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.

  • Matthew Ruttan

    Hi Carey, these are some thoughtful observations, thanks for sharing. I think one thing it can be easy to do is oversimplify people, and you’ve given some good advice in the other direction.

  • Greg Martin

    Thanks Carey. I just shared this with everybody I’ve ever met. GREAT thoughts. #5 was especially helpful to me; as a pastor, I make WAY too many assumptions. Thanks again, and blessings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/loribyron Lori Witmer Byron

    This is well written and great article. Thank for sharing these good & very useful points!

  • http://twitter.com/JeremyPostal Jeremy Postal

    Good stuff. The “they/us” language is challenging for me though; I think it shows the difference between being a missionary to a culture and being a missionary in a culture, ya know?

    Anyways, I really resonate with the “They want you to be Christian” bit – love that.

  • cnieuwhof

    Thanks Jeremy. For sure. “They” is never optimal. Wonder how else you might phrase it?

  • cnieuwhof

    Thanks Matthew.

  • J Calaway

    Carey, This is good good stuff, Point #10 made me smile. For years I have discribed where to find the passage I am speaking from in the Bible. I will usually start with a little fact about the bible, such as the kinds of books, the authors, how it is arranged, and then state if you aren’t very familiar with the bible that’s OK we are all learning about it as we go. I get more comments on that 2 or 3 minutes, how that helped than anything else.

    It creates a curiosity (thirst) to know more about this book — the bible

  • Ron Baker

    Great article Carey! I’m amazed when I visit a church that tells me they are about reaching the “unchurched” and the whole service has an “in house” feel. There are times for “in house” conversations but if we are going to have a greater impact on that first time person, we must consider the type of words we use. I think about the old school church mailboxes with the family name on it….it screams us and them! Thanks for keeping the “unchurched” person at the heart of your community!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=650802417 Bob Cleveland

    This pretty well agrees with what Ed Stetzer pointed out in his book “Lost and Found .. The Younger Unchurched and the Churches That Are Reaching Them”.

  • Trevor

    Good points Carey – too often we construct strawman versions of the ‘unchurched’. I think it’s worth recognising that the unchurched aren’t a single, holistic group, any more than the ‘non-Jewish’ or ‘non-Sikh’ are. Christianity is no longer the default, privileged religion of our society, and the world doesn’t divide neatly into two groups – Christian and Other.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ChosenRebel Marty Schoenleber Jr

    Great post Carey. Extremely helpful. I will be chewing on this for days.

  • cnieuwhof

    Thanks Bob. Haven’t read Ed’s book but appreciate the connection.

  • cnieuwhof

    So true Ron. Been to that church. :)

  • cnieuwhof

    I think you’re right. Being inclusive of non-Christians also speaks to many Christians who might not be sure of the context of a text too.

  • cnieuwhof

    I agree. I think when I started out my assumption was that unchurched people were unspiritual. That’s just not true (anymore). At least not where I live.

  • cnieuwhof

    Thanks Marty.

  • Pingback: Articles From Around | Art of the Christian Ninja

  • Mark Archibald

    They are looking for something interactive. This really can go under point 14, as I’m sure not everyone wants an interactive, participatory feel to the service. But as I’ve talked to a few next gen folks who are either not connected or disconnecting from church, the “sit and stare” feel of church does not always jive with them. The idea of someone teaching in a lecturing style on spiritual things to some seems odd – they want the ability to ask questions, interact, or push back. This may be difficult to implement – you can do some things with twitter, or have a brief Q and A post-service. But other than that it seems all you can do is be 9, 10, 11, and 12! All of those communicate “I’m open for discussion, interaction and debate.”

  • James

    Perhaps your concept of “church” is too narrow. Perhaps there are people who ponder our place in the universe and the amazing life force that flows through all things differently than you. Perhaps some people consider this process to be private and introspective. There are many people who find understanding of the universe and our place within it through careful observation and experimentation. Why should these people be called “un-churched?” The phrase implies some sort of deficit and is insulting. Perhaps it is you that is “unchurched.” The lack of understanding of the creation that we live within and ignorance of life formation and origins could be percieved as disrespectful of your God’s creation. Perhaps this spinning sphere we all live on is the Church, and its secrets and wonders are waiting to be unlocked by careful scientific study. Perhaps the stubborn unwillingness of many Christians to accept scientific fact is an “unchurched” attitude.

  • cnieuwhof

    Thanks for this Mark. Increasingly we’re seeing social media and group take the place of the connection that Sunday morning lacks, even with a Q and A. Social media and groups allow hundreds of people to interact personally.

