Reaching the unchurched

The causes for the present estrangement from the church and how to overcome it.

Peter Roennfeldt is ministerial secretary for the Trans-European Division, St. Albans, Hertsfordshire, England.

On a flight from London to Warsaw, I fell into conversation with the young man seated beside me. Over the next hour or so I learned about his work as a physician. We discussed politics, sports, the economy, lifestyle issues. Finally, he asked, "And, what do you do?"

I told him of my work as a pastor, equip ping pastors and supporting initiatives to relate the Christian faith to modern people. Finally, I asked him, "Tell me, are spiritual issues important to you? Are you a person of faith? A Christian perhaps?"

"You know, I have never ever thought about that," he said. "I guess I should think about faith and the spiritual dimension of life. But I have never given church or Christianity any thought at all!"

That statement characterizes the experience of many unchurched people and clearly illustrates the challenge that we must relate to in sharing the gospel with unchurched, post-Christian, postmodern people. This article will focus on reaching these people; those living in communities that were once considered to be Christian but no longer are.

The challenge

Our world is very different to that which, and from which, J. N. Andrews sailed 126 years ago. At the end of the nineteenth century the future of the Church in western lands looked promising. "At the beginning of [the twentieth century], it was possible for European and American Christians of every persuasion to look back on the previous century with some satisfaction."1

However, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, western societies (including large portions of the United States), to a great extent, are alienated from the church and indifferent to the gospel.2 Today, the majority are "extraordinarily ignorant of the barest out lines of ... Christianity."3 Many unchurched people have not given Christianity any thought at all. Michael Green puts it bluntly, "It doesn't enter their minds."4

A number of factors have eroded the impact of Christianity. An awareness of these factors may alert us as to how to work for and win unchurched people to Christ. These factors include:

1. The alienation of the masses by competing and secular ideologies. Five hundred years ago the Renaissance informed the masses that the church's worldview was not the only one, and the seeds of pluralism and secularism were sown. The Reformation broke the ecclesiastical stranglehold of the church. The Bible was read and much of church dogma was discredited. Nationalism shattered Europe. Science challenged the church's prescientific assumptions of the universe, and the climate was right for Enlightenment to elevate human reason and progress. The industrial revolution spawned urbanization, breaking family ties, challenging traditional values and further alienating the masses from Creation and the values of the gospel. The Christian story of the descent of humanity was replaced by the secular story of ascent.5

These developments and competing ideologies have pushed the church from center-stage.

2. The destruction of faith through war. War separates people from their normal work and church life. Church attendance in Europe decreased following the outbreak of World War I, and many did not resume church life after that war. The downward slide continues.

Christian nations at war with each other (each claiming that God is on their side), the tragedy of sectarian violence and religious/ethnic cleansing, and the readiness of Christian nations to use their military power do nothing to commend Christianity as a faith that can heal hurting people.

But, more than that, the horrors of "total war"6 destroy faith. A young professional said to me recently, "It is difficult to believe that it is God answering the prayers of affluent Christians today when He couldn't hear the cries of the children in the death camps. I have a lot of difficulty with prayer!"

3. The challenge of other religions and rising nationalism. The "other major world religions have not just disappeared as the Christian gospel has been proclaimed. On the contrary, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam have undergone an unexpected renewal during the past eighty years."7

Spirituality is not entirely absent among the unchurched, even though most people today do not adhere to or order their lives by Christian under standings. If pressed, many (about 39 percent in Europe) acknowledge some belief in God, although their under standings of God are rarely shaped by biblical concepts. More and more unchurched people are attracted to other world religions or to neo-pagan "spiritualities" and philosophies. Whereas in the nineteenth century Christianity was seen as the religion of colonialism from the west, in the last half of the twentieth century other religions have represented emerging nationalism.

4. The negative perceptions of the church and distrust of all things institutional. Many people have painful stories of how the church failed them or their ancestors at the most sensitive times. Real or imagined, the causes of resentment seem endless. Of course, some don't like the way the Church challenges sin. But, it is tragic that so many perceive the Church to be uncaring, arrogant, abusive, hierarchical, and lacking justice and equality. Also, there is the perception that the Church is divided against itself, with so many denominations and so many off-shoots trying the reform the reformers.

Add to these negative perceptions the cynicism towards all things institutional: we should not be surprised to find Christianity's relevance being questioned.

5. Worldviews that most find more attractive than Christianity. Our generation has been shaped by four major forces: postmodernism; broken, blended, and busy families; modern technology; and disillusionment.8 Postmodernism advocates that there is no one, universal answer. All truth is relative. Diametrically opposed truths can coexist. People have learned to live with contradictions and disillusionment. They don't believe there is absolute truth—nor do they perceive that there is an answer. Most have settled on a mix of worldviews that is more attractive than Christianity.

