Keys to Attracting the Unchurched

We recently conducted a study of formerly unchurched Americans. What made them come to a church? What made them stay? The answers to these questions gave us insight into the mind of an unchurched person and gave us guidance in reaching them more effectively.

What Makes Them Come?

We found that the reasons the formerly unchurched chose a particular church were complex.  But while the teaching and doctrine of the pastor are a leading factor for selecting a church, relationships play a key role in helping the unchurched make their initial church visit. 

We found that almost four out of ten of the formerly unchurched indicated that family members were important in their choice of a church. Another one of four said that relationships other than family members brought them to church. That means that 73 percent (48 percent plus 25 percent) of those we interviewed told us about the importance of a relationship in their choice of a church. Although our study affirms how important relationships are in reaching the unchurched, it indicates that other factors as important or more important are at work. We call this “relationships plus.”

Living Example of “Relationships Plus”

Tammy D. is a fairly new Christian; she accepted Christ four months prior to our interview. Due to a crisis in her life, Tammy was looking for relief and answers. She started looking for a church (even though she rarely had attended church in her lifetime). Like many unchurched people, Tammy chose Easter Sunday as her day of entry into the church.

The week after Easter another major crisis took place in Tammy’s life. That same evening the pastor and a woman from the church visited her, unaware that Tammy’s husband had died earlier in the day.

“Their visit was like seeing two angels walk through the door,” Tammy reflected. Shortly after the funeral, the same woman from the church asked Tammy to lunch.

Tammy, though a new Christian, was hesitant to go to a church on a regular basis. “Look,” she said, “I knew very little about church. It just wasn’t the life I was used to.”

That problem was solved when she discovered that a friend had started attending the same church. “I felt braver going with a friend,” Tammy told us. They continued to attend, as they found the church members to be extremely friendly.

But what sealed Tammy’s decision to join the church was the pastor’s preaching. “His sermons are deep but easy to understand. He is always able to hold my attention,” she related.

So, what is the main factor that moved Tammy from the unchurched to the churched? Here are a few to consider:

  • Several crises in her life
  • The in-home visit of the pastor and church member
  • The big event of the Easter service
  • The personal evangelistic witness of a church member
  • The relationship of a friend
  • The friendliness of the church members
  • The preaching of the pastor

True, Tammy’s story is not typical, but then again, we rarely spoke to any of the formerly unchurched who had a “typical” story. We cannot offer simple explanations to describe the pilgrimage of a person from the ranks of the unchurched to the churched. But, we can see that in most cases, several factors are at work.

Relationships Are Only Part of the Answer

While the appeal of a pastor or relationships are key to bringing someone in the door of a church,  the reasons people stay at a church are very different.  Our study asked, “What kept you involved in a church?” We found that a combination of ministry involvement, Sunday school and obedience to God topped the list of reasons why they stayed active at the church. Again, while we can’t discount the value of fellowship, the formerly unchurched told us that their service and ministry in the church kept them coming back each week more than any other factor. Relationships will bring people in the door, good preaching will influence church selection, but connection through volunteer ministry is the most important long term factor for maintaining church involvement.   

Copyright © by Outreach magazine.  All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Thom Rainer
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.

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