Let’s Ask the Unchurched…

Latest Update 1st October, 2016.

what's the best way to grow your church membershipOf course church growth can’t be measured only by how many people you have…

Disciple making is about quality over quantity. I’d rather have ten Bible-believing, church-serving, Jesus-loving disciples than one hundred church-goers any day of the week.

But do you want to know what’s even better than ten Bible-believing, church-serving, Jesus-loving disciples?

One hundred of them.

And this is exactly why knowing how to grow your church is membership is vital; getting people through those church doors of yours is the first crucial step in making disciples.

What Causes a Church to Grow?

Sure, there’s no magic bullet when it comes to church growth, but I mean, what gets people to visit your church in the first place, and then makes them decide to stay with you?

It could be the powerful praise team, the friendly greeters at the door, it could be you’re preaching great sermons that are getting talked about.

It could be you’ve learned how to create a beautiful church website, it could be the church’s reputation in the community or that young couple who stand on that street corner faithfully every week handing out church invites.

To be honest it’s probably a mixture of all of these things; a wide variety of factors contribute to growing a good, strong and healthy church membership.

But what if we could really pin it down to one major key that you could turn to unlock your church’s growth potential?

What’s the Key to Church Growth?

I think in order to answer the question of how to grow your church membership, that is, how your church can reach the unchurched, we need to ask the experts – the unchurched themselves.

Pastor Thom Rainer recently carried out a three year study where he surveyed the unchurched about their perceptions of church.

He came up with some astonishing findings and shocking statistics. Thom Rainer published his research in his book entitled ‘Surprising Insights From the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them‘.surprising insights

This research project involved interviewing 308 unchurched and non-Christian men and women from the United States and Canada.

The interviews although structured with pre-determined questions, allowed time for the unchurched person to speak only and freely and provide us as pastors and church leaders with some valuable insight.

Thom Rainer said this:

Over the past few years, I have been privileged to enter a world that I really did not know very well. It is the world of the unchurched. Now, like many Christians, I have interacted with the unchurched, worked with the unchurched, socialized with the unchurched, and witnessed to the unchurched.

But I have been a Christian for more than 30 years. I really did not understand the hearts and the mindsets of the unchurched until recently.

For the past three years, my research team and I have been involved in extensive and intensive interaction with the unchurched. We have come with our computers and pre-planned questions, but many times we would just sit back and listen for hours.

Our team has covered all 50 states and Canada listening to the unchurched.

We have been among a diversity of ethnic groups and socioeconomic groups. We have been in wide-ranging demographic areas, and we have talked to as many females as males.

We have listened to the unchurched with modest education, and we listened to the unchurched with doctoral degrees. We have indeed listened for thousands of hours.

A team of 17 men and women gave not only their time, but their hearts to this project. You will hear some fascinating information that we gleaned from our time with the unchurched.

So what was the outcome of this research and can we use this to grow our churches? Let’s take a look at the results.

Ten Surprises of the Unchurched:

Surprise No. 1

Most of the unchurched prefer to attend church on Sunday morning if they attend.

If I attended church, it would be the only time I could go regularly,” said Al V. of Tulsa.

I work five days a week, and I like to go home to my family at night. And we almost always have some activity that one of our kids is involved in on Saturdays. I just think Sunday is the best time. And Sunday morning is the best time, because we get the kids to bed at a decent hour on Sunday night.

(There were also a small but significant number of people, that is single adults and adults who have no choice but to work on a Sunday, who said they would prefer Saturday evening worship.)

Surprise No. 2

Most of the unchurched feel guilty about not attending church.

Although Thom Rainer and his team did not ask specific questions relating to their feelings about not going to church, the vast majority of unchurched people expressed guilt about not going to church in different ways, especially from parents of young children who were not attending church.

Every Sunday morning I wake up and feel terrible about not taking Shanna and Tim to church,” said Mary G. of Sarasota, Fla. “Mike [her husband] feels the same way. It’s tough to start a habit of doing something you’ve never done before.

So, if the unchurched feel guilty, why don’t they just start going to church?

Church-going Christians who have been attending for a long-term might not fully appreciate how church can seem intimidating to the non-Christian who worries if they could ever fit in and make friends.

They worry about church etiquette or protocol and are worried about feeling out of place.

The next question revealed probably the biggest surprise of all…

Surprise No. 3

Ninety-six percent of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend church if they are invited.

