How To Reach Unchurched People Who Don't Think They Need God

How to Reach the Unchurched Who Live Comfortably without God

I read a survey the other day that made me literally sit up straight as I took notice.

The number of people in Canada (my country) who profess “no religion” is now at 24%, up from 16.5% a decade earlier.

That’s a massive shift in a mere ten years.

As I reflect on it all, I’m left with this growing realization.

People are learning to live comfortably without God. 

Want to see where this might be heading? Go to Western Europe, where people have very comfortable lives and only a splinter regularly attend church. They just don’t see their need for God.

Rather than being met with a wall of hostility, Christians are mostly being met with a wall of indifference and perceived irrelevance. 

I believe that means a massive shift in attitude and approach for those of us in leadership in the local church.

Much of the church’s outreach over the last 60 years has been based on a few assumptions that are less and less true every year:

Young adults will return to church when they have kids. 

People will turn to God when they hit a crisis.

Most people will come back to what they left when they were young. 

When people have spiritual needs, they will look to the church to fulfill them.

Instead, here’s what I see as increasingly true among unchurched people who are learning to live comfortably without God:

Affluence (even many of our poor are affluent from a global perspective) has left people with a sense they have all they need to face life.

People don’t always turn to God in a crisis; they honestly don’t think the church can help.

You can only come back to something you knew; when you are on your second or third generation of ‘unchurched’, there is nothing to come back to for many people.

Personalized, google-able spirituality doesn’t demand the assistance of anyone or anything else. 

So how do you reach a growing number of people who are learning to live comfortably without God?

1. Build relationships. Jesus was deeply relational, and it seems he liked relationships with people outside the ‘church’ more than he liked hanging around people inside the ‘church’. One of the best ways to encourage people to build relationships with unchurched people is to stop running ministries in your church every night of the week. Encourage the Christians in your church to get involved in their kids schools, to play sports in a community league, to get to know their neighbours. Pick a few key ministries and do them well (we encourage people to serve on Sundays and be in community group one night a week; that’s about it). Salt only realizes its purpose if it gets out of the box and into the food it needs to season. You can’t influence people you don’t know.

2. Speak to success, not just failure. In your preaching and in your conversation, if you are only prepared to speak to people in their moments of weakness and despair, you’re going to miss a big chunk of your city. If every example you share is of someone in a crisis or who has deep problems, you will never connect with people who like their lives or who have decent marriages, even without God.  That kind of talk is also a bit of a guy-repellant.

So what might you say? A few ideas:

i. Talk about success, but ask questions about its emptiness. Most successful people I know are always on a quest for more. Success promises, but never (quite) fully delivers. Speak to that. Ask questions like “do you ever wonder if there’s more?” Or “ever wonder what that gnawing desire is really all about?”

ii. Assume people are doing their best. The derogatory and condescending caricatures of unchurched people by some Christians are just insulting…especially if you have unchurched people in the room. Most people are doing their best. They really are. If you start with acknowledging that and empathizing with them, they will accept your challenge at the end. Even value it.

iii. Respect their intelligence. Most people have done some homework. Often quite extensive. They believe what they believe or don’t believe for what they see as good reasons. When you respect them, they are more likely to respect you and your views.

3.  Value the good you see.  The everything secular is evil attitude of many religious leaders is not only a bit off base biblically, it’s also ineffective. Common grace is still at work in the world. If you read Acts 10, God appears to have valued people like Cornelius for his prayers and his gifts to the poor, even before his conversion. Jesus never started a conversation with an outsider by condemning them (that’s actually how he started his conversation with insiders…think about that), even if he finished it with a challenge (“go and sin no more”). Maybe that’s because Jesus actually loves unchurched people.

It’s going to take a lot of us rethinking our cultural assumptions as we move into this next era.

If you want to read more, several other blog posts I wrote speak to the shifting reality around us.

11 traits of churches that will make an impact in the future.

15 characteristics of today’s unchurched person.

9 signs your church is ready to reach unchurched people.  

What are you learning about your approach toward unchurched people who are learning to live comfortably without God? 

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  • Philip Traum

    Your religion needs to change with the times, get rid of all the hate and judgement, stop arguing with scientific ‘theory’ (they have been proven), and start serving those in need of help without wanting something (including their conversion) in return.
    This is why people are leaving, too much hypocrisy and greed.Too many Christians follow the Church, and not near enough follow their Christ’s teachings.