  • cnieuwhof

    Hi James. Appreciate your perspective and I know that not everyone shares my world view of the biblical worldview. My vantage point is as understood through scripture, so of course that narrows it right there. Or, as some would say, sometimes its in these limits that we find our freedom.

  • Pingback: 9 Signs Your Church is Ready to Reach Unchurched People | VEFnexus

  • http://www.facebook.com/arielgayle Ariel Hirsch

    Carey, I just subscribed to your blog yesterday and I am absolutely loving it. I have already read several of your blogs and am looking forward to many more! Thank you so much for your insights and your leadership!

  • Madeline Jean

    “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.” – Excuse me, but you are confusing spirituality with theism (believing in the existence of a god or gods). Spirituality is what gives one’s life meaning, and does not require belief in a deity. It goes beyond religious affiliation, striving for harmony with the universe: nature, the arts, philosophy, and our relationship to all living things. I could go on, but I hope you understand my point. I am an atheist and I’m spiritual. Why should I be surprised or offended if you think of me as an atheist? What’s so offensive about that?

  • cnieuwhof

    Thanks for your comment Madeline Jean. Appreciate the insight.

  • cnieuwhof

    Ariel…thanks for the encouragement and feedback. I’m grateful to be able to share my thoughts and love the growing community we have here among readers. Welcome to the journey!

  • Madeline Jean

    Haha alright, you’re welcome. :3

  • ruis2002

    “Unchurched” is a funny word. Does it mean Christians who stopped going to church? People who grew up in nonreligious households and never attended a church in the first place? People who have relocated to a new town and don’t have a local church in that town? Unchurched people aren’t a monolithic group. A childhood friend of mine is very Christian, married to a man with a theology degree, and they are “shopping around” for a “church home” and are having difficulty finding a place to belong. They are the church’s
    “ideal” nuclear family with 2 or 3 children. I’m not sure why they haven’t found a church they like yet. I have other childhood friends who were baptized in a church, and married in a church, and that’s about the extent of their lifetime involvement (they are mostly Baptists!). I am an unmarried woman in my mid-forties. I grew up going to church every Sunday. It was the Methodist church my parents picked out when they got married in the 1960s. My younger brothers were happy and made lots of friends at that church. I always had a sense I didn’t really fit in to my Sunday School class (part of the problem was that I attended a different – competing – school, so the kids in my class were one big clique that didn’t include me). I persisted in attending church services, although in high school I gave up on my Sunday School class and just hung out in the church library – reading – during the Sunday School hour. When I was a college student, one of my brothers fell in with the wrong crowd at high school. I noticed his behavior change, but my parents laughed at me when I told them I thought he might be using. He nearly OD’d on drugs. My parents never saw it coming and it really broke them. My mother (of the generation of women whose whole identity depended on the success or failure of her kids) just couldn’t face their friends at church any more, or answer questions about how her kids were doing. So, they stopped attending the Methodist church. They started going to another church – basically, the Baptist church next door. They have been “visitors” there for probably 20 years now. I think they don’t want to be re-baptized, so they haven’t officially joined. The Baptists always want you to be re-baptized, if you come from another denomination. It is an annoying peculiarity, that is somewhat off-putting. I like their Baptist church, however. It has a very good feeling about it. It’s large, and I don’t know anyone there, but it seems very welcoming, without putting visitors on the spot. I tried to continue attending the Methodist church, on my own, for several years. I finally gave up in the mid-1990s. The church became very large, it was growing, but they were pretty much marketing themselves to young married couples with 2.5 children. Since I was single, and still am, I just felt very out of place there. I was uncomfortable, at first, attending without my family. Gradually, it became very painful to sit through services, all alone, not recognizing anyone, and feeling more isolated than if I had just stayed home and watched church services on T.V. So, I gave up and stayed home on Sundays, and watched church on T.V. I have visited a few other churches in the years since, but none felt like home. For one thing, most Sunday school classes are based on age, marital status and/or motherhood. I am single, never married, and do not have kids. I can’t fit into the young couples group, the young singles group, the older widows group, the young mothers group or the single mothers group. There is no place for me! I would point out that since 40% of women in their early forties right now have NEVER had children, that it would be a great idea for churches to focus less on organizing women’s Sunday School classes along the lines of marital status and motherhood. Themed Bible study classes that are open to all ages and stages are the way to go. Our culture is changing. Gen X either didn’t get married at all, or married too young and got divorced. Gen Y has moved in with their parents, and might never be able to marry at all. How will your churches grow if you continue to market yourself primarily to the nuclear families? They are all but extinct.

