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

How to Reach the Unchurched Who Live Comfortably without God

A few years ago, I read a survey 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?

People are learning to live comfortably without God. Click To Tweet

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.

You can't influence people you don't know. Click To Tweet

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.

Most successful people I know are always on a quest for more. Success promises, but never (quite) fully delivers. Speak to that. Click To Tweet

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.

Most successful people I know are always on a quest for more. Success promises, but never (quite) fully delivers. Speak to that. Click To Tweet

What’s Next?

If you want to read more, several other blog posts I wrote to 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? 

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


  1. Vicky Cooper on July 5, 2021 at 9:00 am

    Thanks for the article it really challenged me and helped me see my faults. Its great to try and think how this might work at our small church.

  2. Church Collinsville IL on June 25, 2021 at 9:58 am

    Good article … thanks

  3. Rick Bell on May 31, 2021 at 10:39 am

    Not a word in this about the problem of sin and how people need to understand they are guilty before God. The good news is about salvation from sin, not about filling the hole in your heart. The challenge is how to address the sin issue delicately and convincingly.

    • Brian Gross on June 1, 2021 at 4:07 pm

      I think that it is understood that this is true. And that the goal is to be able to share the gospel with those who most need it. The article seems to be addressing more the question of how we can engage people who don’t believe they need God. Simply telling them, they need God won’t change that. So how do we show them they need God and be ready to speak into their lives when they recognize their need–when they recognize the God-shaped hole in their heart that only he can only fill? I think that is the point of the article.

    • Kathy W on November 8, 2021 at 10:43 am

      John 10:10 says He came so we could have life and have it more abundantly. I think that is about filling a hole in our heart. Needing a savior is about both things.

  4. Christopher White on May 30, 2021 at 1:22 pm

    This isnt just a issue, it is the issue that we are all facing. There is simply nothing more critical. We simply arent on peoples radar in any way, except maybe on Christmas Eve.
    My belief that part of the response of the church needs to lie in asking the question: ‘where is there suffering in our community?’ And then go there and respond to that suffering concretely. Also do not underestimate the desire of the secular world to partner with us. We still are wanted, but we have to show up with only one question: “how can we serve?”
    In my view we also have to preach about the issues that people are thinking and talking about. If we have nothing to say about Residential Schools and what we are actually doing in partnership with First Nations, if we never speak about Climate Change or race, issues that non church going folks are actually interested in and would like a conversation on, then we may as well shut up shop now. Dealing with tough issues is not antithetical to church growth, it’s absolutely critical to it.

  5. John Pacilio on May 30, 2021 at 9:39 am

    Why not get back to the original church growth program. John 6:24 multitudes followed him because they saw the signs which he was performing on those who were sick. People are bored with westernized church services. They really want a Jesus who is here and now And can heal them and encounter them in a real way.

    • Brian Gross on June 1, 2021 at 4:00 pm

      The difficulty is the multitudes only followed him because they wanted a show. They weren’t following him while he was on the cross or after. It is when he has big crowds following him that he turns to them and says hard things that push them away-things like “unless you deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.” Signs and wonders were not Jesus’ church growth program. In fact, Jesus did have a church growth program. He did have a disciple-making program but it was not focused on numbers.

  6. Bill on May 30, 2021 at 7:44 am

    Some of us need to be more consumed with being light instead of always “being right”.

    • Bob on May 30, 2021 at 9:47 am

      So True!

  7. Kevin Wicker on October 24, 2019 at 11:15 am

    Who says not going to a church means you live without God?
    Church is a social club. Once you get in, you take the chance of being scrutinized; you have to walk and talk a certain way, do this don’t do that, be careful what you say. The Christian-ese template is crafted and you must fit into the mold as a professing Christian, or you will be edged out.
    Funny that the church folk don’t see it that way, especially the ones who go every time the door is open.
    I know better people, better Christians, that don’t go to church to enjoy their families, or simply rest as God rested on Day 7.
    God is God no matter where you are. Going to church doesn’t make you a better Christian.
    Church folk have this all wrong. It’s good for those who need the support, but the rest of us, church is a waste of time. If church is your thing, then by all means enjoy it.
    As a Christian of 52 years, I came to this conclusion, after being involved in church for most of the time. Unless you build a strong community of friends, and like your preacher, you’ll come up with the same conclusion as I did. Some of us do better without it.
    This SHOULD concern all those who make their living in the ministry. You’re going to find that God isn’t confined to a special group of people in a building, but that He’s everywhere, moves everywhere, and isn’t concerned at all if you miss out on a social club.

