Beginners Guide

Reaching the Unchurched

A few years ago a woman walked off the streets into one of our ‘Sunday Night Live!’ ‘Seeker’ services and took a seat at the front. Afterwards she was telling a team member how much she enjoyed the programme and then asked, “By the way, what is this place?” “Well it’s a church,” came the reply. “Oh no it’s not!” she said. “I’ve been to a church once and, believe me, it’s nothing like this.”

She could, I suspect, be classed as one of the ever-increasing group who would go under the title of ‘un-churched’, disconnected and disengaged with a stereotypical view of what a worship service looks like.

The term ‘unchurched’ is a strange one that was first widely used following Willow Creek’s national conference in the UK in 1992. In one sense it’s not a helpful expression in that our aim is not to make people ‘churched’, whatever that may mean, but rather introduce them to a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

During the 70s and 80s much of our evangelism was largely focused on how we could bring those on the fringe into the existing church where they could then be exposed to our preaching, teaching and evangelistic methods which would then lead them to a point of decision.

Throughout the early 90s church planting took on a new lease of life and some very ambitious but ultimately unrealistic targets were set. Alpha emerged and has proved to be a powerful tool, particularly effective, although not exclusively so, in reaching those with some basic Christian understanding or contact with the church.

In 1992 Willow Creek introduced us to the concept of reaching ‘unchurched’ people by creating church for those who do not yet believe.

Some find it helpful to differentiate between un-churched – those who are open to spiritual things but don’t consider church the place to look, de-churched – those who once belonged to some degree but don’t anymore and non-churched – those who have never had any significant contact with the church.

Evangelism is evolving
If we were able to bring some church leaders of 100 years ago in a time machine to visit planet earth as it is today, we would rightly expect them to be totally overwhelmed.

The world of the third millennium is light years removed from what they would be familiar with. Virtually no aspect of society would be unchanged, we would expect them to feel insecure, disorientated and confused until that is they stepped into one of the more traditional churches, where the chances are they would feel instantly at home!

This is of course both good and bad. Good in the sense that it emphasises the fact that the message of the gospel is constant and unchanging but bad in that while the world has changed beyond all recognition the church has slipped further and further into irrelevancy. A hundred years ago the church held centre stage, all the main institutions of our society had their roots in or were deeply influenced by the Christian faith. Today the church has been pushed to the margins and Christians must ‘earn’ the right to be heard rather than expect the ‘right’ to be listened to.

So what is changing? For outreach to be effective in today’s society it must have a strong incarnational edge to it. For generations we have relied on the ‘come to us and we’ll evangelise you’ model but the church decline statistics starkly illustrate that as a stand-alone model this no longer works. Jesus was regarded by some as a ,glutton and a drunkard’ because of the way he conducted his ministry, not behind closed doors but in the heart of the culture of the day.

Crusade to cappuccino.
Easthampstead Baptist Church in Bracknell is launching a new congregation called ‘Explore’. Aimed towards those in their 20s and 30s, they meet every other week in the local Leisure Centre for coffee, donuts and a read of the Sunday papers. A 50 min ‘programme’ opens up life related issues through music, multi-media and informal talks on subjects that unchurched people can easily relate to.

It’s a long way from the high profile stadium style events that many will remember but perhaps not that far removed from the Christian coffee bar evangelism of the 60s and 70s.

Nave to nightclub.
Christians are rediscovering that church is more about who we are than where we are; it’s more helpful to talk about church in terms of relationship than geography. It was of course many generations before the early believers had a ‘church’ and something similar is emerging today.

B1 Church in central Birmingham meets for worship and teaching in a pub on a Sunday morning, a cellar bar for creative worship service mid-week and in a function room of one of the most popular city centre nightspots for an outreach style event bi-monthly on Sunday nights. The glue that binds the church is not to do with venue but relationships; these also become the focus for their mission strategy.

Spirituality is in – Church is out.
At least that’s the case in the eyes of most non-church people. A recent survey found that 70% of the UK population claim to have had a ‘spiritual’ experience during the last 2 years, although the term ‘spiritual’ would of course be subject to a vast array of interpretations. It does however give the clear message that spirituality is on the agenda; unfortunately one of the last places that people are looking for spiritual encounter is in the church. How the gulf is bridged between church and world is one of the most pressing concerns for church leaders across the land at this time.

During the 90s so many programmes suggested that they held the key, buy into this and your church will grow! Most leaders now accept that there is no single key but many different ones that, when used together, will help open the door for those who are seeking. More than ever, coming to faith in the 21st Century is seen in terms of process rather than crisis, people journey towards faith in Christ until they come to a point of decision which for some is a definitive moment but for others is a specific period in time. Who then are the evangelists of today? Is the person present at the end of the journey more significant in the process than the one at the beginning? Addressing issues such as this can seriously affect the way we view mission and will undoubtedly be formational in shaping our evangelistic strategies.

Is anyone listening?
If the church has been pushed to the margins, what has taken central stage? The answer I suppose is debateable, consumerism is the dominant drive in the West and it is clear that today communication is everything. Try depriving a young person of their mobile phone or internet facility, just how important those things are will soon become evident!

The church has to learn how to communicate clearly from the margins, just as the New Testament Church did. How to share a never-changing message in an ever-changing world is a challenge we cannot ignore.

RUN (Reaching the Unchurched Network) has a membership of some 650 churches across the UK and beyond. It’s aims of envisioning, resourcing and networking are designed to help churches connect with one another, share ideas, initiatives and resources. We were never called to reach the ‘unchurched’ of the world alone but rather to work in partnership together, supporting and encouraging one another in the most important commission that has ever been given.

Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church often says; ‘Lost people matter to God and therefore they should also matter to us’ When a truth such as this takes centre stage in our hearts and our churches it changes not only what we do but also how we live.

Rev Chris Stoddard is Development Director of the RUN Network. For more information on RUN please contact:
RUN PO Box 387 Aylesbury Bucks HP21 8WH
Tel: 0870 7873635