15 Characteristics of Today's Unchurched Person

If you’re like many Christians, you have an authentic desire to share your faith with people who don’t yet follow Jesus. I know I do.

One of my deepest longings is that every person would come to know the love and salvation that Jesus extends to them.

Our vision at Connexus, where I serve as lead pastor, is to be a church that unchurched people love to attend – a vision we share with all North Point strategic partner churches.

But unchurched people are changing.

Even since I started ministry 18 years ago, there’s been a big shift in how unchurched people think. Particularly here in Canada, we are a bit of a hybrid between the US and Europe. Canadians are less ‘religious’ than Americans, but less secular than Europeans.

Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman have outlined helpful characteristics of unchurched people in UnChristian and David tackled it again in You Lost Me. I won’t repeat those characteristics here. (Both books are fantastic reads.)

Post-modernism has a deeper toe-hold here than in almost anywhere in American except perhaps the Northwest and New England, where it might be about the same.

Here are characteristics of unchurched people that I’m seeing today.

1. They don’t all have big ‘problems.’ If you’re waiting for unchurched people to show up because their life is falling apart, you might wait a long time. Sure, there are always people in crisis who seek God out. But many are quite content with their lives without God. And some are quite happy and successful. If you only know how to speak into discontent and crisis, you will miss most of your neighbours.

2. They feel less guilty than you think. They don’t feel any more guilty about not being in church on Sunday than you feel guilty about not being in synagogue on Saturdays. How many Saturdays do you feel badly about missing synagogue? That’s how many Sundays they feel badly about missing church.

3. Occasional is regular. When they start coming, they don’t always attend every week. Giving them easy, obvious and strategic steps to get connected is important. Disconnected people generally don’t stick. (I wrote more about the declining frequency of church attendance here.)

4. Most are spiritual. Most unchurched people believe in some kind of God. They’re surprised and offended if you think of them as atheists. As they should be.

5. They are not sure what “Christian” means. So you need to make that clear. You really can’t make any assumptions about what people understand about the Christian faith. Moving forward, clarity is paramount.

6. You can’t call them back to something they never knew. Old school ‘revival’ meant there was something to revive. Now that we are on the 2nd to 5th generation of unchurched people, revival is less helpful to say the least. You can’t call them back to something they never knew.

7. Many have tried church, even a little, but left. We have a good chunk of people who have never ever been to church (60% of our growth is from people who self-identify as not regularly attending church), but a surprising number of people have tried church at some point – as a kid or young adult. Because it wasn’t a good experience, they left. Remember that.

8. Something is generous. Because even giving 10% of your income to anything is radically countercultural, the only paradigm of giving they have is a few dozen or hundred dollars to select charities. I hope every Christian learns to live a life of sacrifice and generosity, but telling them they are ungenerous is a poor way to start the conversation. They are probably already more generous than their friends.

9. They want you to be Christian. They want you to follow Jesus, authentically. Think about it, if you were going to convert to Buddhism, you would want to be an authentic Buddhist, not some watered down version. Andy Stanley is 100% right when he says you don’t alter the content of your services for unchurched people, but you should change the experience.

10. They’re intelligent, so speak to that. Don’t speak down to them. Just make it easy to get on the same page as people who have attended church for years by saying “this passage is near the middle of the bible.” You can be inclusive without being condescending.

11. They hate hypocrisy. Enough said.

12. They love transparency. When you share your weaknesses, everyone (including Christians) resonates.

13. They invite their friends if they like what they’re discovering. They will be your best inviters if they love what you’re doing.

14. Their spiritual growth trajectory varies dramatically. One size does not fit all. You need a flexible on ramp that allows people to hang in the shadows for a while as they make up their mind, and one that allows multiple jumping in points throughout the year.

15. Some want to be anonymous and some don’t. So make your church friendly to both. Also see the previous point. This is huge.

What are you seing? What describes your friends and the people you’re reaching at your church? Let’s grow this list.

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  • mikehorn

    16: Politics disguised as religion is complete BS, to the point of being fundamentally anti-democracy. Once politics becomes a matter of someone being with God and by definition the other against God, then democratic debate is destroyed. Good people can disagree about important things and remain good people. Demonization of your political opponents should remain the Provence of a shooting war, not the election cycle in your own country. If the church resembles a subsidized recruitment center for the Republican Party, you’re doing it wrong.