If you forget every thing else from this post, just remember this.

Perhaps we need to pause on this response. Perhaps we need to restate it. More than 9 out of 10 of the unchurched said they would come to church if they were invited.

Just think of the implications for a sec – it is estimated that 160 million people in the United States are unchurched (if we define unchurched as attending church two or less times in a year.)

If this research is anywhere close to accurate, then the implications are staggering: Over 153 million people would start attending church if they were invited!

You could do a quick survey in your church, speak to your newest members and ask them how they became involved in the life of your church and found Christ – the most common answer you’ll hear is that a friend or family member invited them.

However, despite all of this, the heartbreaking fact is that only 21% of active churchgoers invite anyone to church in the course of a year.

(We can change that, keep reading below)

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Surprise No. 4

Very few of the unchurched had someone share with them how to become a Christian. And Christians have not been particularly influential in their lives.

If Christians do not invite non-Christians to church, we cannot be surprised if they do not share the gospel with or influence the unchurched.

So many of the unchurched are waiting for someone to explain the way of salvation, or for a Christian to share their personal story of how God changed their life with them.

You might be surprised that, when some Christians may think “the time is just not right,” the unchurched are wondering why we are so hesitant.

Surprise No. 5

Most of the unchurched have a positive view of pastors, ministers and the church.

Only a very small percentage of people surveyed said that church leaders and pastors are hypocritical, only after money or think they’re better than anyone else.

This shows that the scandal of the televangelists and other Christian leaders is a faded memory for most of the unchurched.

For the vast majority of the unchurched, the church is still relevant today. Actually, many of them perceive the church to be the most relevant institution in society today.

This surprising response then begs another question: if the unchurched see the church in a positive light, and if they perceive the church to be relevant, why are they still unchurched?

There seems to be two main reasons: firstly they’ve had a negative experience of church; unfriendliness, unkempt facilities, poor signage, and general confusion have been some of the descriptions about the church from the unchurched.

But the second reason for their not attending church takes us back to the third surprise: Most of the unchurched have never been invited to church. And most of them would attend if invited.

Surprise No. 6

Many of the unchurched have a church background.

There’s a lesson to be learned from this: do not assume that all unchurched persons are clueless about the church or biblically illterate.

The research found that those who were raised in church left for a variety of reasons: some dropped out when their parents dropped out, some experienced a nasty church split or had a bad experience that put them off.

What is amazing though is that most of these men and women still view the church positively even after a negative experience.

(These men and women tend to be a forgiving lot, even if they are hesitant to return to church!)

Surprise No. 7

Some types of “cold calls” are effective; many are not.

I see a lot of Christian leaders debating and questioning the effectiveness of what is commonly known as ‘cold-call evangelism’.

The definition of “cold call” is simply “uninvited.” The type of cold-call evangelism most often resisted by the unchurched is an uninvited visit to their homes.

I really don’t mind talking to people from churches. But please don’t show up at my home without an invitation. It reminds me of telephone solicitation, only worse!” —Roger S., Wisconsin

The formerly unchurched agreed. These new Christians said that unexpected visitors in the home were rarely welcomed.

Sarah F. of a small town in Alabama noted,

“I was most positively impacted by Christians who asked for permission to meet me or talk with me. The cold-call visitor to my home was a pain. I ended up accepting Christ through the witness of a church member who took me to lunch on three different occasions. I knew what her agenda was, but at least she invited me to lunch.

“I would be glad for church people to come talk to me in my home,” said Millie B. of Odessa, Texas. “I just want to know when they’re coming.”

Eric is a trip,” Peter W. of San Diego told us. Peter is an unchurched man who works with Eric.

We will be talking about the Chargers or the Padres and, before I know it, he’s telling me something about his church or God.

I really respect him, you know. He doesn’t beat me over the head with his beliefs, but he sure isn’t shy to talk to me about it. Most of the church people I know act like they are ashamed of what they believe.

The bottom line of cold-call evangelism seems to be: showing up at someone’s home without an invitation was one of the biggest turnoffs, as articulated by the unchurched.

Surprise No. 8

The unchurched would like to develop a real and sincere relationship with a Christian.

The leader of Thom Rainer’s research team, Twyla Fagan, said this:

“Most of the unchurched that the team is interviewing would respond positively to a ‘genuine’ Christian who would spend time with them in a gentle, non-judgmental relationship.”

