The Unchurched Next Door Part 1
Understanding the Unchurched
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
April 24, 2005


Main Passage: John 1:35-51 (NLT)

Not too long ago I read a book that transformed the way I view the unchurched. It helped me understand them better, communicate with them more clearly, and appreciate them more. It’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years. But this book also scared me. There were no zombies or ghosts, no Orcs or wizards, no insane madmen or possessed automobiles. Instead there was one statement that I found to be very sobering. Listen carefully…

“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.”
~ Thom Rainer

Now here is the really scary part…

“But only 2 percent of church members invited an unchurched person to church.”
~ Thom Rainer

And that has to rank among the most frightening things I have ever read. Think about it out of a hundred active churchgoers, 21 of them will invite someone to church. But 19 of those people invited to church will already be attending church somewhere else. What’s the point?

This is the book. It’s called The Unchurched Next Door and it was written by a man named Thom Rainer. Thom is the author of 13 books, and is the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Think of just how big that man’s business card must be.)

In this book, Rainer and his colleagues interviewed several hundred people in both the U.S. and Canada who do not attend church, and he refers to them as the unchurched. And during the course of their study, they made some surprising discoveries.

Now, I’m going to do something this morning that I haven’t done since high school. I’m going to basically give you a book report. Of course, in high school nobody ever listened to my book report and I didn’t listen to anybody else’s. I hope this morning will be different. Because I believe some of the things we’re going to talk about here can have a drastic effect on your perspective of the unchurched, and you may even find it inspiring and motivating.

But I’m not telling you about this book because it’s a good book. That’s not why I’m here and that’s not why you’re here. I’m telling you about this book because I believe it contains insights into a great Biblical principle of reaching those who have not yet been reached. We often refer to it as witnessing, or evangelism. Of course, the term “evangelism” always brings some rather bizarre images to mind… usually of sweaty TV preachers yelling and shouting and jumping up and down and pounding on their podium. If I ever do that, call an ambulance. Because I’m either choking or having a seizure.

When I talk about evangelism here, I’m simply referring to telling people about the hope you have in Jesus and offering for them to share that hope. You just tell your story and point others toward God. No special training’s needed, you’re simply telling your friends, family and coworkers what God has done for you and what He can do for them.

And this kind of evangelism has been the very cornerstone of the Christian faith from the very beginning. You were paying attention when Bev read this week’s Scripture, weren’t you? John the Baptist introduced Andrew to Jesus and Andrew went and found his brother Simon Peter. The next day Philip met Jesus and then he immediately goes off to find his friend Nathanael and introduces him to Jesus.

Now, before we get in too far, there are a couple foundational facts you need to know. Two things that you need to grasp if this is going to mean anything to you…


Two Foundational Facts:

A. Every person needs Jesus—no exceptions. And it’s up to us to tell them.

The eternal destination of our friends and loved ones depends on it. Because anyone who dies outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ goes on to a Godless eternity in Hell. Jesus is the only way to God the Father and into Heaven, so whether people are aware of it or not, they desperately need to hear about Jesus and come to know Him personally. Their eternity hangs in the balance.

That in itself should motivate you. If it doesn’t, you either don’t believe what God tells us in His Word or you just don’t care. And I don’t know which is worse.

Now, I’m sure that there are some who would tell me… certainly none of you would say this… but some would tell me, “But Greg, that’s why we pay you the big bucks. Telling people about Jesus is your job.” Nope, sorry, that’s not part of my job as a pastor. That’s part of my job as a Christian, but not as a pastor. And it’s part of your job as a Christian, too.

And I understand that it can be daunting. I mean, whenever I get the opportunity to share my hope with someone, I stutter, I stammer, I say all the wrong things… I get very nervous. But I would rather end up later on thinking about how I could have done it better than regretting not doing it at all.


