The Un-Churched Next Door

November 17, 2011

It has been an encouraging trend.  After several months during which we observed a score of painful defections from our church, the past few months have seen a rebound.  We have been blessed to see a number of new folks join our fellowship. Among them are a handful of mature transplants, Christians new to our area, who bring with them a measure of much appreciated stability. But maybe even more exciting is the number of those who had been previously un-churched.  These folks add something refreshing.  They are a reminder of an important aspect of what we are about – or at least what we should be about as the church of Jesus Christ in our community.  I want us to be a church that sees growth primarily through conversion, and by assimilating the formerly un-churched and de-churched,  not growth by enticing the transient hoppers to come from whatever pews they are presently adorning.

I use the term “un-churched” intentionally.  I know it has been common in the past to refer to reaching the “lost” – something I agree is important.  I also realize that this shift to reach the “un-churched” has caused a bit of concern to some who fear that this is somehow a compromise of our evangelistic mandate. But this is no compromise.

Our forefathers in the Faith long asserted that “ordinarily there is no salvation apart from the church”.  The word “ordinarily” is important, because it admits that there are circumstances where men and women are legitimately regenerated and converted and yet, for whatever the reasons, are not a part of any visible expression of the Body of Christ.  But the word ordinarily also conveys that this situation ought to be highly unusual.  Implied in this expression is that whenever someone is not a part of a visible church, genuine Believer or not, there is reason to assume that they are not Christians. This is not judgment. It is simply a rational assumption based on evidence and what scripture declares to be the expected norm.

What I appreciate about this position is the simplicity.  Rather than attempting to discern which of the un-churched are Christians and which are among the “lost” – a task that is essentially near impossible, since I cannot see into each heart as God does –  instead assume all are in need of grace.  My role, and our role as the church, is simply to express the gospel to them through both Word & Deed, and encourage them to unite with some faithful congregation – hopefully many of them to ours.  In the region where we live (Appalachia), where most people make some profession of being a Christian, even if many have no idea of what that actually means, it certainly clarifies our mandate for outreach and evangelism.

But with the number of un-churched friends we are now making, I am reminded of an important detail: Not all the un-churched are the same, and thus they should not all be treated exactly the same.  In other words there are distinctions between the un-churched, categories or levels of their un-churchedness.

Thom Rainer, in his book The Unchurched Next Door, reveals the findings of research by the Rainer Group that is both important and helpful.  Rainer observes that there are five categories, or five degrees, of un-churched:

U-5

Research shows that the U-5 person is typically the most resistant and antagonistic to the church and to the gospel. Encouragingly, the U-5’s make up only 5% of the unchurched. Research showed that this group of people are the wealthiest unchurched people; the most educated among the unchurched; likely to be over fifty years of age; not likely to ever attend church; they do not pray; they have a condescending view of the Bible; a negative view of the church and are less likely to believe in the existence of heaven and hell. The research team discovered the following five key issues in reaching U5’s.

Understand that a U-5 is not a typical unchurched person. (Focus on moving the U5 along their faith journey to becoming a U4, U3, etc. and eventually saved.)  Apologetics can be effective with U-5’s. (Given that this person is educated and does not believe in the Bible, an explanation or defense of Christianity is an effective approach.)  Many U-5’s are ignorant about Christianity.  (They are the most “never churched” of the unchurched, and often have an incorrect view of church and the Bible. With gentleness and wisdom you can correct these misconceptions.)  Understand that you are often dealing with hurt and angry people amongst the U-5’s. (Many have had a life experience where God or church has been blamed. Pray, encourage and serve these people. Your Christ-like attitude may nudge them along the Rainer scale.)  Long-term relationships are a key.  (Many U-5’s cited that the reason they came to faith was because of a long-standing friendship with a believer).

U-4

When considering the U-4 person, we must understand they are not like the U-5’s.  U-5’s are a category that stands alone, all other categories change in degrees. The differences between U-5’s and U-4’s are quite dramatic. U-4’s believe in heaven, though not an orthodox view. Many believed in hell, although research showed that U-4’s found hell not to be as believable as heaven. U-4’s are a pluralistic group; they will affirm all religions, preferring not to discriminate against another. Again the U-4’s view on God is not orthodox as Christians understand. U-4’s had trouble articulating who Jesus is, with reticence to see Jesus as the unique Son of God. When it comes to the Bible, U-4’s have a wide range of views on this text, but most have some level of respect for God’s Word. Whereas only 13 % of U-5’s prayed, this is lifted to 46 % amongst U-4’s. Prayer was used mainly during times of great need and although the U-4 was not convinced if anyone was listening, they had nothing to lose anyway! Although U-4’s are resistant to any presentation of the gospel, 48 % indicated they were somewhat likely to attend church if invited. Classically U-4 are resistant but NOT antagonistic like their U-5 friends.

Although the U-4’s have some strange if not weird viewpoints on Christianity, they are open to spiritual matters. This in itself gives the Christian a great opportunity to connect. Their viewpoints give a starting point from which the Christian can engage and share the gospel. Discussions on the afterlife are a great opportunity with this group. The challenge with this group is not to think they are so left of centre that they cannot be reached! They are a far cry from the antagonistic U5, remember they are resistant NOT antagonistic!

