9 Signs Your Church Is Ready to Reach Unchurched People


9 Signs Your Church is Ready to Reach Unchurched People

Almost every church I know says they want to reach unchurched people. But few are actually doing it.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that many churches don’t really understand unchurched people (here’s a post on 15 characteristics of today’s unchurched person).

And part of the problem is that our model of church is designed to reach and help churched people, not unchurched people. Churches haven’t embraced change deeply enough.

So you can say you want to reach people all day long. You can teach about it every week. But if you haven’t designed your church around ministering to people who don’t go to church, you might as well be preaching that you want to lose weight while eating a triple cheeseburger.

Your model simply doesn’t match your mission.

So how do you know that your church is actually ready to reach unchurched people?

Here are 9 signs your church is ready to embrace unchurched people:

1. Your main services engage teenagers. I’ve talked with many church leaders who want to reach unchurched people who can’t understand why unchurched people don’t like their church. They would be stumped until I asked them one last question: do the teens in your church love your services and want to invite their friends? As soon as I asked that question, the leader’s expression would inevitably change. He or she would look down at the floor and say ‘no’. Here’s what I believe: if teens find your main services (yes, the ones you run on Sunday mornings) boring, irrelevant, and disengaging, so will unchurched people. As a rule, if you can design services that engage teenagers, you’ve designed a church service that engages unchurched people.

2. People who attend your church actually know unchurched people. Many Christians say they want to reach unchurched people, but they don’t actually know any unchurched people well enough to invite them. One of the reasons we run almost no church programs at Connexus where I serve (other than small groups and few other steps toward discipleship) is that we want our families to get to know unchurched people. We want them to play community sports, get involved at their kids school and have time for dinner parties and more. You can’t do that if you’re at church 6 nights a week. We don’t do many ministries because our people are our ministry.

3. Your attenders are prepared to be non-judgmental. Unchurched people do not come ‘pre-converted’. They will have lifestyle issues that might take years to change (and let’s be honest, don’t you?). Cleaning up your behaviour is not a pre-condition for salvation, at least not in Christianity. What God has done for us in Jesus saves us; not what we have done for God. Is your congregation really ready to love unchurched people, not just judge them? (I wrote about why Christians should let non-Christians off the moral hook here.) One of Jesus’ genius approaches was to love people into life change. If your people can do that, you’re ready to reach unchurched people.

4. You’re good with questions. This one’s still hard for me. I like to think that every question has an answer. I think one of the reasons unchurched people flee churches is they feel shut down when every question they ask has a snappy or even quick answer. They will find answers, but you need to give them time. Embracing the questions of unchurched people is a form of embracing them.

5. You’re honest about your struggles. Unchurched people get suspicious when church leaders and Christians want to appear to have it ‘all together’. Let’s face it, you don’t. And they know it. When you are honest about your struggles, it draws unchurched people closer. I make it a point to tell unchurched people all the time that our church isn’t perfect, that we will probably let them down, but that one of the marks of a Christian community is that we can deal with our problems face to face and honestly, and that I hope we will be able to work it through. There is a strange attraction in that.

6. You have easy, obvious, strategic and helpful steps for new people. I am still such a fan of thinking steps, not programs (Here’s an older but awesome (free) Andy Stanley podcast of all Seven Practices of Effective Ministry). One sure sign that you are ready to handle an influx of unchurched people is that your church has a clear, easily accessible path way to move someone from their first visit right through to integration with existing Christians in small groups or other core ministries. Most churches simply have randomly assembled programs that lead nowhere in particular.

7. You’ve dumped all assumptions. It’s so easy to assume that unchurched people ‘must know’ at least the basics of the Christian faith. Lose that thinking. How much do you (really ) know about Hinduism or Taoism? That’s about how much many unchurched people (really) know about Christianity. Don’t fight it. Embrace it. Make it easy for everyone to access what you are talking about whenever you are talking about it.

8. Your ‘outreach’ isn’t just a program. Many Christians think having a ‘service’ for unchurched people or a program designed for unchurched people is enough. It’s not. When you behave like reaching unchurched people can be done through a program or an alternate service, you’re building a giant brick wall for unchurched people to walk into. You might as well tell them “This program is for you, but our church is for us. Sorry.”

