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.

  • William Pardy

    interesting that you think people from history were uneducated. that is a bold statement. not to mention we have seen structures from ancients proving that they, were capable of reason and understanding in art, architecture, communication, and so on…so why not religion, spirituality, and philosophy.

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  • JimA

    I’m a latecomer to this good discussion.
    Perhaps missing are:
    1) Conversation communicates better than lecture/transmit. Just watch where the energy develops in the two different kinds of settings.
    2) Familiarity with stories and teachings of Scripture (or tradition) cannot be assumed. Additional context is required when making reference to “prodigal son”, and in familiar service observances.
    3) Offering of the Gospel by invitation to consider becoming a “follower of Jesus” (may not be the same as a traditional end-of-service invitation into redemptive salvation and/or membership). What some have dismissively labeled “cafeteria Christianity” seems to me to be a good thing, indicating a more personal, rationalized, internalized, and evolving spiritual formation, …as contrasted with concurrence and compliance with a well-defined, inherited faith.

  • cnieuwhof

    I appreciate your points Jim. I’m thinking #3 might be a both/and, not an either or.

  • JimA

    Yes, I agree, but probably greater than two in number of mutually respectful distinctive expressions, even within a given tradition. We might consider the notion of organizationally helping each follower find the setting that nurtures them best. Contrast that with focus on retention.

    I’m still working at how to articulate the #3. It might be something like:

    Expect each enquirer’s belief system to be, and continue to be idiosyncratic and restless (not neatly or completely rationalized and expressible). Expect strong internalization (“ownership”) of that system, as contrasted with concurrence with a prescribed tradition. But expect it also to be more malleable and perpetually restless over time (their own timetable) than what we may traditionally expect. Expect this to be true, but in varying extents.

    Still ruminating…..

  • JimA

    Maybe as a part of #14…With their best interest in mind, also give some consideration to offramps, how to suggest an alternative nurturing setting for those who might be struggling to thrive in this particular one.

  • Teresita Matos

    I can relate to your statement as a former atheist (now a Christian at Seminary) I also find insight in your comment as I was a non-spiritual atheist. There are nuances to all forms of belief. Spirituality is so complex, and yet so simple. I think we make a lot of assumptions about people’s spiritual journeys and your comment warns us about that. To Carey Nieuwhof: Great article! http://poeticprophecy.blogspot.com/

  • renewal

    “Church” to me is a building and the people congregating in it, many of which are less “Christian like” than those that don’t attend. It is governed by conferences/big businesses that take a % of the tithing and in our case spend, if memory serves me, $225,000/year on maintenance of the Conference recreation center ++ The woods, near a stream etc to me is being closer to God than sitting in some churches….not all, but the one I grew up in, which has changed dramatically through the years.

    Just recently the D.S. gave a sermon before a conference meeting in which he touted that humans are God’s chosen one’s/favorite, animals being lower etc…”God did not die on the cross to save dolphin’s did he?” to quote one of his statements. I sat there appalled, thinking this man is a blithering idiot and apparently Methodists are supposed to believe Speciesism as well. It is things like this that turn people off from “church”.

    I prefer to subscribe to people like Wayne Dyer although I do enjoy watching & reading the books of Joel Osteen, as well. They are inspiring to me.

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  • steve h

    If you want to connect with people, I wouldn’t start by labeling them “un” anything. It’s a real turnoff. It projects a sense that you think you are superior. My first reaction to your 15 characteristics of the “unchurched” is to put together 15 characteristics of the “churched’ – and it wouldn’t be very flattering.

  • Pam

    So this brings up an interesting question… Do we need four walls and a roof to be called a church? It is easily argued that the church that Jesus calls us to build is not confined to a building. Could this possibly be another reason we are not reaching the Mosaics? They want the flexibility of meeting at a friends house, in a coffee shop, at the park, etc. Jesus went to the people, maybe we should too?

