According to a Gallup survey, 78 percent of Americans claim to be Christian.1 Of this, however, only 20 percent ever attend church.2 Even more disturbing is the accelerating decline of young people attending church. In his book, Surprising Insights From the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, Thom S. Rainer says, “Each new generation becomes increasingly unchurched.”3 The most often cited reason for this decline in church attendance is the irrelevance of the church. Simply put, people do not enjoy church. Currently, only about 29 percent of people in their twenties and thirties are interested in attending church, compared to 41 percent of people in their fifties and sixties.4
In today’s climate, if church is not fun, church attendance tends to suffer. By the word fun we do not mean superficial, jovial, or playful; we mean enjoyable. When we say, “I had fun at work today,” or, “My class was so much fun,” we really mean that our experience at work or in class was enjoyable and pleasant. Our church services need to be enjoyable. How can we achieve that objective—making church enjoyable?
Here are seven principles that have consistently turned otherwise irrelevant and unappealing churches into intensely interesting places where people connect with Jesus Christ in a life-transforming way. I call them the magnificent seven.
Principle 1: Make your preaching biblical and relevant
The Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth conducted a six-year study involving more than 2,000 churches from numerous denominations in a wide variety of geographical regions. From these churches, 353 persons were selected for in-depth interviews. These were formerly unchurched persons who have become actively involved in church attendance. The findings of this research were published in the book Surprising Insights From the Unchurched. Thirteen factors were identified as significant in leading the unchurched to become active in church attendance. Of these 13, one factor identified by more than 90 percent of those surveyed is biblical preaching. Says Rainer, “Now we are hearing from the formerly unchurched that preaching that truly teaches the Bible in its original context is a major factor in reaching the unchurched. . . . Pastors who understand this and who communicate doctrine clearly are among the leaders whose churches are reaching the unchurched.”5 The apostle Paul understood this principle. He spoke from the Word, and his messages were met with interest by the people he encountered. That made his messages relevant.
In Des Moines, Iowa, there is a Lutheran church that thousands of people attend each Sunday. When I asked a member what accounted for such growth, he said, “It’s our pastor. He preaches the most interesting and relevant sermons right from the Bible.”
At a time when Christian faith and values are under attack and being eroded, and when more and more are becoming unchurched, is it not the responsibility of the church, the believers, and the pastors to affirm and proclaim a message that is biblical, relevant, and interesting? We have the light of the Bible and the truth that the world looks for. We have the most interesting and compelling messages to give to a world groping in darkness. Should we, as pastors, not emphasize biblical preaching in a planned, serious way?
Principle 2: Be caring and authentic
Personal interaction with the pastor was identified by 90 percent of the formerly unchurched as the second most important factor that influenced their return to church. They did not say they had a friendship with the pastor, but that their interactions with the pastor left them feeling confident that the pastor was authentic and that he or she cared for them. Ellen G. White understood this critical relationship between the pastor and the members of the church. “The people will seldom rise higher than their minister.”6
Some time ago, I was standing in the fellowship dinner line of the church when I noticed a lady I had seen only a couple of times before. As I was selecting my food, I engaged her in some casual conversation. A few days later, I got a phone call from her friend, a member of my congregation, who had invited her to church. “Pastor,” she said, “thank you so much for talking with my friend at lunch last Sabbath. She told me no pastor had ever inquired about her well-being in her whole life and it meant so much to her. She decided our church is the one she wants to attend.” It was a brief conversation, but through the Holy Spirit, it meant all the difference to that lady.
Principle 3: Build a friendly and receptive church
The unchurched identified the receptivity of church members as the third most significant factor in their decision to attend that particular church. “Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do,” wrote the apostle, “but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Heb. 10:25).7
Ellen White emphasized the powerful influence church members have on visitors. She wrote, “The Lord does not now work to bring many souls into the truth, because of the church members who have never been converted and those who were once converted but who have backslidden. What influence would these unconsecrated members have on new converts? Would they not make of no effect the God-given message which His people are to bear?”8
Clayton and Audrey Child of Spokane, Washington, are a perfect example of the influence church members can have on the desirability and growth of a church. They constantly seek out visitors, get acquainted with them, and invite them home for an enjoyable Sabbath lunch. Often they attend special occasions such as birthday celebrations, weddings, funerals, and graduations in the lives of these newfound friends. Their friendliness and sincere concern are almost contagious. The Childs have sincere hearts, genuine smiles, joyful greetings, and a willingness to show up and support others. You never hear them criticize others, but often their voices are lifted up in prayer for those in need. With members like these, is it any wonder the church remains strong and influential?
