In a lesson by Mark Dunagan (“Proven Ways to Reach People”, July 15, 2007, www.beavertonchurchofchrist.net), a book titled Surprising Insights From the Unchurched and Proven Ways To Reach Them is outlined. The author, Thom S. Rainer, points out some interesting and startling results of a number of surveys that have been taken revealing what attracts people to churches. Denominations have been trying for decades to appeal to the “unchurched” – a classification of people who do not attend anywhere, but may be interested in looking – by changing their worship styles and content, altering their preaching, and offering social programs that make the potential church members feel both welcome and distracted. There is a trend amongst churches today to advertise themselves as desirable to new members. They want to portray themselves as being “your” church, designed especially for your needs and offering all of the things that you want out of your church experience. Therefore, some groups call themselves “family churches”, or have singles programs, teen functions, special classes (the range of which may rival some community colleges), and facilities that are more elaborate than a world-class athletic club. Contrary to common thinking, Rainer’s results uphold the startling assertion that more conservative churches are actually what most people are looking for. The only reason so many unbelievers end up settling for anything less than the truth is because we have failed to make ourselves known and available to those searching for it.
The Name of the Church
Any casual look at churches today reveals that the trend is to abandon the “old-fashioned” sounding denominational titles and adopt a more neutral name that appeals to all people, supposedly. Many names are characteristic of the fluffy preaching that goes on at the church, so they often include pretty words like creek, hills, valley, meadow, or any other friendly word from nature. The logic is that a neutral name will make visitors feel more comfortable, as opposed to an outright confession of what the church actually is. However, the statistics say otherwise. “For the most part, neither the presence nor the absence of a denominational name influenced the formerly unchurched’s decision to join a church… ‘The name of the church never really entered my mind. After all I really don’t choose a store because of its name’” (Rainer, pp. 38-39).
People can often see past the smokescreen of a friendly exterior. Rather than being appealing, it would seem to me that having a very non-committal, neutral name would be a sign that a church lacks identity. Even worse, it could mean that a church does not want their visitors (or members, for that matter) to know what doctrines its leadership actually espouses. If a church needs to hide the fact that it is part of a particular denomination, then perhaps it should consider changing that fact and not merely its name. Of course, this applies to the Lord’s church just as much. Some “churches of Christ” do not want the stigma that comes with being associated with such a minute and peripheral religious body, so they drop the “of Christ” part of their name and just adopt the more liberal, all-inclusive titles of the denominations that surround them. But when it comes to church names, Paul put it best, “the churches of Christ salute you” (Romans 16:16). This is not the only name, but it is recognizable and entirely accurate. We are Christ’s church (Acts 20:28), and if a congregation belongs to the Lord, then what is bad about confessing that? Rainer also notes that one effect the name of a church has on visitors is that it may reassure them that where they are attending is not some “fly by night” cult (Rainer, P. 40). Having an established and recognizable name, in some ways, makes a church safe for visitors because they know what to expect from it.
Another major myth that is addressed is the idea that unbelievers will be turned off by a direct attempt at personal evangelism. Some churches are mistaken when they discourage their members from appealing to a visitor for a Bible study. Instead, many church leaders want evangelism to be done through the “back door”, so to speak, by offering visitors child care, social programs, or non-church related activities, such as basketball nights or ice cream socials. Yet Rainer notes that his studies revealed over 50% of “unchurched” people were positively influenced by someone from the church talking directly to them about their soul (Rainer, p. 20). True and honest Bible study will produce Christians, but social programs and fun only produce people who have yet to face their need for salvation. Do we want converts or customers? People who are attracted to a church only because of its programs are only customers. They consume instead of contribute, and their conversion is fake – it does not stem from a pricked heart (Acts 2:37), but from a desire to get something. Jesus and His disciples always placed the emphasis on direct personal contact (Matthew 28:19, Acts 8:4, 17:2-3), and the message was always one of salvation. Notice that in Acts 2, Peter’s appeal to the crowd is not to join the church at Jerusalem because there was free food and fun times for all, but because they were sinners who needed salvation. His direct appeal was for their repentance, not their attendance at a social function.
Should we tailor our preaching so that visitors or unbelievers are never offended or confused by deep biblical truths? Rainer finds a very different reality in the attitudes and priorities among those who had recently joined churches:
Many people put too much stock in a charismatic, magnetic preacher, believing that people of the world will come to church for the spectacle of the sermon. Many preachers today produce sermons that are more like three ring circuses than humble, honest Bible lessons. While the preacher wails away, half-singing-half-yelling, the choir in the background chimes in every now and then. Sermons become “feel-good” sessions, in which the speaker tells you how great you are, how much God loves you, and how you need to seize the day. This idea was not supported by the research, however, which revealed that a preacher needs to be humble, express love, and be patient toward those who are listening. Passion and conviction for the truth, not for entertainment, appeals to people. After all, when truth is being preached, it does not matter what kind of package it comes in. Paul described his own preaching in the following ways:
Interestingly, instead of being bored or turned off by Bible classes, most visitors are actually attracted to a church because of them. Nearly 70% of those who became members of a church were active in the Bible classes offered there (Rainer, p. 47).
Many members think they are friendly, but in fact are quite manufactured in their attitude toward visitors. The unchurched can tell when they are a chore to us, so we need to make extra effort to express genuine interest and concern for the needs or cares of our visitors. Do not merely be friendly because you have to be, but because you are deeply interested in helping them find salvation (Colossians 4:5-6). We need to “let love be without hypocrisy” (Romans 12:9), so that our visitors walk away feeling like they have been in the presence of warm, loving, welcoming people.
Things that are unnecessary to reach the lost:
Rainer quotes a survey by the Barna group, in which less than 20% of respondents indicated that the following were very important in choosing a church:
Surprisingly, the manner in which the building is kept clean and maintained, as well as the organization and orderliness of the worship both are linked with leaving lasting impressions on visitors, influencing whether or not they will come back. What is most important, however, than anything else is conviction, and a love of the truth. A congregation with strong convictions will have a strong evangelistic outreach and will grow. We need to believe that Jesus is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” and that nobody can be saved without Him (John 14:6).