7 Reasons Churches That Want to Reach Unchurched People…Don’t

Almost every leader I know says they want their church to grow.

And almost all of them say they want much of that growth to come from people who don’t go to church.

But precious few churches see real traction in this area.

why churches aren't growing

Most churches aren’t growing, and even the ones that are sometimes experiencing a majority of their spike from transfer growth rather than from previously unchurched people.

So why don’t churches who say they want to reach unchurched people actually reach unchurched people?

Here are 7 frequent reasons:

1. Your desire to reach unchurched people is an intention, not a strategy

You’re basically doing what you’ve always been doing and hoping for different results.

Wanting people to attend and creating a church unchurched people love to attend are two very different things.

If you haven’t made radical changes to how you do church, don’t expect radically different results.

2. You’ve ended up in No-Man’s Land by trying to please everyone

Your church is too contemporary to make insiders happy and your approach is still too dated, irrelevant and unengaging to capture the imagination of unchurched people. You’ve made as many changes as you think you can navigate without alienating your existing membership, but not brought about nearly enough change to really engage outsiders. You are in no-man’s land. In an attempt to please everyone, you have pleased no one.

You’ve made as many changes as you think you can navigate without alienating your existing membership, but not brought about nearly enough change to really engage outsiders.

You are in no man’s land. In an attempt to please everyone, you have pleased no one.


3. Your real vision is about you

On the wall, your vision is about Jesus, the Kingdom and the world, but down the hall your reality about how to keep Mr X from writing yet another angry letter and how to appease Ms X who says your church just isn’t deep enough.

You say it’s about others, but you spend all your time on insiders.

Keep that up, and no matter what your mission and vision say, your church will have a vision no bigger than its (contentious) members.

4. Your people don’t know any unchurched people

This can be a real problem. How can people who attend your church invite unchurched people if they don’t know any?

One of the ways we combat that where I serve at Connexus (where 60% of our growth is from unchurched people) is to offer very little mid week programming—mostly just community groups for people to gather in at most one night a week. We want people to be at home and be a family, invite friends over, get to know their neighbours, play on community sports teams and love the cities and communities they live in.

It’s a lot easier to invite unchurched friends to church when you have some.

5. You speak insider

If unchurched people show up, you confuse them by the way you speak. If they have to learn code to understand what people in the hall way are saying (We were blessed by great fellowship the other day) or what’s being said from the front (sanctification is a process of regeneration led by the Holy Spirit), they’ll leave.

Talk like normal people. Be clear.  Remember, being unclear does not make you deep. It just makes you unclear.

6.  You judge them

If you start reaching unchurched people they’re going to look like, well, unchurched people.

Their lifestyle will be different. Sex won’t just be for married people. You’ll deal with addictions, family break down, competing ideas about who God is and much more.

Stop judging. Start loving. Very few people get judged into life change; many of us get loved into life change.

Start with judgment and they’re gone. And apparently, Jesus will be upset too.

7. You’re not sure what to do with them when they get there

You have no clear steps. No environments designed with new people in mind. You don’t know how to engage their questions, to journey with them.

Even if unchurched people come, they won’t stick around if you can’t lead them into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

That’s what I’ve seen as I’ve talked with many churches and church leaders. And those are things we constantly guard against at Connexus.

How about you? Would you add anything to the list?


  1. Michael on July 27, 2017 at 7:54 am

    Its great to treat guests without being judgmental. We love everyone who comes through our doors and are becoming more intentional about reaching the unchurched. My question deals with the transition from guest to church member. Its great to roll out the red carpet for everyone, Its also great to have LGBT, unmarried living together, etc, connecting within the context of Gods unconditional love, but how do you make the transiton from accepting sinners in the body to serving in the body as members. Old school, we would give them scripture, ask them in the most loving way to consider changing some lifestyle issues in order to serve… and inevitable they would end up leaving the church.

    If we are gong to reach the unchurched, there are gong to be lots of them who have unbiblical lifestyles along with great leadership and other giftings to build the body. I just dont know how to bridge the character vs gifting, guest to member transition.

    Seems we either speak the truth in love and lose people or compromise godly character to allow gifted individuals to serve.

    Very interested in how you or others have navigated these waters?

  2. Jerry on July 24, 2017 at 10:09 pm

    Carey, what do you do at Connexus to answer questions and walk the journey with the unchurched?