Principle 4: Cultivate creative and attractive church services
Much thought, prayer, planning, and preparation are essential to make a worship service creative and appealing. Few churches invest that kind of time in their programs. In many churches, the liturgy, or the order of service, has not changed in years.
Here are some practical suggestions that may help you make your church service more appealing.
- Simplify your liturgy. Do not try to crowd in too many things. People often get lost in the details.
- Use art. PowerPoint slides, videos, skits, paintings, banners, natural greenery, even stuffed animals, and the like add to the visual appeal of your sanctuary or worship hall.
- If you can, incorporate music into your messages. A well-placed song will reinforce your message in a way nothing else can. Invite the congregation to sing with you. In doing so, you have accomplished two things more participation and auditory enrichment.
- Use illustrations in your preaching. They are still the windows of the sermon, allowing fresh air to fi ll the room of listeners.
- Encourage participation. Some pastors field impromptu Bible questions from the congregation in place of a sermon. Thus, constant interest is maintained.
- A concert now and then is another powerful element to incorporate into your worship schedule.
- Testimonies from the congregation, whether planned or spontaneous, will draw the attention of people in a very meaningful way.
Principle 5: Prayer is still the key
Prayer is essential to achieve a positive atmosphere in the church and to bring people to a saving relationship with Jesus. The apostle Paul urged Timothy, a young pastor, to be faithful in prayer: “I urge you, fi rst of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. . . . This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1, 3, 4).
One evening as I was considering the thoughts God had impressed on my heart to share that week in church, I knelt to pray. Soon I was drawn into an intense period of prayer for the unchurched. This continued for some time, and finally,
I was released from the burden. The next day, as I was greeting people at the door after the service, I noticed a young lady in her early thirties sitting nervously in the back pew of the church, waiting to visit with me. Tracy said she occasionally came to church to support her Christian husband. She admitted she normally did not listen to the sermon but brought reading material instead. However, on this particular Sabbath, she was compelled to listen to the sermon and could think of nothing but how much she needed God. When the sermon was over, she and her husband left immediately. When they were only a few blocks from the church, Tracy insisted her husband turn around and take her back. “I just have to talk to the pastor,” she said.
As Tracy told me her story, she was shaking and I could see she was very troubled. She said, “Look at me. What has happened to me? I have never felt like this before, and I don’t know what to do.” I shared the gospel story with Tracy, emphasizing how much God loves her, and how Jesus died to take away her sins. When I finished, I invited Tracy to accept Jesus as her Savior. She readily agreed, and we prayed right then. As soon as she said “Amen,” a peace and joy settled over her entire being. From that day till now, she has been a great blessing to our church. Prayer made the church service intensely personal and powerful to Tracy that day.
Principle 6: Provide for recreation and friendship
I am convinced that recreation in an enjoyable setting brings people together and makes it much easier to cultivate friendship. It has often been said and anecdotally noted that many Seventh-day Adventists who leave the church do so not because of doctrine but because of an absence of meaningful relationships with other members. Spending time together in more relaxed settings builds such relationships.
I am also convinced that when we open our church social programs to interested community members, we find friendship and communication develop between church members and the unchurched. Of course, when you do so, you may need to budget sufficient funds, and, if necessary, charge a small fee, so as to make these social events special and interesting. Through such social interactions, church members will have opportunities to make new friends and such friendships may lead to sharing one’s faith.
Principle 7: Engage in spiritual conversations
Once new friendships are formed, friends will ask questions regarding your faith in such a natural way that it will be easy for you to give them an answer because, after all, they are your friends. The next thing you know, you are leading them to know and receive Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Jesus said to His disciples, “ ‘Now you are my friends’ ” (John 15:15). Likewise, He considers us as His friends and wants us to make friends of others and bring them to Him. That is the import of the Great Commission: “ ‘Therefore, go and make disciples [friends] of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ ” (Matt. 28:19).
How do we reach the unchurched? The history of missions and evangelism has much to say about the how. But consider these seven simple yet magnificent principles of reaching the unchurched or the once-churched, for you will find that none of these is too cumbersome or difficult to implement. Yet they all contribute to evangelism in the truest sense.
1 “This Christmas, 78 % of Americans Identify as Christian,” Gallup, December 24, 2009, http://www.gallup.com /poll/124793/this-christmas-78-americans-identifychristian.aspx.
2 Fred Jackson and Jody Brown, “Fewer Americans Than Thought Going to Church, Says Study,” Crosswalk, May 12, 2006, http://www.crosswalk.com/1396537/.
3 Thom S. Rainer, Surprising Insights From the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 33.
4 Ibid., 34.
5 Rainer, Surprising Insights From the Unchurched, 58.
6 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 2:645.
7 All Scripture passages in this article are from the New Living Translation.
8 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, 6:371.