Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Reaching Out to the Unchurched

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2012 Aug 20

Another one came this past week. A flyer arrived in my mailbox from a new church plant, promising me relevant and practical messages, contemporary “urban” music, great coffee…


How can it be that so many leaders have such an outdated understanding of culture, and specifically the unchurched?

How can it be that so many are still operating with a 1980s/1990s approach, when it is 2012?

Here’s the essence of the mistake: “If you build it, they will come.” Or in the case of this mailer, and scores of others like it I’ve received: “If you offer it, they will come.”

Meaning that if you spruce church up a bit, musically and stylistically, the unchurched will suddenly stream in your doors and fill your seats.

No, they won’t.

At least, not if they are truly unchurched, part of the growing number of religious “nones” that make up our modern milieu.

Yes, it worked in the movie Field of Dreams. A man built a baseball diamond in the middle of a corn field having been promised, "If you build it, they will come" -- meaning crowds of people to watch Shoeless Joe Jackson and the 1919 Chicago White Sox.

Sounds strange, but it's a fun film.

But don’t ever think that’s all that there is to building a church, particularly a church that is going to reach an unchurched person.

I’ll grant you that it’s a subtle and enticing temptation. To believe that if we encourage casual dress, offer Starbucks coffee, play rock music, and then deliver a message in a style similar to the popular speakers of the day we will automatically grow is enormously appealing.

But it won’t work.

And it hasn’t worked for at least a decade.

Some will say, “But wait! I know of a new church plant that went uber-contemporary and they exploded in growth!” Yes, I know of several, too, but look hard at those churches. How much of their growth is transfer growth, and how much of it truly conversion growth? And even if they mark high baptisms, who are they baptizing? In many cases, even the baptism numbers are those rededicating their life (rebaptisms), or Presbyterians getting dunked as adults. Or it’s kids and teenagers – meaning, reaping the work of Christian families.

Hear my heart; I’m not putting such churches down. I’m just wanting to make sure we understand our models. And specifically, that if you want to be a church for the unchurched, you understand what that means. Because even if a contemporary church plant grows rapidly from the unchurched, and many do, those people didn't come first and foremost because it was contemporary.

Let’s go back to the mailer I received.

It promised contemporary music, casual dress and good coffee. But people already have those things. They do not need to go to church to find them. If they want Starbucks, they’ll go to Starbucks; if they want to hear contemporary music, they have their iPod. They may appreciate those things when they attend, but it is not what will draw them. 

That approach may have worked back in the 80s and 90s, but that was because the typical unchurched person was a Boomer just starting to have kids who were, themselves, raised in a church. They had the memory and the experience; they were actually wanting a church. When churches took down the cultural barriers associated with attending (eliminating stuffiness, boredom, irrelevance, empty ritual, outdated music), Boomers were attracted.

This is no longer our world, and hasn’t been for quite some time.

Think of it this way:

In today’s paper, there were probably dozens of ads for new cars. If you read the paper, did you notice them? It’s doubtful – unless you are in the market for a car. (These days, it’s doubtful you even read a newspaper – but let’s play this out.)

If you’re not in the market for a car, it doesn't matter to you if a dealer is having a sale, promises a rebate, has a radio on-site broadcast, hangs out balloons, says they’re better than everyone else, promises that they will be different and not harass you or make you bargain over the price, or sends you a brochure or push email.

Why? You’re not in the market for a car.

It’s no different with a church. People today are divorced from seeing it as a need in their life, even when they are open to and interested in spiritual things. They no longer tie that to the need to find a particular faith, much less a particular church. 

This is important because there is so much talk about cracking a particular cultural code in order to reach the unchurched and grow a church, that the real investment involved is either forgotten or brushed aside.

So how do you grow a church from the unchurched? 

I’ll assume you know the “pray like mad” part.

Here’s step two: 

Crawl underneath the hood of any growing church that is actually growing from the unchurched and you will find that the number one reason newcomers attend is because they were invited by a friend.

Churches grow from the unchurched because their members and attenders talk about it to their unchurched friends. It comes up in their conversations like the mention of a good movie, a favorite restaurant or a treasured vacation spot. 

There is a culture of invitation.

As Michael Green noted about the explosive growth of the early church, which was entirely conversion growth, Christians were talking about the church, Jesus and the gospel like it was gossip over the backyard fence. 

Meck experiences over 70 percent of its total growth through those who were previously unchurched, charted carefully through our membership classes. We’ve had some classes run as high as 77 percent.

We also track how they came to the church. Was it through direct mail? Did they see a sign? Did they drive by and see the campus?

The number one answer has never changed: “I was invited by a friend.”

That’s how you do it. 

Then, once they’ve been invited, you can tell them to leave their tie at home, and offer them a good cup of coffee when they arrive.

James Emery White



For more on this, see James Emery White Rethinking the Church (Baker) and What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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