  3. Blair Bates on July 23, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    Carey, my wife and I have been doing a Apostolic style ministry for over a 11 years now. Prior to that we did work as full time pastors. I think all of your points are valid and true. It has been our experience that the local body church though intentions seemed to be in their statement the harsh reality is there is no desire or any effort to engaging anyone outside of those four walls. We have faced so many walls from the local churches that do not want to engage in evangelism in any way. They are happy to just stay clear away from ministries who purpose and mission is truly to engage people who are searching for truth, hurting from their pasts and broken in spirit. It is our job to be salt and light and I think in some cases the local body has lost its saltiness.

  4. Margaret Gutthardt on July 23, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    Stop trying to convert people. That is not our job. It’s the job of the Holy Spirit to convert people.

    Start enjoying Jesus and be transformed by His love. Others will see that transformation and will become spiritually hungry.

  5. Trevor Hawkins on January 27, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Far too many churches are anti-LGBT. People need to do their homework and re-read the relevant passages in the context they were written. I.e. Where loving non-heterosexual relationships simply did not exist – it was all about abuse and control. That is what was being criticised, not loving monogamous same-sex relationships.

  6. Tracey A. Edwards-Karcher on January 26, 2017 at 11:53 am

    Can’t put new wine in old wineskins. People want to see, smell, and hear new, fresh, and shiny. Dark, musty churches with bad sound systems are a total turnoff for new people.

  7. ServantHeart2012 on January 24, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    Make your guests, every single one, FEEL like guests. Encourage everyone (not just guest services volunteers) to to greet each other not just between songs in the worship set, but in the parking lot, in the halls, everywhere! Have clean, fresh smelling, appropriately stocked restrooms! SHARE stuff! I visited a church recently that had a “Guest” WiFi, however it was password protected. I asked a staff member for the password and was told; “Oh, we don’t let people use the WiFi. They could be using it for ungodly purposes.” WHOA! It made me wonder if the restrooms were padlocked also. You know people do “ungodly” things in there too! Build up a culture of trust rather than suspicion of newcomers!

  8. Donald Sensing on October 21, 2015 at 11:32 am

    “Hope is not a method. Wishes are not plans” – former US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl Vuono.

    Too many of us hope we can reach people in the community and wish that we could, but have no plan to do it or methodical way of going about it.

  9. Mary on October 12, 2015 at 7:11 pm

    Addictions n family breakdown are common in church homes. We just arent honest about it.

  10. Angie Bell on May 28, 2015 at 10:41 am

    (sanctification is a process of regeneration led by the Holy Spirit), you can say this, then teach what it means

  11. Angie Bell on May 28, 2015 at 10:39 am

    “We were blessed by great fellowship the other day” – I think most people on the street can figure out what this means

    • Joshua Barbour on October 10, 2015 at 9:34 pm

      You’re missing the point. he’s saying…be real. Stop talking Christianese. It’s dated and old school and makes most sound pretentious. Do you talk like that to your family or close friends? This is about creating a seeker sensitive environment. Language is HUGE.

    • Judson Bartels on July 29, 2017 at 1:02 pm

      We call this the F-word, as an example of words that can be replaced with less churchy sounding words. Ha ha

  12. christoph on May 25, 2015 at 8:17 am

    Yes, like what you say. I see it is a few years back. That #1, having good intention, but not a strategy is so central.

  13. angeb68 on December 27, 2014 at 6:56 am

    Carey, I have read a few of your posts and I am excited to know that there are still pastors around that love the unchurched. Oftentimes, I experience in my church many of the failings of reaching the unchurched: the judgment, the distance, the coldness, the inability to get to know unchurched people because we have services four days a week to the point where we are exhausted and have no time or energy to connect. Oftentimes, we are discouraged from connecting with the unchurched, but then criticized when we don’t invite any unchurched people to church. I miss the days when I belonged to a church that evangelized and cared about reaching the unchurched…my heart breaks. I feel like most churches today are busy drawing the already churched and doesn’t want to deal with the problems of the unchurched. Jesus specifically stated that he came not to be a physician to those are well, but to those are sick. But, many church people are sick themselves and in their attempt to appear to be perfect they turn off the unchurched with this hypocrisy and their judgment of them. I am a pastors wife and I see all of what you have stated active in my church, but I can’t get this message through to my husband…I will continue to pray for us all.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 27, 2014 at 11:44 am

      Thanks so much for sharing this! That sounds like a tough situation to be in. Love your hope…and love your heart. Thanks for believing in the potential of the church. And as I said in another post you recently commented on, keep looking for Christians who are healthy and bring hope to situations. They are out there. So glad to see your heart for the people God loves.