9. You are flexible and adaptable. In the future, you will not ‘arrive’. I think the approach to unchurched people and the strategy behind the mission of the church needs to be flexible and adaptable. Don’t design a ‘now we are done’ model to reaching unchurched people. You might never be done. Churches that are adaptable and flexible in their strategy (not in their mission or vision) will have the best chance of continually reaching unchurched people. “How quickly can your church change?” will become a defining characteristic of future churches. (If you want to read more about change, I wrote Leading Change Without Losing It last year. Additionally, John Kotter’s Leading Change is a must-read classic.)

Those are 9 signs I see that your church is ready to reach unchurched people.

What do you see?

  • mattproctor.blogspot.com

    #1: You know the God of the gospel, believe in the Jesus of the gospel, and filled with the Holy Spirit that empowers the gospel.
    #2: Your heart breaks for those going to hell more than you prefer your comfort.
    #3: You are prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in you, with gentleness and respect.

    Then just maybe you move to this list of 9 signs…

  • Rob Penny

    Carey – just stumbled upon your site today through a Facebook share. Amazing stuff here, spent the last hour or so reading through various posts. Love your heart. Also, I love how many atheists are engaging with your posts – that’s a good thing!
    Although, I do think we should drop the ‘unchurched’ label, if I was atheist that would probably bother me.

  • Matthew Skelton

    I really agree with what you’re saying Danielle. I also find that attitudes toward church services like this miss the point of the gathering of believers. I believe that the role of a church service is for the building up of the body of Christ for the work of ministry in the World (Eph 4:11-13).
    What you say about Christians being transformed by their obedience and loving people in a way that points people to Christ is in agreement with the way ministry and mission is portrayed throughout the Bible. It particularly agrees with the “kingdom of priests” language which implies both centrifugal and centripetal ‘mission’. For that reason Point 2 in this article is one point i can really agree with. But for most of the rest it comes across like you say as marketing, trying to sell the gospel under a facade of happy-go-lucky people. Jesus does bring abundant life and love, but he also separates the sheep from the goats, and that WILL offend people.
    The true Gospel, and true obedience is what will draw the ‘nations’ in. In my experience, churches like this give rise to many Christians who ‘spring up quickly, but wither because they have no root’.

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

    Well said Daniel. Thanks for your points throughout this thread. And you are so right…most people who don’t attend church are spiritual, not atheists. Very true. Appreciate you!

  • Danielle Schneider

    In addition, I’d like to suggest that though many people below have made good points, you’ve explained them all away as though yours are the only valid ones. This is in direct opposition to your point #4. Can you admit that your POV could be flawed?

  • Danielle Schneider

    I’ve been pondering the question of what brings people to Jesus mainly because the ideas espoused in your post above have been multiplying within the church. However, the church gets continually smaller. Clearly, we aren’t ‘getting it’. As I look to scripture, I see Jesus and the Apostles doing the works of God and that is what drew people. Interestingly though, it didn’t keep everyone engaged. Even after Jesus and His disciples did miracle after miracle before his death, by the time he left, most had left. Why? Because Jesus is offensive to people. Jesus requires obedience to Himself alone. This is what keeps people away from Him. ‘Church’ is not the answer. Jesus is the answer. Those who are drawn in by the Spirit will come and it is not going to matter what kinds of programs, or approach, or sound system, or lighting setup, or presentation a particular church is offering. People who come to church come to worship Jesus. If they are coming for some other reason, then the gathering of believers is not a scriptural gathering.

    Your post is doing what marketers have been doing more and more under the guise of ‘church’ and that is to try to sell something to people that they’ll want to buy. You’ve completely missed the point of the gospel. Jesus is not a good selling point. He said so himself. He came to bring a sword, to divide families and friends and so forth. Jesus is offensive.

    But when people who choose obedience follow Him and love him, then they are transformed by that and they are able to love people around them in such a way that those people are pointed to Jesus! NOT to church. The thing that keeps most people out of church is that the people in the church don’t actually love. The Word says that they will know we are Christians by our love, but again and again what I hear from non-believers is that Christians are hateful people. So we, as the body of Christ, need to learn to love and THAT is what will make the difference.

  • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decker

    One more point… I think there is also a distinction to be made. There is a big difference between “unchurched” and those who are unchurched but are more “hostile to the church.” The average Joe or Jane who might have attended church a few times as a kid or comes at Easter and Christmas is a big difference between an Atheist or someone who simply doesn’t trust religion or the establishment of “church.” Two quite different people groups with two quite different approaches.

  • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decker

    I think Susan does bring up a good point. If Susan doesn’t know me, respect me or trust me then anything I say to her doesn’t hold as much merit as it would if Susan and I had become friends first. If, instead of trying to convert Susan I simply showed her that I genuinely cared about her… over time I might earn the right to share. Not because of what I said but because my actions exampled my faith, or the faith I claimed to live by. Doesn’t mean we should force anything on anyone, because I don’t believe that we should, but… when we focus on relationships first… we might find that others are much more willing to listen.

  • http://www.twitter.com/danieldecker Daniel Decker

    Love this and fully agree. I’ve always thought that we (church people) tend to over complicate it a bit. People, unchurched or not, want to know that they matter… they they are cared about and that they are not alone. We all want that. Many of us also want help navigating the struggles of life, support through the difficult times and hope for a better tomorrow. It begins with a need (a need we have a solution for). The problem I see is that too often we are focused on the accomplishment (winning someone to Christ) vs focused on the person. Don’t get me wrong, the relationship with Jesus is the game changer but I think people need to first know we care about them (since we are a reflection of Christ, or at least we should be). If you want someone to care then you must show them you care about them first. Not say it, show it. We can have all the programs and crafty messages in the world but if our actions don’t align, the back doors of our churches will remain as open as the front doors. — Side note: The Sunday sermon definitely needs to relate but to me its’s what happens the other 6 days of the week that can matter even more.

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

    It sounds, Kevin and Susan, that you’ve made up your minds. I get that. But don’t assume all churches are like the ones you stereotype. Far from it. Really. There is much hope to be found and I hope you encounter a different kind of community from what you’ve encountered.

  • Kevin Barnes

    Susan, I agree. Unchurched is an unfortunate term because it clumps together people who don’t necessarily want to be together. Sort of like when all Christians are accused of being Creationists who refute evolution. Or or when someone assumes all Christians believe in the young earth theory and not the old. But what is most disturbing about the term unchurched is that it assumes people should be in church enjoying the benefits of their ‘product’. It’s like their advertising something they believe in and anybody with half a brain knows the only advertising that’s acceptable is for material goods that are designed to wear out, break down, and be replaced. Anyone who tries to tells others about the transformation Jesus has done in their life need not do so because everyone knows people are the smartest beings around and we know how to do what’s best for earth and others; just look at the pages of history. I’m glad to hear there’s someone with a keen eye that can point out ridiculousness when others might mistakenly take it as truth. Thank you.

  • Susan

    Actually, us ‘unchurched’ people (what a ridiculous word) flee churches, or stay away from them completely in the first place, because we don’t believe in any god. We believe in evolution. We believe that humans and dinosaurs did NOT co-exist. We believe the world is billions of years old and not 6000 years old. We laugh heartily at the Creation Museum and openly voice how stupid one must be to believe that nonsense. And we are quite happy to carry on believing as we do, just as you are. Don’t try to ‘church’ anyone. It reeks of desperation on your part. When I walk through China Town, I NEVER go into a restaurant that has a girl out the front trying to entice me to come in. I think to myself, “Why are they so desperate for customers? The food must be bad!”

  • Kristen

    I like your honesty, and I would think the exact same way are you if I had went to the churches you have been to. I now you are thinking how do I know what churches you have been to. I know because If you have ever truly felt the power of God come upon you and in you, you would not be saying that you have true joy. True joy is found in the Holy Ghost, in the presence of The Almighty.! Sounds like you have been to DEAD churches where the demonstration of the Holy Ghost was no where to be seen or felt. I suggest you give Jesus another try, and find yourself a spirit filled church like in the book of Acts. A oneness apostolic/pentecostal church that preaches the same doctrine

    that the apostles preached, where we lay hand on the sick and they recover. Where when you receive the only biblical experience of receiving the Holy Ghost, you speak in tongues. You will not be wanting to sleep in on Sundays anymore, you will not be able to wait till Sunday! I know I can’t, can’t wait to see what God is going to do each service! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!

  • keep your eye on Jesus. WWJD

    Being critical is not a good thing, suggest what you would call this program, if unchurched is not satisfactory. I’ve known uneducated people, that were the smartest people I ever knew. Sam Walton had a 4th grade education.