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

    Regarding #2, my sense is that most people, churched or unchurched, don’t have a significant problem with guilt–and not just about church attendance. That makes evangelism a challenge for those of us schooled to present guilt as the problem and forgiveness as the solution. I’m curious to know how others are dealing with this, namely, how we conceive of the “good news” that we are offering. As reconciliation? Purpose? Justice? Interested to hear your thoughts.

  • http://twitter.com/NarrowGauge Narrow Gauge

    The longer I walk with God, the more I realize that there is a reason for the cross, beyond the forgiveness of our sins. That’s why it is called a new birth. This is the beginning of a new life.

    In order to fully understand the Christian life, I think it is helpful to understand why God created humanity in the first place. Christianity is not a new direction for humanity. It is an invitation to come back to God’s design and purpose for us. In the beginning he made us and had a plan for how the human race should live. He even spelled it out for us.

    I think framing the discussion around world view is better. We all have to choose a path or course to navigate through the murky waters of life. All of us are desparately searching for it. We are not all aware of our desparate need for Christs work on the Cross, but we are aware that things are not as they should be.

    Someone once said that the purpose of life is to live it! The question is how best to do that. Jesus sacrifical death on the cross for our sins, and our embracing of the forgiveness he alone offers opens up the best possible path we could every choose.

  • cnieuwhof

    Well said.

  • cnieuwhof

    I’m struggling to come up with a vocabulary that connects with ‘successful’ people. I think in an affluent society, preachers today run into the same problem Jesus did – the rich hear the Gospel less readily than the poor or needy. And yet of course, we all need it. The parable of the sower comforts me on days when I get discouraged.

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

    Yes, well put.

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

    I like that thought. I also am more an more drawn to Jesus’ vision for reconciliation–meaning bringing people together with one another as well as with God. This is something that people seem to hunger for, though they can’t always name it.

  • JTRica

    We all miss the point. Why do they need the gospel or Jesus for that matter? They are not afraid of hell, thank God; they are spiritual, seeing God or Spirit in everything; and Jesus, as much as we like to think he is about all love and sweetness, promises strife and ultimate destruction of all that we love. These deeper questions need to be answered. That is why I find so many young people moving more deeply into Buddhism, Zen or other ‘non-deity” specific spiritualities.

  • http://twitter.com/jambric John Hambrick

    Invaluable, especially for those of us working with Starting Point or similar environments. Thank you!

  • cnieuwhof

    John…that means so much. Thank you! I can’t say enough good things about Starting Point. So appreciate what you and the team are sharing with us. It’s changing lives.

  • Raybo57

    In the last few weeks, since Easter, I have been using the term, “Jesus did not come to make bad people good, but to make dead people alive.” I think one reason people don’t have a guilt problem is they can always find someone who is “Badder” than them, Hitler is always the ending point in making anyone feel as thought they are OK. But you can’t be a little dead, dead is dead and that is a great starting point to tell how we all are looking for life. We buy stuff to feel alive, we do stuff to feel alive, so I have been sharing that, that “Alive” we are looking for is only found in a relationship with God, through the “”Life” giving gift of Jesus. Ephesians 2

  • Carey Nieuwhof

    Ray…I love that. What a great phrase. Thanks for sharing it.

  • perc2100

    I took “unchurched” to mean either those who might believe in God but don’t ‘subscribe’ to a specific religion, or even those who might consider themselves Christian but haven’t gone to church in ages. I’ve not heard of the term before this blog, and I think it’s an interesting alternative to using a more potentially offensive term like ‘godless’ or ‘atheist’ or something else.

  • joey

    this is great stuff and so true. sharing this for sure.

  • Luke

    Thank you so much. I’d love it if you would flesh out what # 14 looks like.


  • cnieuwhof

    Sure. I think people come in at different points. Some have zero knowledge of Christianity, some have a base knowledge. And people mature at different rates. Our groups model helps people mature spiritually at a pace that’s different for each person. Maturity takes time, and once leaders recognize that, it makes it easier on everyone.

  • Madeline Jean

    And this “force that made it common” is automatically the Judeo-Christian god, why? I have no reason to believe in that particular creator among the thousands of other deities humans worship and have worshipped throughout history. And no, a book written by *humans* in an uneducated land thousands of years ago that claims itself to be true, doesn’t mean it is actually true.

  • cnieuwhof

    Madeline, I would encourage you to read the Bible a little more deeply. To say that those who wrote it were uneducated is a little simplistic. Even many non-Christians would concede the Bible contains some of the greatest wisdom recorded. I believe it points to God as revealed in Jesus, but even if you don’t, the scriptures provide keen insights into life.

