It’s been 17 years since Lee Stroebel wrote his book, “Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry & Mary: How to Reach Friends and Family Who Avoid God and the Church.” It was shortly after that that I found myself at a conference at Willow Creek Community Church up near Chicago. At the time there were a few mega-churches that were really stepping out and doing something new for the sake of the unchurched. Fourteen years after that, in 2007, the Barna group had a study that said we were approaching 100 million unchurched folks in the US.
Think about that number for a second. See, here in the US and, indeed, in my own church, we have a sense that mission work is something that is done “over there.” In Alaska we sent missionaries off to the deep dark corners of our state (and did some horrible things while there). But it was all done in under the guise of “mission work.” Well, our real mission right now is with our neighbors and friends. It’s the people around us.
There was a follow-up study by a pastor and an atheist who visited a bunch of churches to experience what it was like as a visitor in them. This, of course, was made into a book, “Jim and Casper Go to Church.” One of the things I found most interesting is the following paragraph that Barna provides:
Many of the insights drawn from the experiences of “Jim and Casper” parallel the findings of Barna Group studies among the unchurched. Some of the critical discoveries were the relative indifference of most churched Christians to unchurched people; the overt emphasis upon a personal rather than communal faith journey; the tendency of congregations to perform rituals and exercise talents rather than invite and experience the presence of God; the absence of a compelling call to action given to those who attend; and the failure to listen to dissident voices and spiritual guidance to dig deeper in one’s faith.
How often have our own churches stressed the personal rather than the communal? How often have we put an emphasis on talents? How often have we failed to allow dissident voices in our own congregations? And, perhaps most troubling for me, personally, how often have we failed to call our people to action? I, for one, am not challenging enough as a pastor. It is said that you will get what you ask for. If you ask for little commitment from your congregation, you’ll get just that.
Maybe the problem isn’t with the unchurched folk but with those of us who are already churched?