B. The unchurched are very much like the churched—except they are lost without Jesus.

In this book, Rainer states:

“I have been in some churches where a Christian leader has spoken of the ‘pagans’ as if they are fire-breathing aliens from another planet. They are often stereotyped as angry at Christians, doubtful of the existence of God and bitter toward the church. Yet the reality is that 95 percent of the unchurched would meet none of these descriptions.”
~ Thom Rainer

So only 5 percent of the unchurched in Canada and the U.S. fit that stereotype. Instead, we discover that in most cases the unchurched are very much like the churched. With one critical difference… they are lost without Jesus.

“Most of the unchurched are concerned for their families. Their moral values are not radically different from ours. They work alongside of us, and their children and our children play together. Some of the unchurched are the teachers of our children. The unchurched live in our neighbourhoods and carry on friendly conversations with us. They often carry the same financial burdens we do… And many of the unchurched live in the same home we do: they are our family members.”
~ Thom Rainer

So the unchurched are very much like us. The only major difference is that we know Jesus, and they don’t. But that one difference will determine their eternity. So you and I must be about the task of letting them know the good news that Jesus loves them, He died for them and rose again, and He offers them forgiveness, grace and a fresh start.

Now, in the process of conducting the interviews, Rainer and his researchers discovered a number of surprises… things they were contrary to their expectations. Some of them you may not find all that surprising, but some of them can revolutionize your understanding of the unchurched and your motivation to reach them.


Ten Surprises about the Unchurched:

1. Most of the unchurched feel guilty about not attending church.

The researchers didn’t come right out and ask if people felt guilty, but it tended to come up in discussion anyway. People said they felt bad about not getting out to church, or that they knew they should be there, or something else along those lines.

So my question is, if they feel guilty about not being in church, why don’t they attend? Well, the answer is simple: the church intimidates them. For those of us who grew up in the church and who attend every week, it’s no big deal. But for those who have never attended… they don’t know what we are going to do and what they’re getting into and they don’t know if they will fit in. They’re afraid they’ll do something stupid and be embarrassed.

I have a friend who does not attend church but agreed to go with his girlfriend one time. But he was a little nervous about it and joked that she was going to have to teach him the secret handshake first. She kind of laughed and assured him there is no such thing… until during the service the preacher told the people to greet each other with a “Christian handshake” or “the right hand of fellowship” or something to that effect.

When it comes to showing up on our doorstep, the unchurched are thinking, “What if I don’t know what to do? What if my child cries or acts up? What if I mess something up? I’ll never be able to go back!” And think about it: How would you feel attending a motorcycle club the first time?

And so for that reason, when you invite them, even if they’re receptive, you may need to invite them again and again before they actually show up.


2. 82 Percent of the unchurched are at least “somewhat likely” to attend church if they are invited.

This is the surprise that surprised me. 82 Percent of the unchurched are at least “somewhat likely” to attend church if they are invited. Can you comprehend that? 8 out of 10 of your friends and co-workers would be at least somewhat likely to come if you invited them. Which brings us back to the scary statement I made earlier…

“Only 21 percent of active churchgoers invite anyone to church in the course of a year. But only 2 percent of church members invited an unchurched person to church.”
~ Thom Rainer

We’re not here to swap sheep with other churches. We’re here to depopulate Hell. We’re here to reach the unchurched. That’s our priority. But they ain’t coming because we ain’t inviting them. 8 out of 10. Just think about it. In Charlottetown, there are over 32,500 people. Add in Cornwall, Stratford, Winsloe, and York, and you’re well over 40,000. And we could continue, but let’s stop there. Statistically, only about 15% are attending church. So on any given Sunday morning, only 6000 are attending a church… any church. That means that 34,000 are mowing their lawns, raking their leaves, taking their kids to hockey or just sleeping in.

And according to Rainer, 27,880 of those people are at least somewhat likely to attend church if they were invited… many are very likely. There are people just waiting to be invited to church. They’re eager to come, but nobody’s asking.