    • Zhanette on February 13, 2019 at 6:42 pm

      I am a pastor’s wife also. It feels like we are too busy going to church functions to have time for each other let alone our neighbors, or building any kind of friendship outside the walls of our church. My heart breaks! I’m hungry for change! Eating up these words of yours … we need to stop the merry-go-round! Just stop. Is this working?

  14. joshpezold on November 30, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    Most churches i’ve seen don’t build any momentum in reaching unchurched people. Usually in an attempt to be intentional, there is a BIG event or campaign, but there isn’t any push following those events. The event or campaign creates some excitement, but the lifestyle change desired is never realized. Most of the efforts work in isolation of each other and don’t build off of one another. To put it plainly, making disciples needs to become part of the churches DNA. When it’s not what the church is about, everything else will take precedent. Keep writing!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 1, 2014 at 8:46 am

      Josh…so true. You’ve reminded me of a great saying my friend Casey Graham has. Every day is more important than the big day. I think I’ll blog on that.

      • Wes Parker on January 24, 2017 at 5:35 pm

        “Every day is more important than the big day.” Great thougt. Gonna tweet that.

  15. […] At some point we’ve got to ask if we really want to reach unchurched people with the gospel.  […]

  16. Erica M. on February 3, 2014 at 11:09 am

    My sister finally got her gay son into the church. She had had people praying. He finally came to church and people were so excited he was there, they gave him verses on homosexuality written down so he could read them often. He’ll never ever go back to church. Sometimes christians are so afraid of unchurched lifestyles, especially those that have a sexual issue, that they want people to change before they meet Jesus and grow in faith and knowledge. Even though these same people have still been working on their sins of gossip, lying and gluttony for years.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 3, 2014 at 12:57 pm

      Erica. This is both heartbreaking and so revealing. You are right, we ignore our sins and eagerly address what we see in others. I’ll be praying for your nephew.

  17. adam on January 30, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Is it possible that many of those people within the church don’t have a relationship with Christ themselves and are unmoved by the thought of ministering to the un-churched? Just a thought…

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 31, 2014 at 10:37 am

      Could be Adam. For sure it’s a mixed bag.

  18. Ryan Peter on October 13, 2013 at 6:06 am

    Thanks for this – great points. Just a question – I’ve always struggled to correlate point (4) with Acts 2 where it says they met in the temple and in their homes every day. I’d love to hear about how you read that scripture.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 31, 2014 at 10:38 am

      Ryan..just saw this four months later! Sorry. I see that as something the early church and current church have in common. Healthy churches encourage connection beyond the program. As to meeting daily at church, I think personal devotions now take the place of what were public gatherings daily. But the spirit behind a committed Christian in the first century and 21st century is quite similar.

  19. William Teal on October 10, 2013 at 9:31 am

    Enjoy your posts very much. Good food for thought and application.
    I for one would like to see the message of Christ’s love and sacrifice, His Mercy and Grace to those who would believe, simplified and made plain, easier to understand. Complicated doctrinal stances enhance the pride of those who think they understand them, but turn away those who know they don’t. While there is much depth in Scripture that we will never plumb, it is unnecessary to attempt that every Sunday morning, resulting in the dismay of the unchurched, just so we can appear to be learned, wise, and all knowing. Complicated doctrines are for the seminarian, not for the average layperson or the newcomers. As we grow in Grace we can explore and grow in Christ to understand His Word better by the Spirit leading us, but newcomers, and most laypeople don’t want to spend the time and energy to be an apologist. The simple and plain sense of Scripture being taught would serve them well. Do it engagingly, with love and conviction, showing how it has changed our lives, not something we just have great pride in knowing. “Knowledge by itself puffs up.” People will respond to God’s message wrapped in simple terms and delivered with grace and love.

  20. […] Cary Nieuwhof provides some of the best insights on reaching the unchurched, or in this case, not reaching them. We have added a permanent link to his blog on our blogroll. – STEVE […]

  21. Doug VandeKamp on September 30, 2013 at 11:10 pm

    Thanks, Carey. As for point number 2, I found some thoughtful and thought-provoking insights in this article: “You Really Should Go” — http://www.thebanner.org/features/2013/08/you-really-should-go Blessings!

