The Unchurched Next Door: A New Look at the Challenge
- Friday, November 14, 2003
Thom Rainer thinks that most Christians have no clue about how unchurched people really think. Given Christianity's mandate for evangelism, this represents a big problem.
Rainer is founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Over the past decade, he has emerged as the nation's leading expert in church growth and evangelistic strategies. In a very real sense, Rainer operates in two different worlds, with one foot in academic research and the other firmly planted in the local church.
In The Unchurched Next Door, Rainer and his research team consider the real issues involved in reaching unchurched Americans. His findings will surprise many Christians--including many pastors--and offer vital insights as the church looks forward into the twenty-first century.
The Unchurched Next Door represents a massive research project based in a national survey. From the onset, Rainer was determined to force Christians to look at the unchurched all around them. "Most of the unchurched are your neighbors, your coworkers whom you know well, and even your family members," he explains. "That is why we call them 'the unchurched next door.' They have much in common with us. Many of them have your moral values. Most are not antichurch or antireligion. They are very much like you--except that they are lost without Christ."
After interviewing thousands of unchurched Americans, the Rainer research team looked for patterns in the profiles. Based on the results, Rainer suggested five different levels of responsiveness to the gospel. "U1" identifies unchurched Americans who are highly receptive to hearing and believing the good news. They know something about Christianity, and have a positive attitude toward the church. "U2" individuals are receptive to the gospel and willing to hear a message from the church. Those categorized as "U3" are identified as neutral, "with no clear signs of being interested, yet perhaps open to discussion." The "U4" group demonstrates resistance to the gospel but no antagonism. The most unresponsive group in the population is identified as "U5" The most secular Americans are "highly antagonistic and even hostile to the gospel."
Given the contours of post-Christian America, many believers would assume that the U5 category would include a large number of our fellow citizens. That assumption is not sustained by the facts. Rainer's research indicates that the U5 category fits only about five percent of the American population. Most unchurched Americans are grouped in the central three categories. Those already friendly to the church, the U1s, comprise eleven percent of the population, serving as something of a bookend to the U5s.
The majority of the unchurched fit the middle categories, with 27% listed as U2, 36% as U3, and 21% as U4. As Rainer summarizes, "Most of the unchurched are not antichurch or anti-Christian." By and large, they have had little contact with Christianity, and are not highly motivated when it comes to issues of faith and belief.
In reviewing the research, Rainer and his team came to some surprising conclusions. First of all, most Americans have never been invited to church--never. Yet, 82% indicated that they would be at least "somewhat likely" to attend church if invited. As Rainer comments, "Only twenty-one percent of active church goers invite anyone to church in the course of a year. But only two percent of church members invite an unchurched person to church." He concludes: "Perhaps the evangelistic apathy so evident in so many of our churches can be explained by a simple laziness on the part of church members in inviting others to church."
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