U-3

The key word when considering the group defined as U-3 is ‘neutral’. U-3’s are not overly interested in the gospel or church yet they also show no animosity. They are a non-committal group, when asked questions about faith and church they have the tendency to give short answers yet they are willing to learn. They are not antagonistic or resistant. Of all un-churched people, the U-3’s are the largest group that we deal with in society. Most U-3’s would indicate a belief in God yet their understanding of basic Christian theology is little less than weird (heaven could be a place that you create for yourself, so could hell for that matter). The U-3 believes in heaven and hell yet clearly not an orthodox view. Within the U-3 category we have the ‘leaners’, some lean toward being a U-2 and some lean toward being a U-4. Some have moved away from the neutral response but are not typically open like the U-2 and some have not yet arrived at neutral, however they are not resistant like the U-4. We need to remember these two sub groups within the group. U-3’s are very open to an invitation to church, research showing that 86% are somewhat likely to attend if asked. U-3 also see the church as relevant. They are not saying church is irrelevant. The number one reason they don’t attend is time. Two thirds of this group indicated that they prayed regularly, suggesting they are quite a spiritual group. Praying to who and what is the main concern. Much to our surprise, this group has a positive view of ministers and a significant number of them have at some stage attended Sunday school or small groups within a church setting. This group is eager to learn. They are willing to hear more about the Bible and faith, so inviting them along to small group settings where Bible studies are held is often fruitful. They are willing to contribute and discuss matters of faith.  Be proactive with this group. They are open to listen.

U-2

When considering the U-2 person we must see the great openness they have to the gospel and to church. This is an exciting group to reach out to. It is interesting to note that a U-2 is more likely to be a female than a male, with no conclusive reasoning. The typical U-2 has a very orthodox view of Christianity, their beliefs in heaven and hell and the person of Christ are identical to most Christians. The income level of the U-2’s is the lowest of all groups; it appears that materialism is correspondingly low. This is in sharp contrast to the wealthy U-5’s. The downfall of this group, like the others, is that they still have a ‘works’ mentality when it comes to salvation. Even though they espouse Christian doctrine, the concept of free salvation with the need of repentance is foreign to them. They sound like a Christian in many ways, yet they do not have a personal relationship with Christ. Many have been witnessed to by family, parents particularly had a great Christian influence.  Often they grew up going to church, yet had a negative experience causing them to drift. To effectively reach out to U2’s one must remember that they are keen to study the Bible; they desire to talk about eternal issues; they need a correct understanding of salvation (not one of works). The negative experience of church needs to be ministered to and confidently one can invite these people to church. Research showed that 97% were very likely or somewhat likely to attend if invited.

U-1

“What must I do to be saved?”, is the cry of the U-1’s. This category of un-churched people are highly receptive. They are the most open to the gospel and church of all groups (U-5 – U-1). More U-1’s have some church background than any other group. It is seldom that you meet a U-1 that has not attended church at some time in their life. Very few U-1’s stopped attending church due to a negative experience. Quite the contrary, their memories of church are generally positive. The main reason that U-1’s do not attend church today is basically because they are too busy.  They cite many commitments that hold them back from church attendance. U-1’s have an affirmative attitude toward church. Raising a conversation in regard to church is most likely to result in a positive exchange. In fact, research shows that any conversation about church or invitation to church typically yields a favorable response. U-1’s also have an optimistic outlook on ministers; their experience of the clergy has generally been good. When it comes to doctrine, the Christian believer and the U-1 have much in common. A huge 94% of U-1’s believe in hell and 100% believe in heaven. Discussions on Jesus and who he is are extremely orthodox. The one differing understanding is that of salvation – U-1’s have a works mentality. They talk about having faith in Christ yet also espouse a belief that good works get you into heaven. They are somewhat confused over this crucial message of salvation. Overall, they are a nice group of people, they are positive toward the church, they believe in heaven and hell, they understand God to a degree, they are open to a discussion on faith, yet they do not understand the way to salvation.

The U-1 is simply waiting for a believer to explain and invite: Explain the gospel to them and Invite them to church. Many U-1’s receive salvation when the gospel is clearly articulated to them. Those that do not will come along to church, and after some personal reflection many will receive the free gift of salvation. It is vital that this group of unchurched have the gospel clearly explained to them AND that they are invited to church. The barriers that we see in all other groups (U-5 – U-4) do not exist with the U-1’s. They are highly receptive. Our job is simple: explain and invite. 97% are likely to come to church IF invited! The main reason why this highly receptive group are not saved is because the believers have not witnessed to them or invited them to church. The body of Christ has not succeeded in this respect.  Have a one-on-one conversation with a U-1 about the gospel, invite then to a Bible study or invite them to church, they are very open and waiting for the believer to approach them.

As a general principle I do not like to label people.  And no doubt there is a risk that by using  The Rainer Scale we might fall to the temptation to see our un-churched neighbors and friends as points on the scale, to objectify them.  Nevertheless, I find Rainer’s scale to be a helpful tool; a tool that helps me understand each person a little bit better.  And, isn’t  understanding the uniqueness of each individual a vital component toward loving them?

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