Monday, July 11, 2005


I am somewhat suspicious of the number of churches around here that claim 70-80% of their members are from the ranks of the "unchurched" population.

I associate "unchurched" with my African missions experience: never, ever been Christian.

Obviously, in the Bible-belt south there aren't many "unchurched" people unless they are recent immigrants (and virtually none of the Hispanic population is unchurched).

I think it is a point of pride and straining for legitimacy for a church to claim such a high number of "unchurched" people in its ranks. They are fending off the accusation that their new mega-church edifice is just rearranging the sheep - taking them from more traditional congregations and entertaining them with a more appealing show.

Here's Barna's definition:
An adult (18 or older) who has not attended a Christian church service within the past six months, not including a holiday service (such as Easter or Christmas) or a special event at a church (such as a wedding or funeral).

Thom Rainer has a more stringent definition: one who has not been in church, except sporadically, for at least ten years (most for a lifetime).

A Presbyterian group says: The general definition of an unchurched person is anyone who has not attended church other than Christmas, Easter or special events in the past five years.

My guess is that some are sliding towards definitions even less stringent than Barna - saying something like "someone who was uninvolved in his or her previous congregation," "was just an attender," or "never was a regular weekly church-goer". Barna says if you miss 24 Sundays (excepting high holy days) and you are a prime unchurched prospect. I guess that means anyone can woo you into their group with a clear conscience. No sheep rustling here!

I wonder if the reason "unchurched" has become a popular term is that it would be much harder to say these people aren't Christian. But because we want it to sound like we aren't simply taking sheep from other flocks, we declare people "unchurched" so it sounds like we are carrying the Gospel to places its never been.

Most of us in our congregation weren't unchurched people. We can't even approach the high percentages of unchurched "members" of the congregations around us. Maybe I would say that 10% were not churched. The few I would point to as being unchurched before joining with us in a faith community hadn't been in a church, nor practicing a person faith-walk with Jesus, in over 20 years, if ever. Such a person I would say was "someone coming to Jesus."


Steve Duer said...

I think you hit it on the head. Unchurched is a nice catch phrase. From the definitions it sounds more like churchless (i.e. homeless) And what solves homelessness usually isn't just providing a home. There are underlying issues (Addiction, mental illness, etc). Successful homeless programs don't just deal with the surface, they go deeper and deal with the root of the issue.

It is fair to say that churchlessness (being unchurched) is not a classification but a symptom of being without Jesus?

Getting churchless in the door of a church doesn't address the problem. Coming to Jesus addresses the underlying issues.

David Olivet said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post! As a member of a church that claims a high percentage of "unchurched" members, I have to agree that the definition of the term is probably manipulated to make the percentage look high. However, I also know that there are many people who God has touched through these churches. Is it important that a certain percentage of a church comes from the ranks of the "unchurched"? No. Is it important that God works through people and churches to touch other peoples lives? Yes.

Head counts and percentages are an unfortunate by-product of organized religion. So are catch phrases. These are ways that we humans tend to "physicalize" things that are "spiritual". But the important thing is that the message of Christ is being preached (Philippians 1:18). There's plenty of room for churches of all shapes and sizes and if God is using a church to bring and to keep people close to Him, then I believe that the purpose of the church is being served.

Greg Newton said...

Good point, David. God is certainly working inspite of all our configurations of "doing church" and through us all.

The fact that we resort to "spin" makes me sad if we are having to do it to placate other believers (defend our existence), and sick if we are doing it to fool ourselves.

It's just another version of "preacher counts." To bad that is such a well-known euphemism.

Keith Brenton said...

I like duer's word ... "churchless."

For those who simply haven't heard the Story, I lean toward "unreached."

The folks at Off The Map have settled on lost, in italics - there are things I like and things I dislike about it.