  • Brian Newman

    Christianity is not about going to heaven. Christianity is about drawing on the strength of God to live a good life (a life filled with the fruits of the spirits, taking care of the widows and orphans, etc.) – a righteous life, a sacred life. It acknowledges that we are all error-prone, but focuses on the constant pursuit of a good life. So, don’t talk to them about going to heaven. Talk to them about the church as a place where everyone works together, strives together, supports one another (in a spirit of humility) to achieve a good life. Without a constant effort to live a good life (and making amends/repenting when we fall short), we won’t get to heaven. Going to heaven is a side effect of being a Christian and should not be the cause cé·lè·bre many treat it as.

  • Pingback: Free Flow Friday!!! « Intentional Pastoring

  • John

    I hope I am responding to Madeline Jean. To say, “we live in a very complex world” is an “understatement.” The world confronts us with so many philosophical points of view. One’s view of things depends on what we use to interpret what is around. How do we test, or is even possible to put something to the test to verify and or justify our point of view of the world and the universe? Really there are two points of view when it comes view life and the world around us. It is either theistic or it is atheistic. The debate goes on and on. There are those who view life without God being a part of the equation, and there are those who view life with God being behind the equation. If one is convinced there is no God it becomes pretty simple, we live, we breath and we die and after that we die. Thus we adopt the ancient view of the Greeks and the Romans, “We eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” If one’s view is theistic, then which deity(s) are we to believe in. If there is a deity, can we know who this deity is? If this deity can be known, does this deity have a way for us to know what this deity would want us to know? Does it make any difference if this deity can be known and or even wants to be known and if so, how would such a deity make us to know? What if this deity could be known and to believed in so that a person could say, “I know in whom I have believed and I am persuaded of who He is and what He has done for me, but also for you.” If there is such a God and one is convinced He is God and He knows me and loves me and He proven beyond even reasonable doubt this is true then what? If He is all knowing and all powerful and if He is everywhere present; then what?

    It seems a fair question. Is there any evidence for such a God that even a man of science would consider such evidence as proof for such a God as this could or does exist? What about someone like Johannas Kepler most certainly one of the most brilliant of scientist and maybe even the most brilliant? He was absolutely sure such a God does exist and He lived his life so that his work would glorify God. He was the only scientist who thought and believed like he believed and studied. To study true science used to mean to study the thoughts of an all knowing and all powerful God. Copernicus, Michael Angelo, Leonardo Devinchi (sp) were among many scientist who lived between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, and they held similar view as Kepler who possibly was the brightest of them all. Oh what I would not give to have had such a brilliant mind and believe in an all powerful, all knowing and everywhere present God who loved me. I do not have their brilliance but I am persuaded like them that God loves me, knows me by name just like those men of brilliance believed. If facts do matter I know by documentation these men so confessed such belief before the world in which they lived. I wonder why this side of these men is not known today about these true men of science who had true faith in God. If you are an honest atheist and thus open to reconsider your views you might want to consider the honest atheistic attorneys Lord Littleton and his friend (I cannot recall his name at the moment) who set out to disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle who on the road to Damascus met and was converted by the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. One set to disprove the resurrection and the other set out to disprove Paul’s conversion. They did their studies independent of each other. When they met to share the result of their investigation of their independent subject to disprove these two historical events they both were converted to faith in Christ and were convinced of who Jesus Christ was and that He indeed was risen from the dead and did in fact meet on the road of Damascus to convert his vociferous opponent Saul of Tarsus who became the greatest of all ambassadors of Jesus Christ. There is no other God who is so verifiable as the God of the Christian faith and how glad I am that He loves me, as well as the entire human race and that I have been baptized in His NAME (note singular) the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost (note plurality) Trinity. Oh that I could sing His NAME more adequately, GOD IN THREE PERSONS, BLESSED TRINITY.

  • Kati.batil

    You forgot a characteristic of the ‘unchurched’ – many of them are Christians. I think ‘Unchurched’ is a narrow minded term that assumes that church is what makes someone a Christian or not. That’s not biblical at all. This is just another example of how the church is where many attitudes such as this “them vs. us” develop. Spend some time trying to actually get to know this so called “unchurched” group (without trying to convert them) and I think you’ll find that they don’t quite fit into a neat little box of stereotypes that you’ve created.

  • cnieuwhof

    Thanks for the question/challenge. Unchurched does not mean unChristian. It means they are simply not attending church. And one of the challenges I would have for Christians not attending church is an encouragement to either join one, start one or in some way figure out a way to carry out the mission Christ gave to his followers. That may look very different than the current church but it can’t simply be to say you believe and engage in no mission. Not saying this is what you do all all Kati (I’m sure it’s not) but it is a growing phenomenon.