  22. Leadership in 140 Characters | Eric Echols on September 29, 2013 at 8:06 am

    […] 7 Reasons Churches That Want To Reach Unchurched People…Don’t by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  23. newgirl on September 28, 2013 at 11:22 am

    One of the most effective things (I think) you did for bringing in unchurched people, Carey, at the Oro church, was to mail out community postcard invitations for key events.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 2, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Thanks for reminding me of that. So many people connected through those!

  24. Rachel on September 26, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    I was raised in the church, went to a Christian college, and I have been consistently engaged in my own spirituality and spiritual needs for my entire life. I am no longer a Christian, but I am still as spiritually-minded as ever. Speaking as the unchurched, I am sad to see that so many churches have lost their focus on creating a holy space for worship and ritual. Contemporary worship services and peoples’ noisy, fast-paced lives have left little room for the appreciation of more ancient traditions, music, and rituals which served to create a “place out of time” for worshipers, allowing them to set aside the cares and worries of their lives for a short time in order to focus on “higher thoughts,” to still their minds and center their hearts. Gathering together in a sanctified place with a community of people who may have vastly different ideas and understandings of the world and yet share a desire to create a holy space by being intentional and respectful– this is what I crave. I don’t want someone to tell me what to think. I don’t want cheesy, upbeat music or a “modern” twist on scripture. I don’t want everyone around me to all agree on the “big questions.” I just want a holy space to worship as I feel fit, from my own heart, from my own spirit, from my own understanding. Humans have long used rituals to find solace and meaning in life. By setting aside time to participate in music, reading of holy texts, prayer, meditation, and other symbolic rituals, we can begin to get in touch with our pure spiritual nature, that bright light that resides in all of us and wants to shine!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 27, 2013 at 11:43 am

      Thanks for sharing this Rachel. Appreciate it.

    • Benjamin Wallis on October 1, 2013 at 8:43 pm

      Rachel, I really enjoyed reading this comment. I came from an evangelical Christian background and really craved ritual and holy space as well. I ended up becoming an Episcopal priest through the journey, something I really never expected to happen. I’m 20-something and my experience is that your comment describes how so many unchurched Millennial’s think. Sometimes it’s hard for me to stay in the organized Episcopal Church, when bureaucracy and other things get in the way of what you described. In the end it’s people who believe very different things getting together in a holy space, lighting candles, hearing sacred texts, and sharing bread and wine that keep me going.

      I have noticed a trend in Evangelicals recently, I don’t know if this has been Carey’s experience or not, in trying to reappropriate a lot of ritual into their worship. In an interesting reverse, Episcopal leadership has been posting a lot of Carey’s articles on Facebook lately….good stuff is worth sharing!

      • Carey Nieuwhof on October 2, 2013 at 9:58 am

        Benjamin…I’ve seen that trend to. If it leads people into a growing relationship with Jesus, I’m all for it. Have some friends in this movement and I think it’s great.

  25. Fred Middel on September 25, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Walk through your doors with fresh eyes. Don’t take anything for granted. What are the real first impressions for somebody whose only experience with church is somewhere between weddings, televangelists, and vampire hunters?

    Connect the dots. What could somebody expect? Where do you go once you’re in the front door? What are the unspoken expectations of dress, behaviour, and language?

    Where are you marketing yourselves? Through Christian media? It’s hard to reach the unchurched if you’re going where they are not.

    Our church used “mystery shoppers” as an evaluative tool to prevent us from being blinded by our own preconceptions.

  26. Holly on September 25, 2013 at 6:27 am

    The church that is growing and reaching the unchurched is Newspring in SC. Gospel is taught every week – especially to those who need to use the table of contents in the Bible to find Matthew. Incredible how this church reaches out and engages.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 25, 2013 at 8:47 am

      Agreed! Love what God is doing through New Spring.

  27. lynnbaber on September 24, 2013 at 10:11 am

    The very first and only important question that needs to be answered is, “Has the Holy Spirit tasked your church with this specific mission?” Every ministry is not sent to do the same thing or reach the same population. Begin with marching orders from the Lord and watch Him open doors for His purpose.

