Nine Habits That Reach and Keep the Unchurched, Part 1

We are all looking for the key factors that reach people and keep them.  There are no magic bullets but there are some key indicators.

While serving as the pastor of one church, it seemed like every other person I met in the community said they use to be a member of my church or at least attended there regularly.  I thought to myself, “if they all had stayed we would be the largest church in the Kentucky Baptist Convention!” But something happened and these folks became unchurched or dechurched.

There has been much research and study about this important issue.  While at Southern Seminary, Thom Rainer conducted a seven-year study titled “Nine Habits of Churches that Reach and Keep the Unchurched.”

This study combined both old and new research, and included surveys of more than 4,000 churches and interviews with more than 1,000 individuals.   Much of this information I gleaned from an article written by Michael Foust.  I think it is worth a second look.  In this blog we will look at the first four key components.

One interesting part of this study is what Rainer calls the “formerly unchurched” — that is, people who had become Christians within the previous 12 months and were active in church. This new research includes interviews with more than 350 formerly unchurched people and examines factors that attracted and kept them in the church.

Instead of asking the unchurched what it would take to reach them, Rainer decided to ask those people who had recently accepted Christ and had come into the church. Therefore the question asked was, “What God did in their lives and what the church did to bring them into the church?”

Nine habits came out of this study that are very important in the areas of assimilation and discipleship.

1. Habit of Intentionality

Simply put, for a church to be successful it intentionally must be trying to reach the unchurched. In his survey of more than 4,000 churches, Rainer said more than 83 percent of the churches did not have an intentional plan for reaching the lost. However, that statistic flip-flopped among effective evangelistic churches. Among the formerly unchurched, more than 75 percent said that someone from the church shared the plan of salvation with them — and in most cases it was not a staff member.

The “habit of intentionality” also can include seemingly trivial matters. Rainer said his research shows that people often picked a church for such reasons as restroom and nursery cleanliness. Some people even drove away from a church because it did not have adequate signage, and they therefore could not find the sanctuary entrance.

Rainer’s research also shows that friendly greeters at a church’s entrance can have an enormously positive effect.   How is your greeter ministry going?

2. Habit of Cultural Awareness

“The churches that reached the unchurched were highly intentional, but they [also] understood the culture,” Rainer said. “It does not mean they compromised with culture, but they understood culture. There are some things we can do to be culturally aware.”

Rainer said a large element of being culturally aware is understanding the generation born between 1977 and 1994 — what Rainer called the “bridger generation.” Telephone research done by Rainer’s team indicated that only 4 percent of this group are Christians. By comparison, the research indicated that 65 percent of the generation born before 1946 are Christians.

“If there is one area where we are culturally unaware, it is in this generation,” Rainer said. “This is the most unchurched generation in America.”

3.  Habit of High Expectations

Rainer said there is a direct correlation between how much is demanded of a new member and how long the new member stays active in the church.

“Churches that expect much receive much,” he said. “Churches that expect little receive little.”

New member classes, Rainer said, are vital to keeping people in the church. Among all churches (effective and ineffective) in America, the average retention rate of new members is 35 percent. If new member classes are offered, that percentage shoots up to 72 percent. If the class is required of new members, the percentage increases even more.

“You bring these new members through some type of new members class, and you will see a significant increase in retention,” he said. “The most effective new members classes were those that said, ‘We want to put you in a ministry as you leave this class.'”

Personal evangelism classes for new members can be very fruitful.

“One of the most effective ways to get these new Christians involved is to get them sharing their faith with those who are in the world of the unchurched,” Rainer said.

4.  Habit of Clear Doctrine

Rainer said the formerly unchurched told the researchers, “We want to hear about the doctrine on the front end. We’re not going to make a commitment to a church where you will tell us about what you believe later.”

Rainer said this could be in the form of a written document, or through new members classes, Sunday school lessons and sermons.

How would you rate your church in these four areas?

Are you intentional about sharing the Gospel?

Are you aware of the changing culture in which we minister and share the Gospel?

Do you have high expectations for your new and current members?

Do folks know what your core values/beliefs are?

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