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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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  • Mark Henri

    I’d add Teach The Basics. I’ve been a Christian for a long time and finally really got prayer/intercession. It would embarrassing for me to talk about this as I’m heavily into worship ministry and really should have known better. I now know that most people just assumed I knew because I play guitar and don’t talk much. Back to CHRISTIANITY 101…

    Walter Martin has that book Essential Christianity that spells it all out in about 80 pages. It’s not really a deep read. I was absolutely blown away that a couple of people who serve as volunteers were confused about reincarnation and actually thought that it had something to do with Christianity! Another thinks he needs to tell gay people that they’re living in sin but doesn’t understand that his porn addiction is roughly the same thing (fornication if you don’t know). I know it seems absurd but the pastor has been so busy mining the depths of scriptural nuance that he’s omitted teaching how the trinity actually works or what constitutes heresy.

  • Amber

    Also, these days, too many Christians live in a bubble: Christian ghetto from cradle to grave. These circles are impossible to break into, even as a Christian myself coming in who went to secular schools. We send our children to secular (public) school and they always end up feeling alienated and alone in a sea of children all going to local Christian private schools. I have to state: moving the location of your Church to a movie theatre or something like that is just silly. The problem is not the building. The problem is the people and a suffocating, irrelevant Christian culture that speaks down to people. I also think “Care Groups” are a problem. You enter a new Church and everyone is all clustered in their little groups, hardly anyone is looking out for new people. Why in the world would we ever, ever want to join a Care Group if no one even speaks to us on a Sunday morning? That paradigm is totally failing. Also, you can get stuck in a Care Group with people who really couldn’t care less about you–with leaders who have no talent for leading.

  • Ellen

    #14 and #15 are big ones for me which are probably the biggest reasons why I hate it when my friend from high school bugs me to go to church with her. When I have gone to church with in the past she has always pushed me by putting me on the spot. Personally, I hate when churches feel that they need to announce visitors and have them stand. I do not like spotlight, period. When I have gone to a church for the first time, I don’t like being pushed into making a decision to join right away. All that really does is make me feel too uncomfortable to even come back to that church. If churches would use the more laid-back approach and allow people to attend freely, it would not be so bad. My experience has taught me that when trying something new, you will either give something a second chance, or not. There are times when I do try something the first time, I will give it second chance if I think that there is a chance that it could be different the next time because of the culture of people, or the thought that maybe it was a bad week, etc. But if on the second try, if it is the same as the last week, then I won’t be back.

    • I can empathize Ellen. I’m a church goer and I cringe if I get asked to stand because I’m new. Hopefully we get better at those things and make the church more welcoming.

  • Shannon

    I used to go to church but i don’t anymore. Why?

    A.) They insist on having it on 8am on a Sunday. Noon works just as well, people.

    B.) Everything’s a #(^^_#^ musical. The only thing worse than being forced to a roomful of untrained people bellowing to elevator music is them trying to get me to join in. Get this – I. Don’t. Sing. I don’t like it. I’m not good at at. I’m not going to do it.

    C.) Sitting down in the back and having them practically shine a spotlight on you. I don’t want to come up closer, I’m fine right where I am, thanks! No, I don’t need you to welcome the newcomer, if I wanted to be the center of attention I’d be at the podium.

    D.) Stand up. Sit down. Stand up. Sit down. What is this, pilates?

    • You raise some good points…and you’re funny. Thanks.

    • Mark Henri

      Thanks. I’ve been trying to tell leadership that bombastic musicals are not a good strategy. I even wrote an online book on it. I hate it when leaders come to me all upset that half the people aren’t singing. It’s OK. They don’t need to be cajoled or “motivated”. They took time out of their day to come to church. That’s a big deal. Let them participate at whatever level they want.

      My current church starts at 11 AM and it’s nice not to have to be up at 5:30 AM to get to a 7 AM rehearsal and then be there for 8 hours.

      This is another one of those things where I have to remind myself that Jesus wasn’t a Christian.

      -The Guitar Player

  • huwwuh

    Use of the term unchurched is a sign of the ignorance of the author. Acts 2:47 ….”and Adonay added to the ecclesia daily such as should be saved”. He did so then and He does so today and every day.
    It is a term favoured by proselytes and is usually aimed at the regenerate. Who, having the guidance of the Spirit, question the forms of religion that are taught by the 41,000 denominations.

