Listening to the Unchurched

Those who are without a church affiliation and seldom, if ever, attend are often described by church members as being irreligious, unfaithful, self-centered and a couple of dozen other equally unflattering adjectives. But there are at least three problems associated with such a hasty judgment, as a recent survey of the unchurched done in Charlotte, N.C., seems to point out.

The widely respected Barna Group of California recently completed this survey by asking the simple question, “Why don’t you go to church?”

Barna, which has conducted research for such national organizations as the Disney Channel, Focus on the Family, VISA, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, came up with some very revealing information. What they discovered ought to compel church members not to judge so much as to reflect, and not to condemn those who don’t condemn those who don’t attend church, but to ask themselves what they are doing that discourages outsiders from coming.

Snap Judgment Problems

The problem with making snap judgments concerning the unchurched is, first of all, that these judgments are incorrect; second, they keep us from looking more objectively at ourselves, and third, they deflect from what should be the Church’s mission of concentrating on real evangelization.

For starters, the Barna group discovered that 74 percent of those who don’t attend church say they don’t because they see no value in it. They often reported that they could connect with God as easily, if not better, on the golf course as they could in a worship service.

There is an extremely important point to be made here. These people gave as their reason for non-attendance, not that they were atheists or agnostics, but that they believed in God, yet didn’t think that they could nurture their belief very well in a church. This verdict would be similar to McDonald’s discovering that people wanted hamburgers, but didn’t think McDonald’s was a place to get them.

Too Many Problems

A very strong second reason given by the unchurched was their perception that churches have too many problems. Sixty-one percent saw this a major problem. Is the reputation of the Church among the unchurched a reputation in shambles? These non-attenders often reported viewing churches and their members as being either inflexible, hypocritical, judgmental, or just plain mean. Division and discord are deemed as being more present in churches than in other groups. As one man in the survey said, “I’ve got enough problems in my life. Why should I go to church and get more?”

A third reason why people don’t attend church — and this appeared on 48 percent of the lists — was that they simply don’t have time. The business community has begun to recognize the fact that time has replaced money as the main currency of society. Rather than asking, “How much does this cost?” people are more prone to ask, “How long will this take?”

Sundays have become, for millions of people, the only day to “play.” Since many church services are scheduled from 11 a.m. until noon, in the minds of the unchurched that takes up their morning as well as their early afternoon and it becomes too high a price to pay for something many regard as having “no value.”

Forty-two percent of those in the survey listed, “I’m simply not interested” as one of the major reasons for non-attendance. This perhaps may be the most difficult of all categories with which churches must deal, since it is not a matter of the church attempting to make adjustments in activity or image, but rather one of attempting to generate interest when it is apparently not there. We sympathize with the elementary school teacher attempting to get Johnny excited by math when his mind is on baseball.

Too Money-Oriented

Forty percent of the people surveyed mentioned their feeling that churches were too money-oriented and basically more interested in their wallets than in them as persons. The recent scandals involving televangelists seem to underline this concern, and what has happened with media religion seems to have been projected to the local congregation on Main Street.

Still another significant number surveyed perceived religion as being boring and irrelevant. This response seem to corroborate the lead item response that they saw no value in church attendance. Interestingly, only 12 percent of unchurched people said they did not attend because they didn’t believe in God. While many in the Church have assumed that the unchurched have rejected faith itself, this does not seem to be true. Many claimed to be open to spiritual things, but have closed themselves to institutional expressions of spirituality. For the most part, it is not God they have rejected; it is the Church.

If the Charlotte survey is any indication of what the unchurched population is thinking — and there is no reason to doubt that it is a typical slice of society — then the Church is left with a curious recipe of both good and bad ingredients. The good news is that the overwhelming majority of those outside its walls have not rejected God, but the bad news is that they continue to reject the way it is representing God.

To be sure, churches face an uphill climb, but not an impossible one. If they are willing to take to heart the information gathered by a nationally respected polling agency, they at least have the foundation on which to build. Laying the groundwork for more effective ministry involves a number of adjustments which include changing our stereotypes of the unchurched, placing a greater emphasis on the spiritual, striving to be more flexible in compromising difference, and looking for more creative ways to achieve relevancy in presenting spiritual truths. While the Gospel may not be irrelevant, apparently the churches’ methods of presenting it are being seen by others as being that way.

Program changes begin with attitude changes. If churches are willing to alter their attitudes, they will have taken the first major step toward possible recovery of at least a portion of the population which describes itself as being alienated from their sanctuaries.

DR. DICKSON has spent 53 years as a Lutheran pastor, college professor, and writer. He lives in Hickory, N.C.