Insights from the Formerly Unchurched

In Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, Thom S. Rainer shares the results of his in depth research of a group he calls the formerly unchurched. Rather than ask the unbeliever what might make them want to go to church, his team interviewed over 350 people who previously did not go to church but now do so regularly, regarding the cause of their change of heart and mind. The idea is that surveying such people gives an important insight into factors that are actually leading people to join churches and become Christians. Dr. Rainer also interviewed pastors of “effective evangelistic churches,” churches that have had at least 26 conversions per year and a conversion ratio of less than 20:1 (membership/annual conversion). The churches and interviewees cross denominational and geographical boundaries.

I have read through and read again the part of the book dealing with interviews with the formerly unchurched. I am still working through the rest of the book which focuses on the interviews of evangelistically successful pastors. The first issue I will discuss the numbers for is the reason the formerly unchurched ended up choosing the church they joined. This is a different, albeit related, issue than why the person may have given church a chance at all. The book does not seem to spend as much time on that issue, although it does emphasize that an important reason for many of the formerly unchurched who decided to visit was that they were going through crisis in their lives, such as a divorce, custody battle, or loss of a loved one.

When asked what factors led the person to choose the church they joined:

90% -- Pastor/Preaching

88% -- Doctrines

49% -- Friendliness of Members

42% -- Other Issues

41% -- Someone from the church witnessed to the person

38% -- Family Members Attend

37% -- Sense God’s Presence/Atmosphere of Church

25% -- Relationship Other Than Family Members

25% -- Sunday School Class

25% -- Children’s/Youth Ministry

12% -- Other Groups/Ministries

11% -- Worship Style/Music

7% -- Location

The importance of pastors may seem obvious at one level, but just what was it about these pastors that proved so decisive in drawing the formerly unchurched into their churches?

The most common response about the pastor was that he preached in a way that teaches, such as expository teaching about the Bible. The formerly unchurched were interested in learning about the Bible. Next up was preaching that applies to the person’s life. Other important pastoral characteristics were the authenticity of the pastor, the pastor’s conviction, the communication and leadership skills of the pastor, and having had personal contact with the pastor.

Dr. Rainer also studied what issues were important to the formerly unchurched after the visited but before they joined. In other words, what first impressions made a difference:

-Adequate parking

-Clean facilities

-Modern facilities

-High-quality preschool/nursery

-Variety of quality programs

-Relevant and quality music

-Clean bathrooms

-Friendly people

-Outgoing greeters

-Clearly marked and functional welcome center

-Good signage

-Comfortable pews/chairs

-Attention-holding preaching

Dr. Rainer also writes about certain “myths” that his research contradicts. Here are three of them.

1. The Unchurched are Turned Off by Denominational Name Brands

80% of respondents said that the name of the church had little or no influence on their decision to join the church. To the extent the name had an affect, 66% of the time it was a positive one.

2. Deep and Involved Biblical Teaching Turns off the Unchurched

The unchurched, even more than the transfers from other churches, were concerned about the doctrine of the church. 91% of the formerly unchurched said the beliefs of the church were an important factor in choosing the church they joined. Contrary to many people’s thinking, the formerly unchurched were more interested in small groups and Sunday School than transfers from other churches.

3. The Most Important Evangelistic Relationships take Place in the Marketplace

Focusing on the marketplace is a common emphasis of evangelism courses and books. This is understandable, because for many of us that is where we are most likely to have sufficiently close relationships to share the gospel with some hope of getting a hearing. However, when asked which person was the greatest influence in the formerly unchurched deciding to join a church, “coworker” was the answer for 8% of respondents. Number one was “Family Member,” at 43%, with 35% of those being wives, 18% being children, and 9% being parents.


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