  • Jack

    There’s a real “us” vs. “them” feeling when words like “unchurched” are used. It implies the person is defective in some way. And then there’s the vague Church Covenants that are all the rage, often with a statement “I will follow the leaders”, “I will not be disruptive” – legally binding documents that state church discipline will follow if the rules are not. Church discipline is never defined. In addition to the overt political agendas, there’s also the implication if you believe in anything other than some version of young earth creationism you are not a “true Christian”. Also the expectation that you will start to think of your non-christian friends as the “unchurched”. There’s more but that’s a start as to why many “unchurched” opt out. Among evangelical churches this attitude seems to be getting worse. Used to attend until about 10 years ago when the membership covenant appeared and the Sunday school started pushing young earth creationism on the kids.

  • Ellen

    Interesting points, and I am glad that there are pastors who can relate to and understand why not everyone goes to church. I have gone to few churches with a friend of mine, and it is always the same thing. She didn’t like that I wasn’t going to church, so she would bug me to go to her church. I did go to her Lutheran church when she was Lutheran, and I felt pushed into joining right away. Then I was pushed into going to catechism, getting confirmed, next the youth group, softball. I felt that the more I did, the less I felt appreciated. Just like others have mentioned on this blog, I did not feel at all connected to anyone in the church in spite of spending so much time there. People wanted me to volunteer, then act frustrated if I said no. My friend would have a hard time with #9, #14 and #15. She has always expected me to conform to her beliefs, she apparently does not believe that everyone has their own path. She always liked to put me on the spot, no matter how embarrassed I was. She believes that if you are not a Christian, you are automatically going to hell, period. This hasn’t helped our friendship, it has actually drove us apart. I converted to the Catholic Church in my young adult years, and she isn’t too pleased with that either.

    I think that if churches would try to pay more attention to people’s needs, they might get better results and make more significant friends in church. I think that #12 is important. I feel that whenever I was in church groups, people are a closed book. Some believe that when you are in church, you are supposed to act happy and everything is according to God’s plan. I think that if people would be more open about a few things about themselves, then more relevant relationships can form. I would more likely remember a person if he shared something about himself than just church.

  • Jason

    I’m interested in #14 – do you mean multiple jump-in points such as events they can volunteer for? Or are you talking more about getting more involved in Bible studies?

    • Hey Jason…a few strategic jumping in points is what I mean. Not everyone’s ready for Bible study right away.

      • Barbara

        I, too am interested in examples of “strategic jumping in points”, which I imagine would include community outreach events, but specific things that have worked would be very helpful! Also, how to get demographic info about the community surrounding a church’s location? Other jumping in points must include volunteer opportunities, weekly small group meetings in peoples’ homes, music and liturgical dance and play practices; any others? Thank you.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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

          • Cathy Staunton Misciagna

            To respond to your curiosity about how people can possibly believe in God… I have a number of scientific, historical, anthropological, and literary reasons why I believe that God is real, He created the universe, Jesus rose from the dead, and the Bible has tremendous internal as well as external validity. From the evidence, I think rejecting Christianity as mere myth
            rather irrational.

          • Bonnie

            Jesus is no scam.
            I see no-one else offering me eternal life for FREE, do you?
            Look up the Romans audio study on the nogreaterjoy . org website and find out what Jesus accomplished.

            All I know is that I was going to die and He saved me by giving me eternal life so I will never really die. And it was all FREE!

          • Shannon

            More likely you’re one of those atheists who aren’t happy unless they’re pissing all over someone else.

          • Sister Stelly

            Nope. Believe whatever fairy tale you want.

          • Shannon

            Wow…denying it and then proving it in seven words flat. That’s gotta set a record for hypocrisy. Craig T Nelson’s gonna be pissed that he’s no longer in Guiness. I know a lot of Bible-thumpers who are going to want lessons from you.

          • Sister Stelly

            That doesn’t even make sense. Go sit in your pew and leave the rest of us who know the truth alone.

          • 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.

        • Bonnie

          There is no stress knowing Jesus has granted me eternal life for FREE!!!!!

    • Sister Stelly

      I know that we are all the same when we die. There is nothing. There is no such thing as eternal life. If it makes you feel better to believe then do so but don’t talk about it like it is real.

    • Mark Henri

      OMG, that’s an epic post on this blog!!! I love the little nun avatar too… very effective. The nice thing about the ‘Imagine’ philosophy is that one can make themselves God. The other thing is that you’re probably a lot less of a hypocrite than I am. In fact, I’m even quite duplicitous at times. I guess that’s just one of the many pitfalls of trying to live to some impossible-to-attain higher standard though? There’s a book by Karen Armstrong called The Case for God that you’ll love. In it, she blasts the trinity and says basically the same thing–mankind invented God. Of course, it’s outside of “The Way” but it will give you lots of ammo for confounding unschooled Christians. Karen is even an-ex nun. Woohoo!

      You’ve made a huge mistake below though when you say “I know…” That would constitute inventing a new religion and I thought you said you’re leaving religion? OK, now I’m confused–it seems like you have faith after all?

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