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Why Isn’t Your Church Reaching the Unchurched?

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Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck) started in 1992. It was a church plant, and I was the church planter. It has since grown from one family to more than 20,000 active attenders with ministry in more than 20 countries. The most prized “Yay God!” story is that more than 70% of our growth across the entire 32-year run has come from the previously unchurched.

In a day when almost every church would say they want to reach the unchurched, why isn’t it happening more often? Why are churches better known for their rhetoric about reaching the unchurched than the reality of actually doing it?

Let me ask you four questions:

1. Is Your Marketing Targeted Toward the Unchurched?

Every church markets itself. If you have a sign on the lawn in front of your building, you are marketing your church. The question is not simply “Are you marketing yourself effectively?” but rather, “Who, precisely, are you marketing yourself to?” Very few churches who say they want to reach the unchurched are effectively marketing themselves to the unchurched population. Instead, their marketing seems to be geared almost exclusively to what would be seen by, and appeal to, the already convinced.

2. Is Your Service Designed To Generate Intuitive Invitations?

Throughout the entire run of Meck’s history, we have asked first-time guests how they came to our church. The number one answer has never wavered: they were invited by a friend. If 70% of our growth has come from the unchurched, and the number one reason those people came was because they were invited by a friend, then it goes without saying that Meckers intuitively felt that they could invite their unchurched friends to attend and that it would be a good and positive thing if they did. Your weekend services may connect with your current constituency, but do they also make your current constituency think, “If I could just get my friend John to come with me—even once—I KNOW it would rock his world, destroy his caricatures, remove his stereotypes, and open him up to coming again and again and exploring the Christian faith”? If not, do not expect them to invite their unchurched friends.

3. Is Your Message Simply Proclaiming the Christian Message or Actually Explaining It?

The bane of contemporary preaching is the “curse of knowledge.” That phrase is tied to research conducted at Stanford University. The idea is that once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. We’re so used to talking to the already convinced that we have lost our intuitive sense of what it means to talk to someone who isn’t a Christ follower. When I’m preparing a message, I assume those listening have no knowledge whatsoever in terms of the Christian faith. I never use terms such as Trinity, revelation, sin or grace without explaining what they mean. Even something as elemental as how I reference a passage in the Bible is explanatory in nature. Instead of saying, “This passage is from John 1:14,” I say something along the lines of, “This is from the biography of Jesus written by John, one of four biographies in the Bible.” In other words, if you want to reach the unchurched, assume they are present and accounted for.

I could go on and on. I could ask questions about your music, the topics of your messages, the atmosphere of acceptance for first-time guests, the degree to which you are engaging people online, and so, so much more.

But I’ll just end with one last question:

4. Did Any of These Questions Make You Defensive?

This question may be the most decisive of all. If you did get defensive, it may be that you are protecting turf. Or not wanting to change. Or, as mentioned, you are more committed to reaching the unchurched in rhetoric than reality.

I get it. But let’s be real. The root of the problem is spiritual narcissism.

In Greek mythology, Narcissus is the character who, upon passing his reflection in the water, becomes so enamored with himself that he devotes the rest of his life to his own reflection. From this we get our term “narcissism,” the preoccupation with self. The value of narcissism is the classic “I, me, mine” mentality that places personal pleasure and fulfillment at the forefront of concerns.

Now as Christians, this should be antithetical. We follow a Savior who said: “I did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many;” “Whoever wants to be first must become last;” “Whoever wants to be great among must become the slave of all;” and then bowed in submission to the Father and said, “Not my will, but yours.”