Radically Unchurched

The following is an excerpt from chapter one of Radically Unchurched: Who They Are and How to Reach Them.

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Radically changed aptly depicts the impact of the gospel on young Bill. His combination of wild hair, torn jeans, shoeless feet, and tie-dyed T-shirt manifests how recent was his conversion to Christianity. His appearance belies his unusual intelligence.

On a particular Sunday soon after his conversion, Bill determined to attend a local congregation for fellowship and nurture beyond his college Bible study. Across the street from the campus sat the college church, filled weekly with well-dressed and conservative members. The church earnestly desired to develop a ministry to the students, but so far, failed to initiate such a ministry because of uncertainty about just how to go about it. One day, Bill decided to attend.

Picture the scene as Bill enters. He has no shoes. He is clad in his jeans, T-shirt, and that wild hair. The service has already started, so Bill starts down the aisle looking for a seat. The church has outgrown her worship center; so he keeps walking. By now, people are looking a bit uncomfortable; but no one says anything. Bill continues down the aisle, looking for a seat, but finding only perplexed gazes. When he realizes there are no seats, he simply squats down on the carpet. After all, at the college fellowship, this is perfectly acceptable behavior. The problem is that no one had ever done that at this church!

By now, the people are increasingly nervous; and the tension in the air is thick. About this time, the pastor notices a deacon rise from his seat and slowly make his way toward Bill. This particular deacon is in his eighties, has silver-gray hair, a three-piece suit, and a pocket watch. Known as a godly man, elegant, dignified, and courtly, his gait is accompanied by the tapping of his cane. As he walks toward this boy, everyone is thinking, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid on the floor?”

It takes a long time for the man to reach the boy. Silence reigns, except for the clicking of the man’s cane. All eyes focus on him. You can’t hear anyone breathing. The people are thinking, “The minister can’t even preach the sermon until the deacon does what he has to do.”

Suddenly, the elderly man drops his cane on the floor. With great difficulty he lowers himself and sits down next to Bill to worship with him so he won’t be alone. Everyone chokes up with emotion. When the pastor gains control he says, “What I’m about to preach, you may never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.”(1)

Sadly, in 90% of Evangelical churches, the above account is not how most deacons or churches would have responded to young Bill. We have lost a sense of compassion for the radically unchurched in America; and this is why so few lost people, or even new believers like Bill, can be found in most of our churches. To state it simply, most Christians in America see the church as a hotel for saints, rather than a hospital for sinners. The failure of the church to be salt and light in the midst of a depraved humanity contributes to the horrible tragedy, which recently occurred in April of 1999 near Denver, Colorado, at the Columbine High School. Even more, the intentionality demonstrated by the so-called Trenchcoat Mafia to murder professing believers exacerbates the problem of unchurched youth filling our public schools. What will it take for the church to awaken to the lostness of people in our land? Will armed invasions of Sunday services be necessary to awaken us to the fact that the Great Commission compels us to seek and save the lost, even when it includes individuals like the Trenchcoat Mafia?

What would stand as the single most pressing need for the church as it relates to evangelism at the dawn of the third millennium AD? Such a chronological watershed demands serious reflection. The escalation of violence in schools, as horrific as it is, illustrates an even worse reality: the lostness of people, and the numbers of lost people, and the reality that those who claim the name of Jesus have not penetrated the unchurched culture.

Who Are the Radically Unchurched?

By radically unchurched I mean people who live in the United States and who have no clear personal understanding of the message of the gospel, and who have had little or no contact with a Bible-teaching, Christ-honoring church. Numbers of radically unchurched grow each year; while the church’s ability to penetrate the culture seems to be waning. For example, Chip Arn reports the following statistical evidence:(2) Active, practicing Christians, even when being generous, compose only 82, 080, 000, or 29% of the population in the United States. Those Christian in name only, who give no evidence of any consistent practice of their faith comprise 86,070, 000, or 30.2%.

