Reaching the unchurched

Published 9:14 am Monday, March 28, 2011

“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’” – John 4:10 (NIV)

I literally grew up at Eau Claire Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C. I can still take you to the room where I took naps on a mat in kindergarten. And I was there most Sundays until about age 16, after which I became “unchurched” for about the next 15 or so years.

Eau Claire was the very first suburb of Columbia and I am sure that our church had at least 400 members in its “heyday” from around 1950 to 1970. In the early 70s people started leaving the Eau Claire community in droves and moved out to newer suburbs even further from the city limits. Today, Eau Claire Presbyterian Church has an active membership of less than 50 people.

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I use the Eau Claire community and church as illustrations for two reasons. First, demographics change. People move and shift where they live for cultural and economic reasons. And second, people no longer just naturally attend church.

Of course, Atmore is a small town without true suburbs, but the same principles apply. Demographics change and culture has changed. For example, I have heard that Horner Street used to be “the place to live!” Today, with the exception of the PCI operations, most businesses are not thriving at this time. And most people do not just automatically attend church and many are in fact, unchurched.

For my purposes, we will use Thom Rainer’s definition of unchurched as “those attending church two or less times per year.” Rainer is the President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources and a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written many books on church health and the unchurched, including Breakout Churches, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, and the book I am currently reading The Unchurched Next Door.

In this book, Rainer uses research data gathered from his students conducting many interviews with real people concerning church attendance. And he outlines the five stages of the unchurched prior to coming to faith in Christ and regular church attendance, from U1 – highly receptive to the Gospel and ready to receive Christ right away to U5 – highly resistant and even hostile to the Gospel.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of the unchurched in most all of these stages are not hostile towards Christianity and churches and may just need someone to lovingly share the Gospel with them and invite them to church in order for them to become churched Christians!

Here’s the bottom line: People usually no longer just come to church automatically like they most did when I was growing up. Instead, we have to go the people and lovingly share the Gospel message and invite them to church. Jesus’ conversation in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John gives us great insight into communicating with the unchurched as he lovingly engaged the Samaritan woman at the well. Note that Jesus did not meet her “in the temple;” he was “out and about.” And he treated her with respect despite her sinfulness.

Today, I believe that the Samaritan woman is representative of the unchurched literally all around us. People are hurting in so many ways and we have the sure hope of the Gospel to offer them.

The Holy Spirit is moving among us, stirring us to reach out and share the Gospel, invite people to church and offer them hope in Jesus’ name. Who will you reach out to today?

Prayer: Father, we confess that as Christians we have often failed miserably to reach the unchurched. Give us eyes to see the lost all around us and a heart of compassion to reach out to them with the love of Christ. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Jim Thorpe is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Atmore.