Reaching the “Unaffiliateds”
from The Resurgent Church by Mike McDaniel
I pastor a church called Grace Point, and it was born for a certain kind of person, though each one has a different story, a different life, and a different winding road that leads to God’s kingdom. At Grace Point, we say we’re a church “for those who have given up on church, but haven’t given up on God.” Yet we have to face the fact that there are also those who have given up on church and God.
As a matter of fact, people like this are growing far more rapidly than the God-and-church tribe. In a Western world once rich in faith and mission, “no belief” is the hottest religious status of the day. In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that “no affiliation”—identification with no religious tradition—was the fastest-growing designation among people polled. Evangelicals, mainline Christians, and Catholics all declined in percentage from 2007 to 2014, but those who considered themselves unaffiliated spiked from 16.1 to 22.8 percent.¹
If our buildings and facilities represented what was really happening, the picture along Main Street would look like this: churches shutting their doors or closing up wings once filled with children and programs, and a fairly new building for the First Unaffiliated Chapel, scrambling to find parking and erect new edifices. But we’re seeing it. Old churches are shutting their doors because they’re out of ideas, out of time. The great mass of unaffiliateds have no building projects, but they’re on golf courses, at the lake, having brunch at restaurants that now open on Sunday, or just sleeping late.
People look at the church questioning what it has to offer them and why it even exists. If we had taken snapshots of recent decades, we’d see them like this:
1990s USA: 30 percent unchurched
2000s USA: 33 percent unchurched
2010s USA: 43 percent unchurched
Of the present 43 percent unchurched, 33 percent is de-churched, that is, formerly affiliated but no more. Only 10 percent is purely unchurched with no background in any church.² What will the numbers be in another ten years?
I’m not trying to drain your hope. As a matter of fact, it’s just the reverse. If we look beyond the unsettling trends, we begin to see something entirely encouraging. Churches are reinventing themselves and finding ways to survive, flourish, and break through to the unaffiliateds in these new times.
I spent some time studying a number of these churches with the questions, What do they have in common? What are they doing to defy the trend of their times?
There’s plenty of disparity in these churches. Each has its own personality and mind-set. Personally, I advocate a diversity of expression. Yet there are common themes we see in these breakthrough congregations. They understand their times, their communities, and their mission. They’ve also learned how to unpack for a new generation what is eternal and unchanging in the biblical church—and also what unhelpful baggage to leave behind.
I tried not to come away with a momentary portrait of these churches but to look at them over a five-year period in order to see how they managed transition and how they’ve sustained their community impact. My hope is not to provide new templates for copycat startups but that church leaders will recognize and commit to the principles that are worthy and effective.
There is so much we need to learn, so much we can’t delay doing. On the other hand, there is so much renewed passion and exhilaration in rediscovering how to be the church Jesus always wanted us to be and how to reach the unaffiliateds, knowing how Jesus loves them and how much they will love Jesus if we can get them together.
As in all times of upheaval, there is stress and delight in equal measure. It’s all in how you choose to approach it.
For the unaffilateds, and in particular the de-churched, the old church doors no longer swing open in their direction. To get them to come back, we need something new and relevant. It can’t look much like that old doorway, but on the other hand it has to lead to the right place and on the right terms.
The Resurgent Church is a book about building and managing those gateways into a future that God has ordained you and me to enter, like pilgrims entering a promised land. Let’s open them up, shall we?
The Resurgent Church is available now at booksellers everywhere. Click here to learn more about the book.
- See “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious -landscape, accessed August 20, 2015.
- George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2014), 6.
Mike McDaniel is the founding pastor of Grace Point Church in Northwest Arkansas. Before starting the church in Arkansas, Mike and his family served as church developers with the International Mission Board (IMB) in the Republic of Zambia in southern Africa. He has a doctoral degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.