    • Carmel Hickling on June 22, 2020 at 4:56 pm

      I’ve had a yearning for so much more for a while now, it’s always the same… Chat, (empty talk), sing, notices, sing, preach, pray, coffee, chat. This can’t be it…. I need more. My spirit yearns, craves for more.
      I am sound technician at my church, but if I’m not doing that, I would much rather just stay home.

    • Garet on May 31, 2021 at 4:29 pm

      It seems like you might be missing the truth that we aren’t supposed to go to church but to be the church. And the church is the body of Christ. And I’ve never seen a leg, hand, or arm be successful by itself. The body of Christ is only strongest when all the members of the Body are working together on the mission. And maybe you don’t think you need the body but maybe the body needs you? Just something to consider.

  8. Janet Shaw on October 7, 2019 at 10:07 am

    No-one needs to be converted to Christianity, but everyone needs to be converted to a life of inclusion, generosity and fighting oppression. Start by voting for a party that stands for this. There are 2 parties that are committed to cutting education, health care and welfare costs. Don’t’ vote for them. Vote Green, (NDP or Liberal at least). The Green party has the strongest platform for indigenous equality, and education. The Conservatives and PPC are funded by big business and won’t make the rich pay their share. It’s sad that we have to have so many laws to give to the poor (called taxes). It saddens me that we have to rely on the government do so much.

  9. Dennis Hartsell on October 6, 2019 at 8:32 pm

    Hey Carey
    I appreciated your post on reaching those who are comfortable living without God. I think a harder group to reach are a growing group of those who are comfortable living with God and their sin with both sides comfortable with each other. How do reach that group effectively?!

  10. Kabugo E Hope on October 6, 2019 at 2:29 pm

    Very wonderful and inspiring

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  12. Jim Duggan on June 8, 2016 at 10:35 am

    Genuine engagement – not just engagement so we can “share” with them – is the way Jesus taught His followers to impact the world. Works! Thanks, Carey. Great article as always.

    • Gay on April 23, 2019 at 6:37 pm

      1 Peter 5:6-10 is good advice. Our testimony can help others (who have suffered like us). It is only for awhile. God will restore, strengthen and establish us.
      We can’t point others sin out when we are all guilty of sin but instead showing where peace and forgiveness can be obtained.
      In the same aspect we’re to be Christ like and let Gods light shine thru us to others.

  13. Wanderer on December 31, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    How do I GO TO a church? I seem to lack the boost, the confidence to go their; I just need christian friends cause then I wouldn’t doubt my faith anymore, but it would also makes things easier; so if I go into a church, what can I expecct?

  14. Philip Traum on February 10, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    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.

  15. Seth on October 4, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    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,

    • Gay on April 23, 2019 at 6:50 pm

      Romans 10:14-17
      It is what we are do, spread the word but also not to judge. It’s not important what their sins are but that they hear. God gave us free will to accept His will or not. Jesus went among the many that were “unacceptable” or “unclean” (leper’s) even to the point of touching them (to heal), murders, thief’s, and non believers. We can plant seeds and sometimes others and time will water that seed to deep faith. (It’s been done).
      We don’t have to stay among them but be obedient to spread the gospel.

  16. […] How to Reach People Who Don’t Think They Need God by Carey […]

  17. […] How to Reach Unchurched People who Don’t Think They Need God – “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…” […]

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    […] How To Reach Unchurched People Who Don’t Think They Need God by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  19. […] recently saw an article entitled “How To Reach Unchurched People Who Don’t Think They Need God” by Canadian Pastor Carey. One of his statements really resonated with the shifting nature of […]

  20. Eric Johnson on May 15, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    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 on May 15, 2013 at 7:58 pm

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

    • Macsimilian on July 2, 2013 at 5:10 am

      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:

      and Part II:

    • christoph on July 2, 2015 at 8:59 am

      I read a book that asks what would be our Christianity without Sundays. We invest our financial resources the wrong way. Building and salaries for professional staff. That BE the Gospel in the community, be the way I like that really, is almost totally absent

  21. Lisa on May 11, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    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.”

  22. Christina Thompson on May 11, 2013 at 11:32 am

    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.

  23. Margareta Cronholm on May 11, 2013 at 11:27 am

    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

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 11, 2013 at 12:18 pm

      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!

  24. jandvicki on May 11, 2013 at 8:04 am

    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


  25. godless on May 10, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    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.

  26. Lawrence W. Wilson on May 10, 2013 at 8:29 am

    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 on May 10, 2013 at 8:35 am

      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!

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