3. Very few of the unchurched have had someone share with them how to become a Christian.

They’ve never been told what it means to accept Jesus into their lives. They don’t know how to become a Christian. Of course, this isn’t really all that surprising. After all, if Christians are reluctant to simple invite someone to church what are the chances they will go deeper and explain who Jesus is and how they can come to know Him?

Romans 10:14 (NLT)
But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?


4. Most of the unchurched prefer to attend church on Sunday morning if they attend.

Okay, this one’s not all that surprising. But over the past couple of decades there have been several churches that have experimented with different times and days for their worship services, with mixed results. But according to this study, the unchurched still believe Sunday morning is the best day and time, whether they think that’s when it should be or it’s simply the most convenient.


5. Females are likely to be either the most antagonistic or the most receptive to the gospel.

After each interview, the team ranked the unchurched person on a scale of 1-5… with “1” being very receptive to the gospel and church, and “5” being very antagonistic. And what they discovered was that women were most likely to be at the extremes… the majority of women were at 1, 2 or 5. They were either very open or very hostile, but they didn’t make up a large proportion of the 3 and 4 positions. Men, on the other hand, tended to settle in the middle and seemed to be more ambivalent toward the church and its message… neither hostile or receptive. (I myself tend to be ambivalent about things, or at least I think I am. Doesn’t really matter, does it?)


6. Most of the unchurched have a positive view about Pastors ministers and the church.

I like this one. Only a few had a negative attitude concerning pastors. And they generally have a positive attitude toward the church. Even among the five percent who were the most antagonistic toward the church and the gospel, only thirty one percent of them felt the church was irrelevant. That means that sixty nine percent of the most antagonistic group felt the church was relevant and over half of that group had a positive view of the clergy. That’s refreshing to know.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the first person you go out and tell about Jesus and invite to church will be someone who is antagonistic. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. It’s about 1 out of 20. Please don’t let one bad experience stop you.

There was a lady I was talking with the other day… we were just having a conversation, and of course at some point she asked me what I did. Now, I generally don’t bring that up because once people find out I’m a pastor they start to act differently. But she asked so I had to tell her. So I said, “I’m a pastor of a church.” And her response… I don’t think I can even imitate it. But she pulled back and distorted her face as if she had bitten into a big juicy lemon and made this sound as if she was going to be sick.

I thought, “Well, that’s it. She obviously has a negative view of pastors… I may as well pack it in now.” But that lasted for all of 5 seconds, and then we were right back into the conversation again. In fact, she started to open up about her own questions about God and some of her prayer concerns. And I was amazed at how God turned that around and used me to encourage her some and even gave me the opportunity to tell her about Jesus. The opportunities are all around us. We just need to watch for them.


7. Some types of “cold calls” are effective; many are not.

This may have been a surprise to them, but it’s not to me. A cold call is one that’s made with no previous relationship… maybe you’re going door-to-door, or stopping people on the street… and that just doesn’t work very well, at least not in 2005.

The very best opportunities for sharing your hope in Jesus comes within the context of an already existing relationship. That means your neighbours, your friends, your family, your coworkers…

I was sitting in Tim Hortons this week and a man came in who I’ve gotten to know a little bit over the past few years. He sat down, and we had a nice, long conversation. He’s been spiritually searching for quite some time, and has been investigating different religions and belief systems. So for about a half an hour I had the privilege of telling him about my hope in Jesus and how Jesus said He is the only way to God the Father.

We talked some about the Bible, and he said he didn’t really know all that much about it. So I asked him if I could show him the core teaching of the Bible. He agreed, so I pulled out a napkin and drew a picture for him. I’ve shown this to you before, but let me show you again so you know how easy it is…

Bridge Illustration -

[Go to the "Resources" link and download the PowerPoint file for "Bridge to God]

Well, this man picked up that napkin and told me he was going to take it with him and think it over. It was a God-moment, but it only happened because I’ve taken years to cultivate a friendship with him.