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

    David Kinnaman has written some great books on attitudes of unchurched people toward Christians. UnChristian and You Lost Me are great looks at how to deal the tensions you address without compromising beliefs. I really appreciate David’s perspective and the many voices he quotes.

  • Dan Repp

    Going to church is not the same as Being the Church. I believe the same 4 walls that keep people inside also keep people out. Too many people believe/are taught that missionaries travel only to foreign lands. They equate their Christian walk with church attendance. The lost/ unchurched easily notice the hypocrisy.

  • econklin

    I have spent (and spend) most of my life with “unchurched people.” They are intelligent, highly moral, and seriously engaged with multiple community charities and causes. There are two main things that repel them about churches: First, the overwhelming perception that Christians are narrow-minded, judgmental, and prefer ignorance to enlightenment; and second, intense intellectual discomfort with the essential concept in Christianity, the resurrection. The first is addressed by efforts such as the very public support for marriage equality in Hawaii by our Episcopal bishop and other clergy. The second will be more difficult.

  • Bill

    The best way to bring in unchurched people is to get them saved FIRST then invite them to church because if they are indwelled with the Holy Spirit they will want to be in God’s house and you won’t have to preach to them like a “teen” to keep their attention. Just being “churched” doesn’t get anyone saved automatically. Its best if the vast majority of people in attendance are saved because church preaching is supposed to focus on edifying the saints not just constantly having to explain the gospel over and over every week (not that it shouldn’t be presented regularly, but if trying to get people saved is the focus of every sermon, the saints are not getting the “strong meat” they need from preaching). Whenever possible, give people the gospel first, THEN bring them to church.

  • oldsringsandthings@mail.com

    Dody, I don’t understand how you can be atheist and at the same time “very spiritually fulfilled”. To be an atheist means you do not believe in any god…god being a spiritual supreme being. As a Christian (by the way…I have no knowledge of the Connexus church) I have learned that the fall of man means that we lost touch with God’s Holy Spirit that had once dwelt in Adam & Eve. Mankind, then being spiritually dead (void of spirit) lost the ability to directly communicate with God. The purpose of the church is to lead people to the place where we can re-gain that spirit. Jesus said we must be born again (of spirit) just as we were once born of flesh. So as I understand, until we are born of spirit we do not have a spirit, only a body and soul (intellect & emotion). I also believe that if we do gain a spirit without being born again, then it is not God’s Holy Spirit that dwells in us. The only other spirits there are are demonic spirits. Sure, many churches get side-tracked with concerns about paying the bills, keeping attendance up, etc, and risk losing sight of their purpose. As a home owner I worry about the same things and sometimes destroy my own peace in my home. Us humans have these problems…”churched” or not. But the purpose of the church is also not about finding joy in Jesus, but rather finding God through Jesus. It isn’t primarily about joy, but rather re-gaining the Spirit of God that we were born without and making us again complete as originally created. I hope I have not come across as being to churchy :). Your body and soul, as I understand, cannot enter into God’s spiritual kingdom. We actually need a spirit (He lets His spirit fill us) to enter that kingdom…thus He says: Flesh and blood cannot inherit eternal life. I hope this means something to you. Take care, Tim.

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

    Jack I think that’s a good distinction. The goal isn’t to be popular among teens, but simply understood and able to engage them. A lot of preachers are just frankly irrelevant and incomprehensible. Teens are a good test of comprehension and engagement. As to where evangelism factors into worship? I think 1 Corinthians 14 provides clear instruction to the church to create a style of worship that’s accessible to outsiders. That’s also what the Reformation was about to a large extent – reclaiming worship for everyone.

  • Jack Brooks

    Two questions: What is the difference between being understandable to teens, versus being popular with teens? Christ’s church exists for all ages of people.The most popular, high-attendance mega-church in my region has meetings that are like a giant youth-group on steroids. They make unprovable “conversion” claims, which include their leadership claiming that anyone who raises their hand for any reason has become a newly-saved person. Frankly, I don’t want to be like some TV network executive who only cares about the coveted 18-35 demographic. Second, where is New testament polity on worship and evangelism factored into this? I read the New Testament defining the Lord’s Day meeting as for the worship of Jesus Christ and the edification of Christ’s people. This will center around the Gospel, but the primary purpose of the Lord’s Day meeting isn’t supposed to be evangelistic. There is no evidence in Acts that the Christians as a rule evangelized their neighbors by bringing them to church. All the evangelism in Acts happened out in the local homes and marketplaces.

