Throughout my years in ministry, the one constant question I hear is, “how do we reach unchurched people?” Often, what is truly being asked is, “how do we reach young people?”
To be honest, I don’t know! I’ve been in ministry since 1999. I’ve served several congregations. Each congregation has faithfully attempted to answer this question.
From adding “contemporary” worship services, to starting coffee shops, replacing pews with chairs, shifting the vision beyond the walls, beginning ministries in alternative locations, and having a “do whatever it takes” attitude, I’ve seen it all.
So, if I’m being honest, the results of the various attempts to reach unchurched folks did not produce rapid growth. In some cases, it slowed the rate of decline and led to a plateau (which, in many ways is a success). In some cases, it sped up the rate of decline (which, in some ways is also a success).
For years, the “experts” stressed starting contemporary services. (I’m putting “experts” in quotes because I’ve yet to see widespread success) While this has proven successful in some cases, it is not a foolproof fix. Depending on the research one reads, 70-84% of churches are plateaued or declining. So, maybe that’s not the answer?
The latest fad being pushed by the “experts” within my denominational structure is the launching of “fresh expressions”. What’s a “fresh expression”? Well, from what I can tell, it’s a new name for old stuff. Examples of fresh expressions are really just affinity groups (which was a fad in the 90’s). Dinner church, running church, knitting church, pub theology are all expressions being referred as “fresh”. Yet, let’s be honest, these things have been happening for a long time. We used to call them “small groups, discipleship groups, bands”. Now, we throw the tag “church” on it and it’s “fresh”. Seriously, I’ve yet to hear of a truly unique and new “fresh expression.” I always think of the South Park episode “The Simpson’s Already Did It” whenever I hear about this “new” program. Look, if it works for your congregation, awesome! But, to me, it’s just a new name on an ancient (and often great) product.
It reminds me of the trend in the early 2000’s when pastors started wearing jeans and untucked shirts. They promoted their gatherings as “not your grandma’s church.” However, they did all the same things my grandma’s church does.
If I were to suggest ways to reach unchurched people, here are some tips no one asked for:
1. In the words of Joe Maddon, “Try not to suck”! Whatever you do, do it well.
Part of the reason some worship gatherings don’t reach new people is because they stink. Unchurched folks will walk out of a bar or coffee shop if the band is awful. The same is true for church music. If your choir struggles or your band is less-than-stellar, don’t be surprised by a low rate of return. While church people will tolerate (and often celebrate) mediocrity, those we are trying to reach will not.
As more churches are offering online services, I find myself cringing. I try to be gracious and say, “Well, it’s probably the best they can do.” However, some of it only provides evidence as to why the Church is failing to connect with emerging generations.
Here’s a pro tip for worship leaders: develop a strong relationship with your sound tech. Once you have built a trusted relationship, you can ask the sound engineer to turn down (or even mute) certain voices or instruments. Or just do the hard work of redirecting folks to other areas of service. Not everyone should be given a microphone!
This is not just about the music either. Those of us who are preaching and leading in other aspects of worship need to be prepared and striving towards excellence. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it well.
2. Stop thinking like church people. Surprisingly enough, those outside the church are not really concerned with churchy things! What if I told you that unchurched folks don’t care as much about style as church people? What if I told you worship style is simply a preference and no one style is greater than another?
If an unchurched person becomes curious and decides to check out a church…1) they will check you out online first; 2) they won’t be hoping you’ll sing “How Great Thou Art” or “What a Beautiful Name”. If they are truly unchurched, they won’t be familiar with our hymns or praise songs. Also, let’s think about unchurched folks experience with churches…it’s most likely limited to funerals and weddings.
3. Be real. I believe this is more than being relevant. While cultural relevancy is important, some do so without authenticity. I saw a church doing a series playing off “Stranger Things”. In the first two minutes of the sermon, the pastor admitted that he had never watched the show. Now, that’s wrong on so many levels! But, at least he admitted it. I attended a church service where the pastor kept trying to drop hip references, but continually mispronounced names.
Being real means being true to yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not. If you are a traditional church, own that! If you are a contemporary church, own that. Then, lead with honesty, integrity, authenticity and transparency. The lack of these characteristics (accompanied by a lack of accountable leadership) has led to the downfall of many ministries.
4. Create a welcoming environment. This has to become part of the ethos of our churches. Every church considers itself to be friendly. In most cases, what that really means is, “we’re friendly with one another.” Do those walking through the doors for the first time feel safe, welcome, and more importantly, wanted. Let’s be honest, some churches are content to keep things “as is”. They don’t really want new people. A welcoming environment goes beyond friendliness and focuses on openness and inclusion. This is also something that has to go beyond the pastors, staff and hospitality team. A welcoming environment must permeate throughout the congregation.
So, no one asked…but, hey, this is my blog! Whatever you are doing, do it well!