The unchurched

The unchurched: A rich source for Adventist outreach

Initiating a more informed and intentional outreach to a population increasingly unaware of the Church.

Russell Burrill, D.Min., is director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute (NADEI) and chair of the Department of Christian Ministry, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The United States of America is now one of the greatest mission fields in the world. Out of a population of about 300 million, over 200 million can be classified as unchurched; that is, they do not attend a church regularly on any given weekend.

This unchurched population is not secular anymore. The secularism of the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced by experiential religion. In the 1960s, Harvey Cox forecast in The Secular City that religion would decline as secularism took over. But he now admits that America is in a postsecular age. Secularism as such is dying, while religion remains a dominant factor in people's lives.1 America may be in the midst of one of the greatest "revivals" in history and yet this revival has left the organized church almost totally out of the picture, while a species of consumer religion takes its place.

George Barna groups the unchurched in the United States into five categories:2 atheists, 14 percent; those belonging to faiths other than Christian, 16 percent; nominal Christians, 42 percent; Christians with moderate commitment, 20 percent; Christians with absolute commitment, 8 percent.3 Imagine eight percent of the unchurched absolutely committed to the Christian faith and yet not attending any church! If the church could reap just this 8 percent, its membership would increase by 16 million.

Yet in spite of all the evangelism done by all the denominations, the percentage of Americans not attending church has remained constant. In other words, few respond to the vast amounts of energy expended to convert them. Mike Regele, in his book Death of the Church, declares that most churches have been growing by simply switching members from one denomination to another.4 His study also discovered that only two denominations successfully reach the unchurched, but they are so small, they don't make much difference.5

Regele found that nondenominational sects in the United States and churches such as New Age, Unitarians, Pentecostals, and Jehovah's Witnesses were on the winning side when people switched denominations. Adventist, Reformed/Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, and Catholic denominations came out on the losing side of all the switching of denominations.6 According to Regele, Seventh-day Adventists are doing a very poor job of "sheep stealing."

Regele's research also focused on who was reaching the unchurched. The top four groups reaching the unchurched were either not Christian or not Evangelical. They were, in descending order: New Age, Unitarian/Universalist, Hindu/Shinto/ Buddhist, and Jehovah's Witnesses. The next two groups were non-denominational ones. Close behind them were Seventh-day Adventists, followed by Presbyterians/ Reformed. The rest of the denominations were not very successful in reaching the unchurched.7

While Seventh-day Adventists can take comfort from these findings and pride them selves in being one of the denominations8 that is successfully reaching the unchurched, they must not forget Regele's conclusion that they don't make much of a difference because they are so small.

Seventh-day Adventists often decry the charge that they are not very successful in reaching the unchurched. However, the reason Adventists look good in this arena is that the record of everyone else is deplorable. Adventists need to remind themselves that our small drop is not making a major impact overall.

Adventists and the unreached

One of the surprising results of Regele's study was his discovery that Adventists are not good "sheep stealers." Most Adventists have assumed that the majority of people who join the Adventist Church come from some other denomination. That may have been true in the past, but it is no longer true. The vast majority who join the Adventist church are coming from an unchurched background.

This has at least two implications.

First, we can no longer assume that people understand the basics of the Christian faith when they join an Adventist Church. We must begin by teaching them the basic gospel.

Second, we need to improve our outreach to the people of other denominations. Here Adventists have given up too much to the nondenominational churches. According to Barna, as many as three out of four regular attendees are not biblical Christians, but simply attend the most visible of Christian events the weekly worship service.9 These people must be reached with the distinctive Christian message that is central to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

If Seventh-day Adventists are doing better than any other denomination in reaching the unchurched, then certainly some of our methods to reach them must be working well. Since most Adventist evangelism has been in the form of traditional public evangelistic series concentrating on the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, it is easy to conclude that this form of evangelism must be successful in reaching the unchurched.

When I first read Regele's findings on Adventists and the unchurched, I was skeptical. I then began to analyze the fruits of my own evangelistic series. I discovered that initially we had churched, as well as unchurched people attending our evangelistic series. However, as the meetings advanced, I noticed it was the churched who began to drop out and the unchurched who stayed. We then ended the meetings, baptizing primarily unchurched people.

I usually use two handbills in my meetings and compare the results of each. Handbills with Jesus on the cover, usually draw a more churched crowd, whereas handbills with all the prophetic beasts featured have a tendency to draw a more unchurched crowd. Evidently, unchurched people are drawn, initially at least, by the Adventist prophetic approach.

Which of the unchurched groups are we reaching with this approach? In terms of Barna's identifications, we are probably reaching the eight per cent who are totally committed to the Christian faith and some of the 20 percent who are moderately commit ted to Christianity. What about the rest? I believe no one has been successful in reaching the other 72 percent of unchurched Americans. That is the challenge for all Christians.

In preparation for the international church-planting conference, SEEDS 2001, I asked Dr. Joseph Kidder, a colleague at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, to contact every conference in North America to find out what innovative types of evangelism were being used success fully today. After contacting nearly every conference, he reported that, almost without exception, none of the many innovative approaches tried had worked.

