How do we reach those who aren't going to church?
On a recent flight I (Jason) found myself deep in conversation with three delightful young adults, all in their twenties, from diverse backgrounds. One, who worked in California’s wine industry, was en route to meet a potential new distributor. Another gentleman, who owned a gas station and mini-mart in a rural Southern U.S. town, was headed on family vacation. The third, a nurse from Midwestern suburbia, was traveling home for her high school reunion.
Despite our varied origins and occupations, our time together was rich. Each of these young adults was educated, articulate, and comfortable sharing opinions about a variety of topics. Our discussion was friendly and enjoyable. That is, until the issue of faith arose. More specifically, our dialogue took an unfortunate decline when they began to share their experiences with the local church.
The saddest part may be that their feelings often seemed justified. While I interjected at times, I ended up spending the majority of time simply listening.
This generation will listen, but they can't be pushed to make a rash decision.
As I sat there, I wondered how we can reach their generation. Traditional approaches—like inviting them to church—don’t seem to get very far. A quick chat on an airplane isn’t very effective either. While I wanted to believe that an articulate argument or a heartfelt plea would suffice, I couldn’t help but conclude that something more was necessary.
In fact, I came to a very simple yet profound conclusion. The thing that would draw this generation to Christ and His church would be if His people were actually committed to Christ, and if the Church actually functioned how God intended it to.
Other researchers have asked young people why they left the church because they, too, want to know what can be done to stop the exodus. This is a critically important topic discussed elsewhere in this issue. As researchers at LifeWay Research, Ed and I wanted to understand another question: where is this generation now and what can we Christians do to reach out to them?
To accurately capture the voice of young adults and their views toward faith, spirituality, and the church, LifeWay Research commissioned a major U.S. poll. Quite simply, what we learned was gripping. While this age bracket is frequently described as the “lost” or “unchurched” generation, many have not “walked away from the church” because they were never even there in the first place. In addition, those who have walked away are not as cynical and uninterested as you might assume.
Only 18 percent of unchurched young adults said they were neither spiritual nor religious. So it is somewhat encouraging that most of them consider themselves spiritual. Yet their beliefs are confused. For example, a majority of them (58 percent) don’t see any difference between the God of the Bible and the gods or spiritual beings depicted by other world religions, such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism.
Today’s unchurched people in their twenties are actually closer to historic Christianity than the older, living generations who are unchurched. For example, most of the younger crowd believes in Christ’s resurrection (66 percent). Yet this is not especially encouraging, because they simultaneously accept other contradictory beliefs systems, such as Buddhism or Mormonism.
They still need to hear the truth from God’s Word. They lack a solid foundation of biblical history—beginning with creation and Adam’s Fall—on which to build a proper understanding of God, sin, and the gospel.
Almost 90 percent of unchurched 20–29 year olds said they would be willing to listen if someone wanted to tell them about Christianity. About 60 percent would be willing to study the Bible if a friend asked them to do so.
However, while they agree that Christianity is a relevant and viable religion, they are harsh in their judgment that Christianity is more about organized religion than about loving God and people. In fact, only 17 percent (1 in 6) would first go to church if seeking spiritual guidance. They prefer going to trusted individuals.
That’s where we, as individual Christians, come in.
We expected the LifeWay survey to reveal a closed, angry, anti-Christian attitude—but that is not reality. They are generally cautious but open. And they are willing to dialogue about Christianity and Jesus.
Consistently, research indicates that this age group wants more than shallow talk or pat answers. They want real answers to deep questions, and they want to wrestle through those questions together. They are seeking to find a depth of life, and they feel a responsibility to help the world and those within it. These things are found in the character of the Creator and reflect some of the things that He has called our churches to be.
Most of us know people in our circle of family and friends who are in their twenties and out of church. There are no secret solutions to reaching them. Our primary responsibility is to share the truth of God’s Word with love (Ephesians 4:15).
Matt McCarthy serves as the lead pastor of Vertical Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. He is also the founder and executive director of the Focus Conference.
This generation wants more than the same old programs and insufficient answers. They enjoy deep conversation and wrestling with ideas. They also want meaningful relationships, and they want to find a spiritual force that will change lives and the world for the better. So as Christians, we need to understand this generation and invest in them, if we want to reach them. We need to devote our time, our resources, and our thoughts to engaging with them, making time for them, and giving a reasoned defense (or “apologetic”) of our beliefs with deep understanding and patience.
The implications are exciting. The way to reach this generation is through sincere relationships that go beyond the old, inadequate approaches. These young people crave both truth and relationship. We just need to implement what God has told us in His Word.
This generation—both the never-churched and church dropouts—will listen, but they can’t be pushed to make a rash decision. They want to hear what the Bible has to say and then wrestle with the implications. While our responsibility is to be always prepared to give a defense for our faith, we can’t change anyone’s heart or mind. That is up to the Holy Spirit.
God’s call is clear. Psalm 79 says, “We will declare Your praise to generation after generation.” It’s time for the Church of this generation to respond to God’s call.