What do statistics tell us about the unchurched?

In a world where there is abounding advice on using mercy ministries for evangelism, training in how to reach various religious groups, and untold World and Life seminars to teach apologetics to average church members – could it be a main target group out there is ‘fallen-away born-agains’?

I find myself spending several hours every day perusing the net looking for stories or at least leads on stories for The Aquila Report. Some days I scan 6 to 8 hundred headlines on Google searches as well as visit more than 50 sites for which I have permanent links set. Here are some statistics I have seen recently.

One major purveyor of statistics is the Barna Group. They recently reported that the majority of the unchurched in America are conservative, white, female Baby Boomers. (Haven’t we always been told it was men that were missing? Barna says the majority are females!)

The same study tells us that 65 million adults (that’s almost 2/3 of the unchurched) haven’t been to a worship service in the last six months (let’s hope a few showed up on Easter Sunday).

In a different story, this one from the Associated Baptist Press (one of my regular links), we are told that as many as 100 million adults and children combined are unchurched. 100 million, if put into a separate nation, would qualify just below the top ten populations in the world!

I didn’t study rocket science (actually I flunked Physics 101 as an unfocused college freshman), but I know at least a little about how to read survey research.

Doesn’t it sound to you like we need to focus more of our efforts on reaching 100 million people right here at home? Let’s add some more facts to test that theory.

ABP tells us that 40% of the unchurched used to attend regularly, but they stopped because of ‘past negative experiences’ (sometimes known as victims of the ‘shoot the wounded’ syndrome of too many churches.

Lifeway Christian Resources (the Southern Baptist powerhouse research team) gives us some more hints when they report some reasons for this as:
Christians treating other Christians poorly;
Christians with “holier than thou” attitudes;
Believers talking more than they listen;
Christian refusal to get involved in the lives of the unchurched;
Christians saying they believe, but do not attend church.

Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, says: “Most of them desire to see a Christian live his or her faith as well as speak about it.”

Now, let’s add some more ingredients from Barna:

Over 60 percent of the churched say they are already Christians (that means more than 60 Million). This means that up to 39 percent of the unchurched knowingly do not embrace Christianity. Of course, most of our readers would understand the ‘say they are believers’ would be primarily ‘nominal Christians’ or products of stony or thorny soil, as Al Martin exegetes the Parable of the Sower.

But here’s the scary finding, 18 million say they are unchurched and at the same time identify themselves as born again or Evangelical Christians, and nearly 35 percent say they believe the Bible is completely accurate.

One of my favorite sports blogs is called ‘Stats don’t lie’ – so named not because of the truth of the statement, but rather the blogger’s nickname on the Mike and Mike show is ‘Stats’. We learned in Statistics 101 that raw research numbers are meaningless without interpretation, so let’s try to do that.

Could it be true that with all our efforts to do cross-cultural missions, we are missing a huge target group right here at home, in our own culture?

Could it be true that the folks that live next door or down the block, or in the next cul-de-sac, or in floors above and below us in our apartment house – the very folks that produced those Barna and Lifeway numbers – are the ones we should be focusing on.

Friendship evangelism takes the least amount of training, but remains one of the hardest to sell to our church members. Why is that? My anecdotal research in nearly 40 years of serving in pastoral roles tells me it is fear. Fear that we flunk the Rainer test (the one about not having lives that match our words). Fear that we don’t know enough about the faith we profess to talk about it. Fear that we do not have assurance of our own standing before God.

Now – add to all this the general principle that many of us buy into: preaching the Gospel in a context of strong, exegetical, Bible-filled sermons is the primary work of the church. Perhaps we are not fulfilling that principle with our own actions.

If the research is correct (and even if they missed the numbers by 10 or even 20 percent), there are tens of millions of adults and young adults out there who need to hear and rehear the grace of the Gospel.

My experience tells me that the vast majority of the unchurched ‘born-again evangelicals’ still believe they are saved by Jesus plus works. My experience tells me that way too many of our church members still believe they are saved by Jesus plus works. Preachers can’t get the message of Jesus plus nothing to very many of the unchurched (they’re not in the pews).

So, here’s my conclusion. The only way to break through to this huge unchurched ‘I think I’m a Christian’ market is to convince those who are already in the pews that they have to apply the message of Jesus plus nothing to the way they live.

And to help them overcome their fears to speak about the message to others – not so much as to become great evangelists themselves, but at least to get those ‘others’ back into pews where they can hear the truths of the Gospel of grace preached regularly.

And, going back to the very first statistic that the majority of that target market is female – ladies, we are counting on you to lead the way for us!