  • Jayson

    Hi Carey. I’m a former Christian who was very active in my church and its mission. I am now an atheist. You say people should be offended if people think they are atheist. Why do you feel that way? Atheists are just another part if your community and I see no reason for them to feel the term is offensive, just descriptive. Thanks!

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

    Jayson..thanks. For sure. An atheist who is an atheist isn’t offended at all by the term. I was trying to point to pastors and Christians who just assume that most people who don’t go to church are atheists or don’t believe in God. Many consider themselves ‘spiritual’ and not atheist, and they tend to get offended when Christians equate not going to church with not being spiritual. Hope that clarifies things.

  • nondescript1010

    The term “Unchurched” seems too vague to me. It can mean anything
    from a devout Christian who doesn’t believe in worshiping in a church
    to an all out atheist. You really cannot say much about such a wide
    swath of people. Since I am an “all out atheist” and know a lot
    of other atheists, I’ll speak to that end of the spectrum. Here is my
    critique of your “characteristics”.

    1. They don’t all have big ‘problems.
    I find that people have the same about of big and little problems, no
    matter what their religious belief or lack of them are.

    2. They feel less guilty than you think
    Well, we feel less guilty about not following your dogma than you think.
    There is plenty of other reasons to feel guilty about various things.
    Our basis for morality might be different, but most of us reach
    consensus on most of what we think of as good or bad.

    3. Occasional is regular.
    I have visited churches for various reasons, but even among my various
    atheist groups, I’m not a “regular”. Some are. Most atheists shy
    away from anything that smells like indoctrination.

    4. Most are spiritual
    Some atheists call themselves “spiritual”, though the meaning differs.
    I find that when people use the word, they basically equate it with
    “emotional”. This is true of theists and non-theists I know.

    5. They are not sure what “Christian” means
    Um, no. Most people, at least in this country, grew up in Christian
    households. Even if they didn’t, they have been exposed to the
    various tenets and myths through their lives. In fact, I know more
    about Christianity now than I ever did as a Christian. When you are a
    Christian, you rarely have to think about why you believe what you
    do. As an atheist in a religious society, I am often challenged about
    my beliefs and usually by Christians. So, I have had to learn more
    about Christianity just to defend my own worldview.

    6. You can’t call them back to something they never knew
    Again, don’t assume their ignorance.

    7. Many have tried church, even a little, but left
    Again, most grew up with church.

    8. Something is generous
    Most of us don’t count money given to churches as charity. Only a small
    percentage of church income goes to charity. Most of it goes to
    proselytizing. We tend to try to give more directly and intelligently
    to charity.

    9. They want you to be Christian
    Actually, I find that those that do not follow their “scriptures” closely
    are much more humane than those that do. I would befriend a member of
    a Unitarian church or United Church of Christ much more readily than
    someone from Westboro Baptist Church. This holds true of other
    religions, too. So please, don’t be too Christian.

    10. They’re intelligent, so speak to that
    I try not to assume the intelligence of anybody until they show it one
    way or another. There was a study that shows that atheists are more
    intelligent than theists, but I think that is more cultural than any
    kind of inherent thing.

    11. They hate hypocrisy
    Who doesn’t?

    12. They love transparency
    Ditto.

    13. They invite their friends if they like what they’re discovering
    Again, who doesn’t?

    14. Their spiritual growth trajectory varies dramatically
    Per what I said earlier, I find “spiritual growth trajectory” a
    meaningless phrase.

    15. Some want to be anonymous and some don’t
    Atheists tend to call themselves many things for many reasons. I prefer
    atheist. Some prefer agnostic, free thinker, or other term. I also
    consider myself a Secular Humanist. Atheism is just a statement of
    one particular lack of belief that I have. It doesn’t say much about
    me. In fact, you’ll find that atheists don’t inherently have much in
    common with each other. Secular Humanism is a label that states
    something about some beliefs I do hold.

    I hope this gives you some insight from this end of the spectrum of
    “Unchurched”.Leave a message…

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

    I wish I knew your real name, because I’d like to say a more personal thank you. But thank you. I really appreciate this thoughtful response, whoever you are.