Americans reporting no religious affiliation totals 116, 850, 000, or 41%. The largest percentage consists of the last group, whom the writer would describe as the radically unchurched. George Hunter, whose writings refer to “secular” people in similar terms to my use of “radically unchurched,” states approximately 120,000,000 Americans fit this category

An analogy can best describe the radically unchurched.(3) In the first century, the apostle Paul was called of God as a missionary to the Gentiles. The Jews were Paul’s people. They had a heritage of faith, a Scriptural underpinning, and a common cultural background. However, the Gentiles in the first century were those who for the most part knew nothing of the gospel message until someone like Paul told them. They had no heritage of Scripture as did the Jews. Some were religious, some were not. They are analogous in our day to the millions of people in our country who have almost no real knowledge of Christianity. Oh, they know what a clerical collar is, and they recognize a church building; but they have no functional knowledge of the gospel. Whereas the “Jews” in our day could be described in this analogy as nominally churched, the “Gentiles” can be called the radically unchurched. They may be devoutly religious, as were some first century Gentiles; they may be irreligious. They may be Muslim or Hindu or New Age or Mormon; or they may be agnostic. The difference between them and the nominal Christians, the “Jews” to use the analogy, is that any idea they have of Christianity is obscure or totally flawed. Some of them recognize the golden arches of McDonald’s much more quickly than a cross as a symbol with meaning. So, if Arn’s statistics are correct, and if anything they are inflated toward Christian practice, the following could be said: New Testament, genuine believers comprise 29%, the “Jews”or the nominally churched–30.2, and the “Gentiles” or the radically unchurched–41%, of the nation’s population. Sadly, little evidence can depict any significant inroads by the church at reaching the largest statistical category.

Each year anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 Southern Baptist churches report baptizing no new converts in a year. That statistic alone is worthy of the denomination calling for a day of fasting, prayer, and public humiliation before the Lord of glory who deserves far better. But look closer: of the thirty thousand-plus churches who do reach people for Christ, very few effectively penetrate the radically unchurched.

How can this be demonstrated? First, look at the statistical evidence. According to a recent study by the North American Mission Board, in 1993, only one in nine adult baptisms came from people who described themselves as unchurched. In other words, eight of nine, almost 90 %, of adult baptisms came from persons who had a connection with a church.(4) These form the worst evangelistic group in America.

The situation declines far more seriously when one examines the effectiveness of all churches in America to reach the radically unchurched. George Hunter defines a secular person similarly to my view of the radically unchurched: persons “who have navigated their whole lives beyond the serious influence of Christian churches.”(5) Hunter notes that there are over 350,000 churches in U.S. About eighty percent of these are stagnant. Of the twenty percent that are growing, most increase by biological or transfer growth. Less than one percent are growing by conversion growth. So, a minuscule fraction of the radically unchurched are being reached.

Hunter, in Church for the Unchurched, describes the radically unchurched as resulting from a half-millennium long process of secularization: “Secularization, defined as the withdrawal of whole areas of life and thought from the churches influence, was presented for 500 years and continues unchecked.”(6) Hunter says especially by the end of the twentieth century, Christianity enjoys less and less of a “home field advantage” concerning sharing the gospel. So we have a whole generation of people who, in Hunter’s words, “have navigated their whole lives beyond the serious influence of Christian churches. They have little or no Christian memory background or vocabulary. Many of them do not even know what we are talking about, and have little or no experience of church.”(7)

Americans have plunged down the spiritual down spout to the cesspool of biblical ignorance in remarkable haste. Less people today have religious instruction as a child. In 1952–6% of adults had no religious training as a child. Church growth writer Charles Arn notes that by 1965 the figure had grown slowly to 9%. By 1978 it jumped to 17%. Only three years later, in 1981, 21% reported no religious instruction. By 1993 – thirty-five percent had no religious training as a child.(8)

The radically unchurched cut across virtually every imaginable barrier except one–they have virtually no real, personal knowledge of the Gospel. How then can the church reach the radically unchurched? The radically unchurched can only be reached through a radical commitment to Christ to reach them!

(1). This story is adapted from an email sent by an unchurched friend the writer met on the Internet. Portions of this chapter are excerpted from Alvin L. Reid, “A Hotel for Saints or a Hospital for Sinners: Reaching the Radically Unchurched in America,”Faith and Mission, Summer 1999

(2). Charles Arn, “State of the Church in the 21st Century,” Address presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Church Growth, Orlando, November 13, 1997

(3). See Alvin L. Reid, Introduction to Evangelism (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1998), 226-228

(4). Research Report Bulletin, Home Mission Board, 1993. The North American Mission Board was formerly known as the Home Mission Board. Recently the Southern Baptist Convention received a challenge from Convention President Paige Patterson, also president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, to seek to baptize 500,000 in the year 2000 in North America, and 500,000 overseas, totaling 1,000,000 for the first time in the convention’s history. This writer is convinced that unless Southern Baptists more effectively penetrate the radically unchurched with the Gospel, such goals will never be realized

(5). George Hunter, Church for the Unchurched (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 20

(6). Ibid.

(7). Ibid.

(8). Arn, “The State of the Church in the 21st Century.”

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