8. The Unchurched would like to develop a real and sincere relationship with a Christian.

I just talked about how I develop relationships with people and looking for opportunities to share my hope with them. But I need to emphasis that these are real friendships. I enjoy meeting these people. I don’t place a price tag on their forehead or see them as a number… just another statistic to add to my spiritual conquests. No, I’m there to be their friend. Twyla Fagan, the leader of Rainer’s research team, wrote…

“Most of the unchurched the team is interviewing would respond positively to a genuine Christian who would spend time with them in a gentle, non-judgmental relationship… Most of the unchurched can easily tell the difference between ‘drive-by’ evangelism and a person who really cares.”
~ Twyla Fagan

Jesus met people where they were at and invited those people to follow Him. And He genuinely cared for them. Let me remind you, if all of our time is spent in relationships with the churched, then we will never have a real opportunity to affect the eternity of those who don’t attend church.


9. The attitudes of the unchurched are not correlated to where they live, their ethnic or racial background, or their gender.

Whether people lived in the city or in the country, whether they were black or white, whether they were male or female… most of the responses were similar across the board. However, there was one difference that was evident, and that related to income. The higher a person’s income the more resistant to the gospel they are liable to be. Perhaps because they’ve become self-reliant and don’t recognize that they need God. And this is nothing new. Jesus said it Himself…

Matthew 19:24 (NLT)
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”

But don’t be discouraged by that. Let’s keep reading…

Matthew 19:25-26 (NLT)
The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”


10. Many of the unchurched are far more concerned about the spiritual well being of their children than of themselves.

And this shouldn’t really be a surprise. Parents are normally more concerned about the welfare of their kids then they are with their own personal welfare. So perhaps we need to become more intentional about reaching children and youth.


So what have we learned? I think the most important thing that we have learned is that if we invite someone we know to visit our church, there is a pretty good chance they will. If not this time then the next time you invite them. But we’ve also learned that we are not doing that. And that needs to change.

One person who took part in the study was a 47-year old woman named Janet. Janet had not been in church for 32 years. So in the course of the interview, she was asked if she knew any Christians or churchgoers. This was her response:

“I think Brett, a guy who works with me, might be active in church. And Dianne, my neighbour – her car is gone a lot on Sundays, but she has never mentioned anything about her church. Now that you mention it, you just don’t hear church people talking about their churches. Isn’t that odd?”
~ Janet (47 years old, unchurched)

Odd? Maybe. More like tragic. And I’m guilty, too. How often do I think, “Well, people know what I do and what I believe. If they’re interested, they ask me.” But obviously that’s not going to cut it. So what do we do? Two simple steps.


What Do We Do?

A. We Pray.

We need to first of all ask God to forgive us for our disobedience. Because that’s what it is. We can dress it up and say it’s because we are shy, or we don’t want to offend people, or that we are too busy or we don’t know any unchurched people. But the reality is, God commands us to reach others and if we don’t do that then we are disobeying Him.

And then we need to ask God to open doors of opportunity for us to share our hope and invite people to church… and not just anyone but someone who doesn’t currently attend a Christian church.

And we need to pray for the courage to follow through with it. I don’t know how many times I’ve had the opportunity to tell someone about Jesus or to invite them to church and I haven’t because I was afraid.


B. We Invite.

This is the bottom line; we need to be inviting people to church.


So can we do that? In your notes, you see a blank line. Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to write the name of one person you know who currently is not attending a church and does not know God. Write their name down, and then begin praying for them and looking for an opportunity to invite them to church.

You can invite them to come any week. Or you can watch for upcoming messages and invite them to one they may find interesting and helpful. Or invite them on a special occasion like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. There are all kinds of options and opportunities.

We just need to pray for them and invite them. Get it?

Sometime in the next couple months we’re going to have a seminar on “Helping Friends Find God” and we’re going to look at some tools that may be helpful. I would encourage you to attend that seminar, but don’t wait until then. Start now. You learn by doing. Start praying and inviting the people you know and care about now.




Copyright © 2005