Unchurched or Unsaved? What Our Vocabulary Reveals About Our Beliefs

In 1914, Ernest Henry Shackleton led an expedition to cross the entire continent of Antarctica but wound up shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. To rescue his team, Shackleton sailed a tiny boat across 850 miles of rough seas to South Georgia Island. Despite the choppy waters and gray skies, Shackleton was able to safely navigate the boat to their destination. If his coordinates had been off by even one-half of one degree, his team would have missed their destination by hundreds of miles and perished.

Ship captains, airplane pilots, and astronauts will be the first to tell you that the tiniest navigational error can have disastrous consequences. The same is true for those of us who have been commissioned to lead our churches. A seemingly insignificant shift in direction can have major implications.

In recent years, leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention have bemoaned the falling number of baptisms. Pastors, missionaries, professors, and analysts have all offered a variety of reasons for why our numbers are declining, along with advice for how we might get back on track.

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But I wonder if one of the main reasons for the dwindling number of baptisms is a subtle shift in vocabulary—so subtle that we might overlook it.

There was a time when we spoke of unsaved people as “lost and dying and on their way to hell”—a phrase that painted a vivid picture of the stakes of being outside of Christ. We spoke of unsaved people in this way for so long that such terminology became something of a cliché.

Today, it seems that many pastors and church members tend to shy away from terms like “lost,” “unsaved,” and “unbeliever.” Instead, we speak of the people we are trying to reach as “unchurched.”

I believe that this change in terminology betrays two mistaken beliefs:

1. First, it indicates that our people believe the goal of the church is to grow the church.

Evangelism becomes less about reaching the unsaved in order to see them get saved and more about reaching unchurched people in order to get them churched (or even worse, reaching other-churched people in order to get them to our church). Outreach becomes little more than an attempt to sell people on the benefits of coming to church.

Church-focused outreach is easier than Christ-focused outreach. In many places in the South, church attendance is still woven into the fabric of the culture. Many unchurched people already assume that they should go to church. So our outreach merely reinforces the cultural assumption that church attendance is important.

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Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax is first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ. Trevin currently serves the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. He has been a regular blogger since 2006 and regularly contributes articles to publications such as Christianity Today. He authored two books, "Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals" (2010) and "Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope" (2011).

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