  • nondescript1010

    You’re welcome. I’m glad you got something helpful from my response.

  • Solemn Bastion

    My wife and I are unchurched. We are devout. In fact, as devout as the most devout Christian I have ever known, and sadly I have only known a few. I was raised Baptist, moved into Charismatic circles, then Orthodox circles (where I was tonsured as a monk), before leaving organized religion altogether 20 years ago. If no one else is saying it, I believe there is a growing number of us who are neither Catholic nor Protestant nor Orthodox who spend time with the Lord constantly, take our own Holy Communion at home (not symbolically as many Christians choose to believe), study the Bible daily, depend upon Rhema and dreams and visions and other gifts of the Holy Spirit for our hope of perfection in Him, offer the proof of healing the sick and casting out demons and even raising the dead to any who need to see the power of God, and live in the Kingdom of Heaven now, and forever. One proof of our devotion to Jesus is the fact that we are under constant demonic attack to have our marriage torn asunder. We belong only to the Church made up of the Cloud of Witnesses and all true believers on Earth and also those who have not heard but who follow natural law (these God brings to Himself, as the Bible teaches us).

  • Solemn Bastion

    You said: “in some way figure out a way to carry out the mission Christ gave to his followers.”

    Precisely what my wife and I are doing. We take the Great Commission quite seriously, still being unchurched.

  • Solemn Bastion

    “Unchurched” was first used in Orthodox Christian circles, I believe. It seems to be a very old term, like their other strange one, ‘unmercenaries,’ or people who did not mix their calling with making money.

  • Andrea

    I’m enjoying reading about some of the information you’re presenting about the unchurched on your website. A friend recently brought up the fact that many Canadians are unchurched and it peeked my interest. I only began attending church at the age of 26 (I’m 38 now). I live in NC and most of the Christians I know grew up in church, so sometimes it can be a bit isolating when friends talk about childhood church experiences. Perhaps this is an area where I can serve and lead the unchurched to Jesus. Thanks for the info and insight. :-)

  • yup

    i hate to break the number of comments already here (69) but maybe this comment relative enough for such a disgrace/possible lack of tact. If God’s real then maybe he’s just really not a nice guy. I’m gonna create a world of inferior beings that supposedly have free will but if they don’t love me and worship me they will be subjected to the most terrible mental and physical torture literally forever once their body stops functioning. Well maybe we could turn a blind eye on what appears to be an insanely jealous and narcissistic attitude and lack of respect for individuals if it was a small percentage of his creation that were damned. However…. considering the full history of the earth (or what we know of it at least), a very very small amount of people are actually getting into heaven. Why would a loving god create so much misery and terrible suffering through his design when he could have just done nothing, or maybe created a better system that doesn’t have obvious evidence of a manmade construction based off of time-specific philosophy. This is not to say that something didn’t create the universe, i don’t believe that something came from nothing, but that doesn’t mean that you found the correct answer in Christianity. Maybe your life isn’t supposed to be fulfilling, maybe you aren’t supposed to be filled with an all consuming sense of purpose accompanied by an objective source of morality/ethics. Maybe you simply are a product of matter and motion. Time and change. Maybe to call yourself a person is simply an empirical generality to describe how matter behaves and that each choice you make defines ‘who’ you are, yada yada [insert more existentialism]. But certainly, there seems a mystical quality to this place the universe. So just know that the guy who wrote this knows he could be entirely wrong about every single thing he just said, and in fact, most certainly is.

  • yup

    typos, sorry about that

  • ihen1

    This is a truly excellent list! When we speak of people who not have a church home, we use “unchurched” to mean folk who have no real experience with a congregation in the Christian tradition, but may hold some sort of Christian faith in their hearts and actions, “dechurched” for people who were involved and left (for whatever reason) and “non churched” for people who have no real exposure to any form of Christianity at all. It is very helpful to know where people are in these categories before saying or doing too much. The hardest challenge is the dechurched who may have been badly hurt by their experiences.