  • momof2boysons

    How do you incorporate local and national and international outreach or mission? Sharing the Gospel is asked of Jesus followers.

    • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Great question. The international approach to mission is very different. This is just about local mission, which is a focus of mine.

  • RobS

    Good post. The #6 really hit home. In the south, there’s more of a church culture — where calling people back seems to be more of a winning strategy. As one goes further north (and into Canada), it becomes less so and strategies and experiences need to change to engage people.

    • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      So true Rob!

  • Team Jayne & Chris

    I am so thankful I am unchurched and that more and more people are leaving religion. My greatest wish in the world is for everybody to understand that gods are man made.

    • Brandon

      Carol I’m just going to believe that if you are on a Christian site, you have some desire to connect or reconnect with God. I want you to know that he desires the same for you and it is my prayer that you would see the other side of your belief, instead of pushing yours upon us. Love you with God’s love and have a great day.

      • Carol

        No definitely not. I ended up on a Christian site from some link. I have never been happier than when I learned that god wasn’t real. No more stress.

        • Brandon

          But you read the article. You’re not fooling me! ; ) He’s real, otherwise why would I care about you? I respect your right to believe what you want, but respect ours too. Belief is a right, I believe God gave you. If you choose to not believe, again I respect that. But I choose to pray for you to come home. Respect that. I’d love to chat further with you if you ever desire. Dbrandoncampbell@gmail.com if not, be well on your journey. : )

          • Carol

            I read the article. He is not real. I respect peoples right to believe anything they want UNTIL it affects others around them. Religion has a horrible negative effect on the entire world. You can pray all you want. It does nothing and I am home. I am a much better person than most Christians that I know and I’m so happy to be away from that nonsense.

          • Brandon

            If you’re happy, why “stumble” upon the website, read the article and have dialogue with me? If you don’t care and you only have an issue when it affects other people, aren’t you doing the exact same thing? I’m sorry, your argument, though passionate, doesn’t hold up. You have a pull towards God. And you’ll be saved again. I believe it. Save my email, cause I want the testimony. : )
            Have a great one.
            P.S. Saying you’re better than most Christians means you should be one, and help us out.

          • McWhaaa??

            Sorry but I didn’t stumble on your website. I have many friends who are Christian and they post things on Facebook. I am a smart person and smart people read things. Do you think that because I’m an atheist that I read nothing that is about Christianity?? I have no pull towards gods other than an interest in how people can possibly believe in them! I’ve taken religious history classes which I would recommend for you too. It’s very interesting to learn about all the different religions.
            Sorry but I won’t be saved. I will live my life doing what I know is right. No thanks to being a Christian. Been there, done that, never again. My greatest wish remains that people figure out what a scam all religion is and it dies. It won’t happen in my lifetime unfortunately.
            You have a great day also.

          • Eric Seidelman

            As an intelligent Christian, I have come to realize that the same reasons people DO believe in a god, are the same atheists use to NOT believe in a god. You can’t appeal to scientific evidence, you can’t appeal to history, you can’t appeal to hypocrisy, you can’t appeal to emotional hype. Both have claims on both sides. The ultimate reason for doing anything regarding belief is personal experience. As you have said, you tried Christianity and it “didn’t work.” Well it does for me. It reveals beauty, and reality to me in a way that absolutely works for me. It’s changed me into a person, a good person I could never have been without its influence. It inspires me to act in the world (even if I don’t actually act). It connects me with people across racial, age, sex, gender-identiy, and historical barriers for a common-ish cause. Religions that we have right now may die. But not all. The religion of science is alive and well, and it makes me really worried when people who shove their scientism in my face can’t grasp it for what it is: unverified fidelity to a system of belief that hasn’t and can’t explain everything.

          • Wha???

            It certainly explains things much better than religion does.

          • Andrew

            I very much enjoyed that. Thank you and god blesd

          • mikehorn

            The issue is that what you believe affects the rest of us when that religious belief turns into election issues. More and more, christianity in America is associated with right-wing politics, and venomously demonizes anything else.

            Of course it is of interest. Opposition research, understanding of others, being knowledgeable about those you disagree with.

  • http://roberthartzell.com Robert Hartzell

    Great post Carey! This really puts it all together in a good way. We should all keep these in mind. Thanks!

    • Carey

      Thank you so much Robert!

    • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Thanks Robert!