Twyla continues, “Most of the unchurched can easily tell the difference between ‘drive-by’ evangelism and a person who really cares.

I hope you can see by now that personal friendship evangelism is by far the most effective way to reach the unchurched and grow your church membership!

It’s always healthy to remind ourselves that when it comes to growing church congregation is far more than just gaining more members; it’s about individual people who desire to have a real relationship with their Creator.

And if we really had broken hearts for these unchurched persons, we would take whatever time is necessary to get to know them and to share the love of Christ in word and deed.

Winning the lost and reaching the unchurched is really no big mystery.

We like to complicate it but the truth is there are millions of these men and women waiting for one of us Christians to spend time with them and to show them we really care.

Jesus desired that none would perish. In this midst of his packed schedule, He took time to show His love to sinners.

Are we willing to do the same?

Surprise No. 9

The attitudes of the unchurched are not related to where they live, their ethnic or racial background, or gender differences.

The ninth surprise came as Thom Rainer and his researchers received a wide variety of responses. You can’t assume that someone from  the US Bible belt or someone from Asian origin has certain attitudes towards God and his church.

The only pattern the study showed was relating to income level – the higher an individual’s income level, the more resistant to the gospel he or she is likely to be. (Of course this is exactly what Jesus told us in Matthew 18:24.)

Surprise No. 10

Many of the unchurched are far more concerned about the spiritual well-being of their children than themselves.

The unchurched with children at home are deeply concerned about the spiritual welfare of their children, even if they articulate little concern for themselves.

Perhaps when thinking about growing our church congregations we need to be more intentional in reaching children and youth. Do you remember when Jesus said to let the children come to him?

So What Can We Take From This To Grow Our Churches?

For me, the of the two most astonishing stats in Thom Rainer’s book was:

  • 96% of unchurched people said they would come to church if we invited them

but perhaps more shockingly…

  • only 21% of Christians invite anyone to church over the course of the year.

The bad news is that with the current track record of personal invitation among our church members we’re not exactly heading for explosive church growth.

I mean, how can we go and ‘make disciples of all people’ (Matt. 28:19) if our people have no intention of inviting others to church?


“More than 9/10 of unchurched say they would attend church if they were invited. – Thom Rainer” [Tweet this]

The good news is there is a massive opportunity here to reach the lost for Christ, and it’s simpler than you think…

Invite them and they will come. It may be that simple, and it may be that profound.

When is the last time your church members invited an unchurched person to church?

When is the last time they offered to meet someone or show him or her around the church?

We who are leaders in the church must challenge our church members.

Knowing that friendship evangelism and personal invites is by the far the most powerful way to grow the church’s membership, they are a few things we can do to increase the number of invites.

5 Ways to Make It Easier for Your Church Members to Invite Friends and Family

11) Lead by example – Use any opportunity to tell your members about your conversations with people during the week, illustrate your sermons with stories of how you are inviting people to church.

2) Get Member Feedback – You might want to check to see if they’re comfortable inviting people to church. Is there anything stopping them? Are they embarrassed to? Ask them. Find out why and be willing to act on feedback.

3) Train Your People in Personal Evangelism – Your job as a pastor is to equip your people. Teach them how to share the gospel in a simple way, help them to be confident in sharing their personal testimony.

4) Print Church Invites – Make it as easy as possible for your church members by giving them invites that they can give out.

5) Organise a Monthly ‘Invite a Friend’ Sunday – As well as special events like Easter and Christmas, why not promote a special ‘Invite a Friend to Church’ Sunday? Give people a reason to invite people, give them something to invite people to.

Recommended reading:

Finally: Be Ready for Them Because They Will Come

How to Make a Church Welcome PackOnce someone has visited you, the next step is getting them to stay with you.

Imagine you invite someone round to your house for a meal, what do you do beforehand? You make sure your house in order so that you’re ready to welcome your guests.

The same applies with church.

Show your people that you’re expectant and ready for guests by having your welcome team organised and ready, equipped with church visitor welcome packs and smiles.

Prepare a more evangelistic sermon to preach.

Now you have them through the door, decide how you will follow-up visitors in advance.

This way people will feel safe and proud in inviting their friends and family in the knowledge that they’ll be well looked after once they arrive.

Which of these findings surprised you the most? Can you think of any ways to make it easier for your congregation to invite friends and family members to church? Let’s hear from you GrowChurch Champs!