We’ve all heard the stories that have bombarded us in recent years on how Christianity is fading away into oblivion. People are abandoning the church in droves, the Nones (those who no longer identify with a formal church) are on the rise, along with Exangelicals (those who used to belong to evangelical churches). We’re losing the Millennials and Gen Z’ers. Nobody trusts the church anymore. The last person to leave, please turn out the lights.
But “Slow the roll; not so fast,” says Rick Richardson, in his new book called You Found Me. The subtitle of the book explains his argument: New Research On How Unchurched, Nones, Millennials, and Irreligious Are Surprisingly Open To Christian Faith.
Richardson, who leads the Church Evangelism Initiative at the Billy Graham Center Institute, doesn’t deny that there is a shift in people’s spiritual habits and beliefs in America today, and the trends are certainly not in the right direction, but the narrative being told is not nearly as bleak as what we’re hearing.
Bolstered by impressive research, and story after story, Richardson writes that those whom many Christians are assuming are beyond reach are “not necessarily antireligious, anti-Christian or even antichurch. Many are very spiritual, and more of them than you might expect are receptive to congregations and faith conversations.”
A majority of Americans (55%) are still actively or marginally part of a church. Of those who are unchurched, meaning they haven’t attended a church in more than six months, a third of them were part of a church before. When they were asked why they left, two-thirds said it was because of a change in life circumstances or that they simply lost interest. Only a third of them said it was because of a bad experience. And of these, only 5% said they’d lost trust in God altogether. For a vast majority, their faith — or at least their receptivity and hunger for spiritual matters — remained very much intact.
The problem is not with the unchurched, that they’re so hostile to us. The problem is with us. We shoot ourselves in the foot with our hypocrisy or our imbalance (stories of sexual abuse, scandal, or political infighting do the church no favors). Or simply by being boring, and failing to show in a compelling way the relevancy, indeed the beauty of Christ, and the life he calls us to.
So what can we do to reverse these trends, and capitalize on the receptivity of the unchurched? Here are three of Richardson’s suggestions.
The Church Must Recover Its Missional Imagination
Whenever a church starts imitating its Lord and the way he acted with the unchurched, that church grows. Having a missional imagination means reminding ourselves that every human needs Christ. Jesus satisfies our longing for God, he delivers us from evil, he helps us when life is hard, he gives us purpose when life seems hopeless, and he sets us within a family. He gives us forgiveness for the past, power to change for the present, and hope for the future.
Because we believe this, having a missional imagination then means forging friendships with the seeking and lost, as well as being a force for good in the wider community, and remembering that the “gospel” is “good news”, and so we should learn how to share our moral convictions in ways that are humble, respectful, and overflowing with grace.
The Church Must Recover Its Compassion
Richardson discovered in his surveys of the unchurched that 42% of them said the church was “good for society” and only 6% said that it was “harmful to society”. In spite of all the bad press the modern church has been receiving (a lot of it earned), there’s still an intuition in people that Christianity is meant to be a force for good in the world.
A third century church leader named Tertullian famously observed that it was often heard by pagans on the street in the Roman world, “See how Christians love one another.” They watched as followers of Christ bore with great dignity the persecutions they suffered. They saw with their own eyes how Jesus’s disciples cared for each other in suffering. And even cared for the pagans! When plague struck parts of the Roman world, while others fled the cities, the Christians stayed behind and cared both for their own and others. Christians won the Roman world not through conquest, but through self-sacrifice and service, says Richardson quoting sociologist Rodney Stark.
It illustrates the truth of our Lord’s words that the world would know we are disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). This then points the way for bringing a stagnant church back to health.
Richardson writes, “Healthy congregations create communal bonds that build social connections of caring between people. They contribute to their community through civic involvement, social service, and concern for the hurting. Healthy congregations can make significant cultural contributions to communities related to music, or art, or literature…Healthy congregations host volunteer organizations, and members often volunteer for nonprofit service organizations… Healthy congregations reach new people and provide meaning and direction in life to many individuals who otherwise might merely live for themselves.”
The Church Must Recover Its Ability To Preach The Gospel Like The Early Church
“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders,” wrote Paul in Colossians 4:5–6. “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.” When people talk with us, our words should make them thirsty to hear more. Paul taught his disciples to steer clear of being confrontational. “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness…” (2 Timothy 2:24–25).