  • Bruce Coolass


  • http://ear-sword-miracle.blogspot.com/ Miles O’Neal

    Teens are harder for some adults to engage, especially in a big group setting like a tradit8ional service. Some of us find teens and young adults easier to engage. That’s a good sign it’s a time for partnering. 8^)

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

    It’s surprising how many people are open to different beliefs and who are searching for different truths than the one’s they’ve experienced on their own.

  • kerry57

    Myself and a lot of others are more happy not being in and going to church with religious people. I don’t believe eckart tolle goes to church either. I am in God and it’s all good and ok.

  • Erin

    Trying to “church” the “unchurched” asks people to abandon their own beliefs. It kind of defeats their purposes.

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

    I’m sorry to hear you’ve given up on church. One of the things I love about our Saviour is that he hasn’t given up on you or his church.

  • kerry57

    for myself..i am done with the church thing. for others they need it.

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

    Thanks for sharing Kerry. I think the church that can share both grace and truth is the church that many unchurched people flock to.

  • Mark P

    Hi kerry57! Thank you for taking the time to read my comment and even respond to it. :) Here’s the thing though: we think we may have understood some things, especially on matters about God (even I am guilty of this), but let’s look at what the Bible says about these things :)

    The first point you made is about disagreeing with “Jesus is the only way to God, heaven, etc”. In John 14:6, Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

    The second point is that “God is pure unconditional love.. unconditional love means no strings, no requirements”. Yes, that is true, but let’s take a look at this scenario: Suppose that you did a crime, were put to jail, and then moments later someone comes up to you and says to you, “Hey, want to get out of jail? Here is the key to it. I’m giving it to you for free, no strings attached, and you don’t have to do anything to get this key. I’m simply giving it to you. When you get outside, there’s a Ferrari waiting for you, and inside is the address of the brand new house for you to live in. I’ll take your place here in jail.” But then you refuse to take the key from the person. Will you still get out of jail and get the things he just described? In the same way, God, in His unconditional love, offers us mercy in forgiving our sins (that would have warranted us eternal torture in Hell), and grace so that you can have a relationship with Him and eventually be with Him in heaven. But it is still up to us to receive it, just like the key to jail that the person in my story is offering.

    That “key” to restoring the relationship between man and God is Jesus, and it is up to us to simply receive Him. You don’t have to work good deeds to receive this gift. You just receive it. In receiving it, you renounce your sins (“repentance”, which is the same thing you do when you realize that you’ve wronged a person and you ask him/her for forgiveness), give up working your way up to Heaven, and simply trust Jesus to be your “key” to a relationship with God and heaven. That’s it! Regardless of what you’ve done in the past, all those sins can be covered by Jesus living a sinless life on earth but still paying the price for our sins through suffering, dying on the cross, and rising up from the dead. He did all the work! You just have to “take” it.

    Here’s a wonderful verse that pertains to God’s unconditional love: Romans 5:8. “But while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

    While He knew that I was going to sin against Him a bazillion times, Jesus Christ still chose to suffer and die for me. And for you. And for everyone. :)

    I hope I’ve given you something worth to read, and feel free to continue discussing this with me! Thank you for reading this!

  • kerry57

    I have been to many churches over the years..and I keep finding that a lot of those in churches ..well bible churches..they only thing or things they keep trying to change is their sins..and to stop sinning. personally i don’t find that ..progressive or enlightening. I do find talking about God and the love of God and the spiritual very inspiring and enligtening and healing..esp the unconditional love of God

  • kerry57

    I disagree with the jesus is the only way to god heaven etc. I was raised and bathed in that..for 18 years. I have understood that it’s not true..as many others have also found..but God is pure unconditional love..unconditional love means no strings means no requirements to be in God.

  • kerry57

    I went to one of the churches you mentioned ..and i never went back. The people in there were so cold and unfriendly..and i am not the only one who has experienced that in one of the unitarian churches.

  • kerry57

    I believe all pastors need to be able to and want to resolve any issues within the congregation and people and to help people come together in a healthy supportive way..not all pastors are or will do this..and those churches i believe are not ready for anything new or any new challenges

  • kerry57

    there are those who are unchurched..because it’s best for them to be that way..just another truth