  • Seth

    In light of this article, I am wondering how far it is safe to go and make friendship with people before we tell them the gospel. How do we point out the sin of their life without coming up with an argument. I was going around telling people the gospel and then when I encountered atheists I would try to point out their problems of moral relativism and sin, and they always got angry at me. Does the Bible say here not to make long lasting friendships with unbelievers?

    2 Corinthians 6:14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

    15 And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?

    16 And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

    17 Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you,

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  • http://www.regardingformation.com/ Eric Johnson

    I think the days where the majority of those who are “unchurched” will come to a worship service to hear a sermon are long over. So much of our evangelistic efforts are geared towards getting people into a building to hear the Gospel. What if church was a sending agent, where disciples were sent out to BE the Gospel in community? How much of ministry would change if we stopped relying on Sunday morning to do our evangelism for us?

    • cnieuwhof

      I think that’s quite true Eric for many people. One size will not fit all as we move into the next era.

    • Macsimilian

      I presume most of the chatter here is about “The Great Commission” [Matt 28: 16-20] … perhaps, there’s more to it than just “go” — y’know as in “go out into the community…” “go make friends…” etc., Consider the following excerpt from the Issues, Etc., Journal:

      “… the Great Commission is not about going; it is about making disciples. This means that the Great Commission is not something that happens away from, or apart from the Church. This means that the proclamation of the Gospel in church is just as much “mission” and “making disciples” as the proclamation of the Gospel outside the church.

      Second, you will notice the phrases, “by baptizing them …by teaching them.” These two words are also participles. In this case, they specify the means by which the action of the main verb “make disciples” takes place.

      This is very important. Baptizing and teaching are not incidental or secondary to making disciples. They are not actions separate from making disciples. Baptizing and teaching are how disciples are made.”

      There are two parts if you’d like to read them both: http://www.lutheransonline.com/lo/519/FSLO-1324518519-111519.pdf

      and Part II: http://issuesetc.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/JOURNAL-FALL-11.pdf

  • Lisa

    YES!! Thankz for speaking truth… my husband sez, “It’s
    really hard to hear God while you’re marinating yourself in the spirit
    of “religion”. Pull your head out (of the sauce), and maybe you’ll hear
    a little. Even better, come completely out, and you’ll begin to see.”

  • http://www.wolfeagle.isagenix.com/ Christina Thompson

    I am so sad at what is happening with this generation. Of course now I sound like my grand parents. Prayers Blessings Always and I love your writing.

  • http://twitter.com/MargaretaCronho Margareta Cronholm

    Thank you, here in Sweden where I live, people are very comfortable.
    I try to be like JESUS in everything and know that in GOD’s timing there will be
    faith.

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Margareta…be encouraged. I was in Norway a few months ago and some church leaders in Scandanavia are really making an impact. Keep on moving forward!

  • jandvicki

    Carey, Great article. I just read the same statistic for the US. I find my self needing to speak much more simplistic, live much slower, and be more transparent than ever. The generations alive today seem to have become more self sufficient. They need a truly authentic example of why Christ is needed in every season of life.

    Thanks for the relevance

    J

  • godless

    Thank goodness for rational thought. It is nice to see more and more human beings thinking for themselves and embracing their intelligence and using rational thought. Often times this rational thought is suffocated and polluted by faith and scripture that preach on doctrines that the rational thought undoubtfully eliminates. Rational thought brings those weak individuals needing guidance to a tangeable explanation on why, what and how. The rational minority (becoming the majority) is sick and tired of hypocritical god fearers that hide behind doctrines, but yet spread evil and ill will to all. Having faith and calling one self a believer is part of the problem and not the solution. To be truly open minded and all accepting one must eleviate constraints (borders, ideals, etc)of organized religion and for once find rational answers to everyday problems. Religion kills and science and rational thought will always prevail. I have come acrossed many believers in my personal life, read gospels of diverse religions, seen actions taken by god fearing folk and from priests raping/abusing, people killing in the name and terror being spread I am continually reminded that I, like many of my fellow human beings know what is right and know religion will never be able to take that away from me. I once was lost in religion and now I am found.

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

    Recently had a conversation with a highly successful executive who was asking, “How much money do I really need?” The question of meaning is huge in a prosperity culture. That may be the primary driver for spiritual inquiry.

    • cnieuwhof

      Absolutely Lawrence. I’ve had that conversation too…and it’s so rewarding. People begin to see the limits of what life without God can bring. Well put!