Most unchurched people are not impressed by our institutional medical work or school systems. They don't know or care about ADRA. They are not interested in church or in God. They don't view their lives as empty, but as normal. They're just interested in living life day by day. These are the unchurched that I speak of.

We must face the challenge squarely. With large numbers being baptized in some parts of the world, we can eas ily gloss over this challenge and the lack of response from the post- Christian, postmodern millions. Some suggest that if we adopted the models of South or Central America, or pastoral staffing levels of Africa or the Pacific regions, then we would see the growth in the west that is seen in those places. However, I have seen a person responsible for 250-plus baptisms per year in one country move to a secular city like Melbourne, Australia—and there (even with a vibrant church) struggle to baptize 10 to 15 per year. Evangelists baptize hundreds in Romania but avoid the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden.

It's difficult for us to be open about this challenge, for we want to see and report growth. Although many of us live as a sub-culture among the unchurched, we may not be entirely aware of the enormity of the challenge. Even the moderate success we enjoy in evangelism comes from first generation immigrants who come to predominantly unchurched cultures.

The unchurched present us with one of the most challenging mission fields—with their widespread unbelief, apathy, and hostility towards Christianity.9 Observers perceive that a totally new approach is needed. "Not a better-organized church but a different church; a mission church," says Martin Robinson.10

Now, with this challenge before us, what are the possibilities for the future? There are initiatives within the Christian community and Adventism that are worth noting. Some of these could give us a guide to future possibilities.

The Alpha initiative

This initiative, developed by Nicky Gumbel, came out of Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican Church in London. It is basic Christianity, simply introducing God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Why has it attracted millions and why have Adventist pastors and members been able to use it successfully in leading unchurched people to Jesus? Observe how it works.

  • It is built around the idea of inviting unchurched people to a friend's home for food, fellowship, fun, and spiritual/Bible discovery in small groups.
  • It doesn't rush people. It gives eleven weeks for unchurched people to mix with Christian friends while they learn some basics about Jesus.
  • It provides an opportunity for unchurched people to experience God. The seventh weekend is spent away together to relate to God. This is extremely important, for truth today is what people experience, not just what we say to be truth.
  • It leads unchurched people gently to talk through their questions, doubts, fears, and negative perceptions, even as it provides an environment for people to be introduced to the Bible.
  • It is personal. To attend an Alpha group, unchurched people don't go out to a program; they go next door to see friends.
  • It is perceived to be Christian rather than denominational. Although some groups use Gumbel's video presentations, there is no suggestion that he is a front for a particular denomination. Nor is it seen as the scheme of some little known foreign religious sect. Unchurched peopledon't trust denominations or institutions, and they don't want to get caught by crackpots!
  • It takes advantage of a mass media campaign (with billboards, television, and newspaper advertising), but it is built on trained friends next door.
  • It has the drawing power that is always associated with the sharing of the gospel.

Some raise the objection, "It is not Adventist!" This is followed by the question, "Do we need an Adventist version?" Those Adventists who are using it would answer, "No. It presents basic Christianity, and we can build on this initiative that is reaching many unchurched people."

New church plants that identify with their communities

There are spontaneous church plants where dedicated members and perhaps a visionary pastor simply move out of an existing church and start another worship service. There is also a need for strategic church plant ing where a clear strategy is followed to establish a church that will become part of the life of the unchurched community. This is consistent with the incarnational ministry of Jesus to be the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13) and with Paul's testimony that he was prepared to be as all things to all people in order to win some for Jesus (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

We need some church plants that reflect some of our existing churches. However, if we are going to reach unchurched people, we need to accept church plants that are radical ly different from the existing churches. Let me describe a couple of these church plants.

1. The Cafe Church in Copenhagen, Denmark, is reaching unchurched people. Five years ago three or four friends were sharing and praying, and endeavoring to reach former Adventists. After two years of ministry the three or four had grown to four or five. Then their focus changed. They decided to share their faith with unchurched friends. There are now 65 to 70 worshiping each Sabbath—15 to 20 former members, about 15 having a Christian background, and 30 to 35 unchurched people.

They researched their target group, and found that the environment in which the group is most comfortable is a cafe. So they prepared a room as an up-market, downtown cafe, complete with professional band (keyboard, drums, guitar, and saxophone). They invited friends to Saturday night cafe, talking around the tables with coffee and cake, providing music and secular entertainment.

When asked about the venue, the friends were told this was also where they discussed spiritual and topical issues on Saturday afternoons. (Note: 10:00 o'clock on Saturday morning is not prime time for this target group!) Unchurched friends were invited, and they started to come.

Some Adventists looking on ask, "When will these people attend a real church?" But, this is real church!

2. Southside Community Church in Brisbane, Australia, is reaching the unchurched. Six years ago Pastor Ken Houliston, his family, and a core of about fifteen people planted this Adventist Church with a vision to reach unchurched people. The church has now grown to about 220 worshipers. Because of the commitment to relate in a relevant way to the community, it has attracted some former members and worshipers from other churches.