The only approach that was working was public evangelism in one form or another. One conference administrator indicated that his conference had put nearly a million dollars into innovative approaches to evangelism, but finally realized that they were apparently just wasting the money expended. They eventually came back to using traditional public meetings.

Trying new approaches

Does this mean we should not try new evangelistic strategies? Absolutely not. At the same time we must realize that we have yet to discover a strategy that actually brings in people better than the relatively traditional approach of public evangelism.

Many complain about public evangelism, but again, we have not yet discovered anything that comes near to being as successful in reaching unchurched people. Therefore, common sense tells us that we must not abandon the one thing that is at least reaching some segment of the unchurched population. At the same time, we must keep searching for something that will help us reach even more of the unchurched people.

It is also possible that the success of the more traditional public meeting is partially due to the fact that Seventh-day Adventists are so familiar with it, having had it so much a part of our cultural and ecclesiastical infrastructure for so many years. It is now so integral to our evangelistic approach that not only do congregations, pas tors and evangelists more naturally gravitate to it, but we are more adept and thus successful in carrying it out. This could imply that if we stayed with and refined some of the new approaches to the unchurched to the same extent as we have the more traditional approaches, in the long run the results may prove more satisfying.

Over the years, I have watched several new churches arise, attempt ing to target unchurched people. They have tried an array of innovative approaches to attract the unchurched population. The ones that have been successful usually have been planted in areas with a heavy Adventist population. They have been very successful in reaching "unchurched Adventists." However, there is usually only limited success here. Thus, they eventually plateau.

Very few have been successful in reaching the unchurched beyond the unchurched Adventist. They have attracted some unchurched people to their services, but have been unable to take them much beyond the initial contacts. Churches of this nature have rarely had success outside of the Adventist population centers.

Evangelism, a process

Where lies the solution? There is no easy answer. Again however, nothing seems as successful as the tried Adventist prophetic approach. Even though many unchurched will never be reached by this emphasis, it should be clear to us that we must not abandon our traditional prophetic approach. It is working and will continue to reach many people. The truth is that we still need to refine and increase our effective use of this medium to reach unchurched people.

It is important to remember that evangelism is a process. There is no one event that can do all the work. Sowing, cultivating, and reaping may still be reminders of our agrarian past, but they still illustrate the process nature of evangelism. Our problem with public evangelism is that we have expected it to do all three: sow, cultivate, and reap in just five weeks or less. Impossible. Public evangelism was never meant to do that; it is only the reaping arm of this threefold process.

I have discovered that church members involved in evangelism tend to err on two different sides of this process. Either they spend all their time sowing and some cultivating, or they major in reaping. Some even think that they can just go to the church, turn the satellite on, hoping that Mark Finley or Dwight Nelson will do all the rest. They may then even pronounce with certainty that they have tried "satellite evangelism" and it has not worked.

Of course, that's not surprising. Evangelism is a process and one can not reap if nothing has been sown. Despite the fact that God, of course, is always working and preparing people whom evangelists might reap in a series of meetings, usually if there is no human sowing, there will be very little reaping.

On the other side, there are those who focus on innovative ways of making friends with the unchurched, inviting them to church events and attempting to involve them in an array of ways in the life of the church community. Unfortunately many of these initiatives fail to ever see many people being baptized and joining the church. They just become good Mends. The reason: They are sowing and cultivating, but never hold a reaping event. My observation is that a lot of things we have tried have been successful and did what they were intended to do. However, we have not seen them as part of a holistic process; sowing, cultivating, and reaping.

If we desire to increase our ability to reach the unchurched, we must all keep on doing what we are doing, but add the things we have left out. If we have been focusing on reaping, keep up the reaping events, but add to it much sowing and cultivating.

If a congregation has been majoring in sowing and cultivating, inviting people to the feast, but have not held a reaping event, then continue the sowing and cultivating, but add reaping. It does not have to be a traditional prophetic approach, but some kind of reaping event is definitely needed.

Our research discovered some innovative forms of public evangelism that are working. Many are shorter events than the five weeks of the traditional model, but there is a definite event for reaping. Without it the harvest will be lost.

If Adventists could successfully marry reaping events to the innovative sowing and cultivating we do, we have the potential to reach a much greater segment of the unchurched than at present.

1 See Preface to Thomas G Bandy, Kicing Habits (Nashville, Tenn. : Abingdon Press, 1997), 11.

2 George Barna Seminar, Indianapolis, May 2001.

3 The Barna study identifies the desire for increased knowledge and understanding of the Bible as being critical to the interest found in this 8 percent of committed Christians among the unchurched Seventh-day Adventist approaches to evangelism should be aware of this as they seek to reach this segment of the American population.

4 Mike Regele, Death of the Church (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan Publishing), 154-160.

5 Ibid, 160-164

6 Ibid, 155.

7 Ibid, 162.

8 Nondenominational churches by their very nature are not considered denominations, hence Seventh-day Adventists would be doing better, according to Regele, than any other denomination in reaching unchurched people.

9 George Barna, Barna Research Online, 2001.

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Russell Burrill, D.Min., is director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute (NADEI) and chair of the Department of Christian Ministry, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

June 2002

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