The two most vital functions of the local church are to equip the believers in its midst to do the work of ministry and to reach the lost in their community with the lifesaving message of Jesus. And while the numbers seem to indicate that the American church has become far more effective at the former than the latter, most pastors feel a deep burden for the unchurched people in their community who need Jesus but have yet to have an encounter with him.
Because of this burden, most pastors are willing to try anything short of sin to fill their churches with people who were previously unchurched, to see hearts changed and lives transformed by the gospel.
It often feels like a shot in the dark, and some strategies end up being more effective than others. Some of that may be due to the particular community a church is situated in and its demographics, or even just the cultural changes that make certain practices more or less likely to resonate with the unchurched.
With that in mind, here are four things for pastors and church leaders to remember as they seek to reach unchurched people.
1. Church Should Be Strange to an Outsider, but Not so Strange That They Feel Alienated.
When we look at the church growth movement, whether we are talking about the “attractional church” model or a general ethic of seeker sensitivity, the genius of these efforts, which God has moved through to great effect, was that pastors and church leaders sought to remove unnecessary barriers of entry into a church service.
Wherever there were nonessential components of a church service, whether it was decor, musical choices, attire, or even the language used from the stage or pulpit, seeker sensitive leaders made it a key point of emphasis to remove anything that sounded too stuffy, esoteric, or strange.
However, as we look at these efforts with a more critical eye, what we might discover is that, sometimes, pastors and church leaders have become so diligent about taking the “strangeness” out of church that they have found themselves almost being apologetic for fundamental Christian traditions or concepts.
In our effort to reach the unchurched, we must take every measure to ensure that our church services are comprehensible. But we should also realize that the people who come through our church doors on a Sunday morning, even if they don’t follow Jesus, are expecting a spiritual experience. They are expecting something transcendent and otherworldly. They are expecting to be taken away from the normal rhythms of their lives to experience disciplines and practices that will connect them to the divine.
We must take care that we do not homogenize our church services so much that we steal these God-given experiences from the people who are seeking them, experiences that the Christian tradition is uniquely equipped to facilitate.
2. Authenticity Matters More Than Production Value, but a Lack of Production Can Be a Distraction.
The idea of a down-to-earth, Spirit-filled, authentic church service is often pitted against the idea that production value drives attendance—but it shouldn’t be.
Truth be told, between the two, providing an authentic and personable experience is far more important than putting on a professional-grade production every Sunday morning. Whenever an unchurched person comes to your church, they are hoping to have some kind of spiritual encounter, even if they don’t know what that’s supposed to look like. That encounter is always mediated through the people at the church. And so the measure to which that unchurched person encounters people who are genuine, authentic, and Spirit-filled is often the measure to which they encounter Jesus himself.
With that being said, your church’s level of production is not entirely irrelevant. At the very least, your services should be run well enough that a lack of organization doesn’t constitute a distraction to the unchurched people in your midst—or a source of embarrassment to your regular attenders who are thinking about which of their friends and neighbors to invite to next weekend’s service.