Skip to content

The Unchurched

First, I hate the word unchurched. Just as I hate hearing a book called a “good read.” Or “impact” used as a verb. Or the word literally tossed in to strengthen an assertion. Or starting sentences with “thus.” Or this, the winner of the most annoying word award: “anyways.” As in “So anyways, that was a marvelous read that will literally impact the world.”

I’m probably just too easily annoyed. But who thought up such a horrid thing to call people who don’t go to church?

Having relieved myself of that bit of spleen, let’s acknowledge that it would be wonderful if in our evangelism we were reaching folks who hadn’t any religion until they chose ours. I’m happy for anyone to join my church, of course, but since I believe that knowing Jesus is the main thing, I’m not quite as worried about those Baptist folks as I am about the millions of people who have no faith at all.

Here in the North American Division, they’ve not been our target audience. Most of our accessions are already church-going people. They’re a lot easier to nab than the rank heathens. They know the basics, so if we can flip them on three or four points (the Sabbath, pork, beer, and cigarettes) we can baptize them on the spot.


Not so easy with the unchurched.

Phoenix-based Ellison Research just completed a study that gives a nuanced picture of the unchurched. I guess I’d assumed that the unchurched just don’t go to church. Ever. Ellison found that’s true for 60 percent of them. But that leaves 40 percent who attend occasionally, at Christmas or Easter, or when a church member invites his neighbors to hear his children play in the bell choir.

Ron Sellers, Ellison’s president, says, “We estimate that up to 43 million adults who do not regularly attend worship services will visit a church or place of worship at some point during the year, to say nothing of children and teens who visit with their family or on their own. Are those congregations and clergy members ready for them?”

That’s astonishing: Forty-three million people who have no regular church affiliation appearing at a church near you once, twice, thrice in a year.

I’m trying to figure out what it will take to make us ready for them.

See, I know a few of these unchurched characters, and candidly, I’m not sure what we’ve got on hand right now that would keep their interest. I try to picture those with whom I’m personally acquainted sitting in my church pews, and it makes me a little uneasy. At least the ex-Baptist knows how to act in a church. Many of us would get a little freaked out by people who had no understanding of church culture—what to wear, how to behave, what to say, what not to say. Who did upsetting things like doubting out loud, or asking edgy questions, or exploring heterodox ideas, and expecting us to listen to them.

That kind of thing twists our tails.

So it will be a much harder transition for the unchurched than we assume when we convene our conferences on reaching postmoderns (another annoying and nearly meaningless term—but I’ll leave that for another time). They’ll require an extra step: besides getting them to believe what we believe, there’s the matter of dressing them right, of teaching them to shut up about things that bother us, and to like the things we like (for example, sitting for hours listening to amateur music and oratory; Sabbath School classes without actual intellectual exploration but rich in endless reassurances that we’re still right about everything; and Fri-Chik.)

As a lifelong Adventist, I’m in the same place as many of you: too square, too comfortable with life inside to be good at talking to complete outsiders. It will take an unusual pastor, a clerical übermensch who knows the churched and the unchurched and can translate between them.

And we’ll probably be a little suspicious of any pastor that comfortable with the world.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.