like a Billy Graham rally or an evangelistic outreach would nudge people to level 10, a committed believer of Christ.
Fast forward to 2022 and everything has changed. Our society has become secularised, the Christian faith, now seen as just “one of many,” has been pushed into the shadows of everyday life. Today, less than 5% of our population attend church and on that scale of 1-10, most people would be pitched at level 3 - a long way to go to get them to faith in Christ!
Now here is the key: unlike many of our declining churches who find themselves stuck in the 1960’s model, still believing that people will just come to their churches, the bright spot churches have grasped the reality of the situation – they won’t! And so, with a willingness to change, they have chosen to do things differently, not solely focussed on the needs of their aging congregations, but increasingly focussed on the needs of the unchurched. These bright spot churches have had a shift in vision from “inwards to outwards”, from “congregational to unchurched” and as a result, they are experiencing new growth amongst unchurched people.
Tony Campolo sums up where the bright spot churches stand at this current moment:
“Jesus never says to the poor “come find the church” but he says to those of us in the church, “Go into the world and find the poor.”
A willingness to GO and mentor unchurched people:
There is a church in the USA that currently has around 200 weekly worshippers and 70% of those worshipping were, up until a few years ago, unchurched people. Compare that statistic with many of our churches that find themselves in a slow, terminal decline. What is it that this bright spot church has done to move from decline to rapid growth of new believers?
Simply this: the members of its congregation have accepted the call to move out from the cloisters and move amongst the unchurched, befriending them, gaining their trust, living life with them, mentoring them, showing them the better way of living – the Way of Christ and, in the course of time, inviting them to join their spiritual community of brothers and sisters. These church members have recognised that in all the churches in terminal decline, and I quote, “rather than rub shoulders with unchurched people, the goal has seemed to be a relational separation. As a result, most Christians have completely isolated themselves from non-Christian unchurched people. The church-sanctioned practice of turning inward to only befriend other believers nullifies any evangelistic influence.” How many of our close friends are unchurched? Why is this the case?
There is a lovely saying by John A Shedd that sums up this point: “A ship in harbour is safe, but that’s not why ships are built.” A Christian surrounded only by other believers finds security, companionship and the joy of sharing a common goal, but that is not why the Lord has chosen us to be a child of His. We have been called to leave the harbour and set sail on the high seas!
And here is the great encouragement: the vast majority of unchurched people have faith and many, particularly amongst the emerging adults, (18-30s) are longing for friendship, companionship, longing to do life with those who are older and of the Faith. 82% of unchurched people who are asked by a believing friend/mentor to attend church with them WILL ATTEND!
The bright spot church members are GOING/MOVING amongst the unchurched and befriending them, rather than STAYING put with other believers, hoping the lost will just turn up. As a result, many unchurched people are coming to faith through personal friendship, mentoring and invitation.
A willingness to embrace all who come:
A final quote: “What Jesus never said: “Feed the hungry only if they have the right papers. Clothe the naked only if they’re from your country. Welcome the stranger only if there is a zero risk of doing so. Help the poor only if it’s convenient. Love your neighbour only if they look like you.” Those bright spot churches that are winning the unchurched are those who are willing to embrace all who come with no exception. Early on in my sabbatical I spent half a day with Yellow Ribbon, a community chaplaincy in Telford that ministers to men who have recently finished a prison sentence. During the presentation a member of the team told us that every former prisoner who comes to Yellow Ribbon is embraced as an equal. There is no condemnation for any crime committed, all are loved, encouraged, received and accepted.
The bright spot churches adopt the same attitude. All are welcomed irrespective of their past, what they think, whether they believe in Christ or not, whether their beliefs and practices are contrary to the Christian faith. All are accepted and embraced and the Holy Spirit is allowed to do His work and transform the people in His timing. Some unchurched, particularly those emerging adults hold very different viewpoints to us: many believe in abortion: many believe in same sex marriage: some take drugs: some have had multiple sexual partners; nearly all see the church as bigoted and judgmental. The bright spot churches receive and embrace them all, encouraging them to get involved in some church ministry even before they have come to faith! They have discovered that a sense of belonging is a vital part of their journey towards receiving Jesus.
Where do we go from here?
Can I suggest that if we are willing to change, if we are willing to GO and live life with the unchurched, if we are willing to embrace all whom the Lord sends then we too will be laying the foundation stones for a thriving Christian witness here at the Rockspring centre, both now and for many years to come. Amen"