Richardson compares the unchurched to the tax collector Zacchaeus, who was shunned by the religious people in his community, but he was very much captivated by Christ. So much so that when Jesus came to his town, he found the best seat in the house, by climbing up a tree to see Jesus. We’re living with a lot of Zacchaeuses walking around us.
And they’re very open to having spiritual conversations. The problem though is they’re not necessarily interested in having those conversations with church people. There are too many stories (I’m confident that pretty much each one of us can share one) of people being on the receiving end of a Christian’s haughtiness or judgmentalism.
Richardson writes, “Often the reason people do not seem receptive to our faith is that we do not capitalize on their receptivity but instead raise their resistance. It is not a lack of receptivity…but rather our approach that needs to be changed.”
This doesn’t mean we sugar-coat sin or fail to call people to repentance. Richardson studies the way Paul preached to the Athenians, where he showed respect for them and their culture, pointing out how it revealed a searching for God, but then called them to repentance by turning to Christ. He “became all things to all people” for them (1 Corinthians 9:20–23), by adopting the role of a philosopher, in a city where philosophy was esteemed.
An Example Of Such A Conversation
Here’s a story that Richardson shares in the book that illustrates both his contention that the unchurched are open to spiritual conversations (especially among the young) and that with some intentional adjustments, we can do a better job in reaching them for Christ.
I encourage you as you read it to jot down some notes along the way, and especially pay attention to how Ron interacts with Brady. When you’re done, write out three to five action items of things you could do to strengthen your effectiveness as a witness for your Lord.
Ron & Brady — A Story From The Book “You Found Me”
Brady is a millennial. He grew up in a more evangelical background but would now say he is a none. He smoked pot in high school, felt judged, and developed friendships outside church that became much more important than the ones in church… Ron, a devout member of a local congregation, built a friendship with Brady. They both liked hiking, met out on a trail, and began a conversation.
After talking about various hiking trails, Ron discovered Brady liked frisbee golf too. So he invited Brady to join him after the hike for a round. After a successful outing and over a local microbrewery beer, Ron began asking Brady about his spiritual background. Brady shared his experience of feeling judged growing up in a church and how he walked away.
Ron showed empathy and mentioned how he too had had an experience of feeling judged when he was having difficulty in his marriage. So he could understand how Brady felt. Brady talked about how he felt he was on the earth for a purpose and that he prayed to stay in line with that purpose and to fulfill what he was on earth to do. He felt the world needed to be changed and that the answer was “everyone connecting to that God or universal consciousness or whatever and loving one another as we sense our connectedness.”
Ron agreed the world needed to change and loved hearing Brady’s heart for prayer, for connecting to God, and for bringing people together. Ron then shared how he found that sense of connection through Jesus. He prayed every day many times to Jesus, and he wanted to see people brought together in the ways Jesus brought people together and changed the world when he walked the earth. Brady affirmed run’s relationship with Jesus and admitted he often prayed to “Jesus and the Father.”
Ron asked Brady whether marijuana helped him spiritually. Brady at first said it did. But he also had been realizing that marijuana, though it gave him a sense of profound connection with others, didn’t strengthen his will or discipline to reach his goals, and he said he had been thinking about that a lot lately. Ron challenged Brady to consider taking a break from smoking pot and see the impact. Brady decided to do what he called a cleanse, a time of getting rid of all the toxicity in his body by staying sober from all drugs and alcohol for a month.
In response, Ron told Brady Jesus could help him if Brady would ask. Then he asked Brady whether he could pray for him. Brady wanted that. So Ron prayed for the strength of Jesus to fill Brady and help him reach his goals and to get marijuana into the right place in his life (which from Ron’s perspective was to not smoke it, but he didn’t tell Brady that right then).
After the prayer time, which moved Brady (he mentioned that it had been powerful and even shed a few tears), Ron invited him to a small group that he was part of. Brady ended up attending and has been going now for several months. Right from the beginning, Ron and the other small group members welcomed Brady and prayed for him, and Ron began asking Brady to help greet people and to bring snacks each time. Brady got involved, began to contribute, and is coming close to a positive response to an invitation to fully trust and follow Jesus.
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. His blogs and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, and “A Sparrow Could Fall”, all available through Amazon.