    • Sean on September 25, 2013 at 10:57 am

      I’m not sure how you can speak for the Holy Spirit, and then make that voice exclusionary. “Hey, our church was sent by God to cater to this certain segment demograph of the population and if you don’t fit don’t worry, it’s just God’s plan you wouldn’t understand!”

      Sounds like a great way to share God’s love.

    • Ryan Peter on June 3, 2014 at 7:22 am

      I think the Great Commission pretty much shows that it’s the task of every church to reach the unchurched.

  28. Elizabeth on September 24, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Beat the door down church goers R usually so condescending and judge mental; that instantly turns off a person searching for “Something.”My Niece just had a bad experience at a potential church; That I have gone to in the past, I Love the Church because I’m open minded and mega friendly, she on the other hand is a little more reserved and in her 20’s, I’m in my late 40’s she thinks they should approach her maker her feel super welcome, I tend to agree with her somewhat, If you as a regular member see some one new, don’t wait for someone else to interact, CHRISTIANS ARE TO BE PROACTIVE! It’s a requirement OF GOD…look it up, he has an entire book on it, it’s called the Bible for those who didn’t know. Because of what she deemed unwelcoming, she didn’t enjoy GODS word, ” unfriendly church”=unheard Word of GOD. She Judged GODS Message on his messengers….BOTTOM LINE CHRISTIANS(again look this up) in the end YOUR GREATEST JUDGEMENT IS HOW YOU TREAT OTHERS…. If you can’t reach out to the Human Element, How the Heck ya think you can communicate with GOD? Just wondering? I don’t go to a church to be entertained, I go always with an open mind, to be fed the word of GOD, I’m never put off by a dull monotone droning minister, I focus on the word of God because even if it’s spoken by a Monkey riding a unicycle it NEVER Returns Void

  29. David Dobra on September 24, 2013 at 6:56 am

    You do say some things to make us think. We have to love people where they are but only through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that without love you can’t please God our father. If we, as church leaders are lead by the Spirit our churches will draw the un-churched to them. Jesus did this with sign and wonders because he loved them. He is still loving people today, His Spirit is still doing today through us by the power of His Spirit these same wonders and signs. Prayer should the most powerful part of the church experience. If we follow Jesus’s example we will be churches of prayer. Then worship becomes our response God as love true love. People want to be loved an to love, and if they see true love as our expression of love the to Father they will respond. No church will be pleasing to God if we are not doing His will and we will know his will as we pray and seek it.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 24, 2013 at 8:50 am

      David I appreciate the comment. I’ve shared before that prayer is assumed and foundational to all ministry. I blog on strategy. If I talked about the basics all the time every post would sounds the same. Pray, read the Bible, engage wise counsel etc.

  30. Darryl on September 23, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Fantastic post!

  31. Paul Urban on September 23, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    In our experience, I would agree with all of those 7. It feels like much of that is a heart issue. Will we really love people right where they are at? Will we be okay with the tension of those are questioning, doubting, skeptical? Are we willing to put aside our personal preferences to speak or do ministry in a way that is understandable and connective to those who are unchurched?

    Great post. I’ll be passing this on!

  32. Lyle R on September 23, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Since when are addictions and family break down a problem specific to non-believers? The rate of both among the religious are just as high as among the non-religious.

    • Paul Urban on September 23, 2013 at 6:17 pm

      Lyle, you may be right statistically, but at least in my experience (at a church with over 65% previously not attending church) church people are more prone to hiding and not being forthright about their addictions, family issues, etc.

  33. Dawn Paoletta on September 23, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Love this- grateful Lisa (Lisanotes) Tweeted!

  34. P. V. Clark on September 23, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Great post Carey. I am really enjoying your style of intentionally doing the work of God. It’s not enough to expect everything to fall into place. Thanks for your wisdom!

  35. Craig Jutila on September 23, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Great post Carey! Although I don’t “lead” a church there are several things here for me, simply as a believer and part of the body of Christ, to remember and practice. Thanks!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 23, 2013 at 10:42 am

      Thanks Craig. It’s really a mindset, isn’t it? And so good to see you again last week my friend. Thanks for making a big difference in the world of church leadership.

  36. Aaron Buer on September 23, 2013 at 8:25 am

    This is good. A little too good. Lots to think about. Thanks.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 23, 2013 at 10:43 am

      Have to always be on guard, don’t we? Thanks Aaron!

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