Ken has worked to establish an Adventist church that is so significant that the community will pay them to stay. Recently when they moved into their second facility since starting the church, the unchurched community and business leaders provided AUS$300,000 and supplies to outfit the building.

Community leaders testify that the drug abuse level and the crime rate in this city has declined since Southside Community Church began. The warehouse—which is their church—is the center for indoor football, a professional rock-climbing wall, and where you drop in to play pool. It is the community youth drop-in-center, where youth go to find counseling, support, and safehousing. This church is where some unchurched university students do work experience as community social workers. Many of the staff—receptionists, ministry leaders, and personnel—are unchurched people.

Some Adventists looking on say, "But when will it become a real Adventist church?" But, this is a real Adventist church—reaching the unchurched.

Refocused churches with a strategy

One quality marks every church that is reaching the unchurched: a strategy to reach lost people! These churches study the unchurched peo ple of their communities. They deter mine the path that most unchurched people may walk if they were to come to faith and discipleship. They list the steps that people may take, and they position their churches on those steps.

Ellen White describes the five-step strategy that Jesus followed: "The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, 'Follow Me.'"11

It may be at steps four or five (after two to three years of fellowship with an Adventist Christian) that an unchurched person may attend church. Therefore, the churches that are committed to sharing faith with the unchurched will prioritize ministries and programs that position themselves on the path at steps one to three, so as to establish contact with many unchurched people.

Jesus was on the path where the unchurched walked. It is not easy to get out and onto this path. But the following provide a context that unchurched people can understand, be challenged by and respond to, and experience.

1. An embodied apologetic: the Word made flesh. Unchurched people don't trust institutions, but they can under stand a local church that works in changing lives and communities.12

2. Authentic friendship and narrative evangelism. Unchurched people respond to genuine care and concern.13 They also relate to narrative evangelism—sharing with them our relationship with Jesus and His Spirit, rather than just confronting them with doctrinal truth. Narrative evangelism shares how God's story has called into question our story and changed the course of our lives.14

3. Experience and involvement. Few unchurched people respond to the confrontational approach to evangelism or church. Such evangelism is seen as manipulative. Give people time to understand and experience the basics of Christianity.

4. Something new and creative. Informality, contemporary styles of music, participation in direction and planning, an opportunity to make a difference, leaders who listen, choices and options, encouragement and involvement15—these are the syntax of the language that unchurched people understand. Church traditions or structures of the past do not really matter.

5. Christians who act Christianly.

Insights for the future

We need to support new and innovative approaches, for reaching the unchurched is like reaching into an unknown culture for most Christians. Ellen White wrote, "The people of every country have their own peculiar, distinctive characteristics, and it is necessary that men should be wise in order that they may know how to adapt themselves to the peculiar ideas of the people, and so introduce the truth that they may do them good. They must be able to understand and meet their wants."16

Reaching the unchurched has implications for all of us:

  • Don't ignore the local church.
  • Encourage and support innovative methods at local-church level.
  • Expect each local church to be different—sometimes radically so.
  • View evangelistic small groups as essential to the life of each Adventist.
  • Cultivate a culture of church planting.
  • Expect all churches (and pastors) to support church planting.
  • Reach the unchurched by friends, not by program or technology.
  • Remember personal work is absolutely vital.
  • Emphasize the power of prayer and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
  • Pray for a revival of the biblical "every believer a minister" concept.
  • Use user-friendly buildings (warehouses, offices, and homes) as worship/outreach centers, rather than church-type buildings.
  • Build a model church that is both biblical (Acts 2:42-47) and culturally relevant to the unchurched.
  • Speak to the questions of the unchurched.

1 Martin Robinson, To Win the West (East Sussex: Monarch, 1996), 37.

2 George Hunter III, How to Reach Secular People (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), 26.

3 Michael Green and Alister McGrath, How Shall We Reach Them? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 27.

4 Ibid., 32.

5 Robinson, 65.

6 Ibid., 59.

7 Ibid., 73.

8 Tim Celek and Dieter Zander, Inside the Soul of a New Generation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 41-70.

9 Robinson, 58.

10 Ibid., 63.

11 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1942), 143.

12 Kevin Ford, festis For a New Generation (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996), 178, 179.

13 Christian A. Schwarz, Natural Church Development (British Church Growth Assn., 1996), 36.

14 Ford, 229, 230.

15 Philip Hughes, "Assessing Congregational Vitality" (Pointers: Bulletin of the Christian Research Ass/2., June 1997. Vol. 7, No. 2.) 2, 3—in a report on the National Church Life Survey book, Shaping the Future (1997).

16 White, Testimonies to Ministers (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1962), 213.

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Peter Roennfeldt is ministerial secretary for the Trans-European Division, St. Albans, Hertsfordshire, England.

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