  • Ron Tant

    I agree. My former church indebted itself greatly when the US economy was flush, and now spends much of its energy trying to “fill the pews” to pay the bills. If it were a movie house, the attitude would be understandable. I doubt I will return to a ‘bricks and mortar” church environment. I will seek a group that challenges me to understand myself and help others, without paying for the Emperor’s new clothes.

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  • Southern Lady

    I abhor the arrogance of your assumption that people need or want to hear about your religious views as posited in the first sentence. The world would be a far better place of you Christians just put a lid on it. Your use of “un” – anything is off-putting, belittling, and symptomatic of real reasons many people turn from organized religion – the constant categorization and us-vs-them mentality.

  • elaine1leach

    Southern Lady, I am so sorry that this is what you received from the above. As a Christian, my personal goal is to tell you about the greatest thing that ever happened in my life, and that is Jesus. Our best witness is our lives and, unfortunately, Christians are failing in this regard. We have become like the world, totally against the teachings of Jesus. I love you and I don’t even know you…..God loves the entire world and wants, as their creator, to bless them and help them and give them everything. I pray that one day you may know our Savior, Jesus, as your personal friend too. May God bless you.

  • elaine1leach

    Would you take advice on how to run your car from a baker? God is our creator and wanted us to Love, and thus serve, Him in this life. He knows what we need, what we want, what motivates us, etc., etc. He wants to provide for us, heal us, protect us, feed us, take care of us. He gave us every instruction we need in His Word, the Bible. God is love…..His people have let the world down, not Him. God bless you!

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

    Elaine…thank you so much for this.

  • katie99

    I have often found when someone says “Unitarian,” they generally mean “Unitarian Universalist” as it is more common than the Unitarian Christian denomination. It should be noted that UU is not a Christian religion at all (something else that is often a point of confusion, especially since many UU congregations are called “churches”) but its own distinct religion that grew out of two very progressive Christian denominations. UU members have a wide variety of beliefs, and many (such as myself) are actually atheists when it comes to belief in god/gods/other supernatural concepts. We are united by common values that are largely reflective of Secular Humanism, but with room made for a variety of spiritual beliefs.

    That said, I find both the Unitarian and Universalist Christian denominations to be pretty awesome, and realize it’s possible you were referring to the former.

  • unchurchme

    hey

  • unchurchme

    Your consensus on the unchurched is rather condescending. Unchurched is not atheist, not nominal christians, but “unincorporated” churched–they are a distinction from your protestant dribble. The authority of the Church is G-d–and the Sovereign Christ. Not, I repeat, not incorporated voluntary subjects of the state. The “United States” incorporated in 1871. Each state is incorporated–and protestants subject themselves to the State and under the united nations, protestants incorporate to them as subjects as council of churches. Romans 13–is not applicable to Christians–it only applies to Romans. If the Bible/scripture is sacred writings, then why will you not accept Gospel of Thomas, Barnabus, as sacred. Protestants worship the bible that the Roman Catholics made (480), and then ommited Maccabees, and Danial 13. Protesting Rome is not a Christian principle, if Romans 13 is to be applied: Please subject yourselves to Rome(Vatican) as authorities ‘that G-d placed in position.” (see Roman 13). I know, lowly protestant man, your interpretation is by the holy spirit, and you subject yourselves to Business leaders who started your “church.” If the cities do not have to pay tax…churches are exempt–unless they are incorporated, then they need an attorney from the BAR association, unchurched means not INC.

    Canada is just as bad as the states…the RCMP takes children, they beat citizens, they destroy books sent to copyright office, and the courts take your earnings based upon false legal precedence, in their court of admirlty. Sitting in a pew, safe and secure, because you submit your false church, means you allow by consent to harm others whom you deem “unchurched.” Tithe to people not corporations. When you begin to have a sovereign church, a flock will appear…unchurched only see the state and the flag on the alter: unincorporate and “experience” what Christ went through for you!

    It

  • unchurchme

    “It is an act of charity to cry out when the wolves are amoung the sheep.”

    St.Francis

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