This might seem obvious, but you can’t intentionally reach what you don’t understand. You may succeed by accident, but not for long, and not in mass. This is true for selling a product or reaching a population. As a church, if you want to reach the unchurched in your community, you need to understand the community. But as a former marketplace consultant, I would suggest we get a bit more granular.
KNOWING YOUR TARGET MARKET
I spent a decade in the marketplace before transitioning into ministry. Most of those years were spent in marketing, specifically working with companies to better acquire new customers and increase the frequency of visits and/or purchases from current customers. As a business, that is how you increase revenue. It’s fundamental.
In the church, the same premise is true. We can grow attendance by reaching new people or increasing the frequency of our current attendees. The latter would make numbers look better and probably help each individual spiritually grow, but the Kingdom would not grow.
Therefore, to state the obvious, growth through sheep-stealing or -swapping is not good growth. If people leave another church to attend our church, the Kingdom does not win.
That said, growing The Church while growing as a church requires reaching the unchurched. Here is the great news: There are far more unchurched people in your community than empty seats in your church. In fact, there are probably more unchurched people in your community than empty seats in all the local churches combined. The business community would love this news. Plenty of potential customers. It’s a target-rich environment.
Now, we just need to reach them, because if your church can learn to consistently reach the unchurched, your church will never lack for growth.
UNDERSTANDING THE UNCHURCHED
To understand how to reach the unchurched, let’s go back to the business community again. In the marketplace, when a company wishes to reach a specific market, they conduct market research. Lots of market research. Days, weeks, and sometimes years are spent organizing focus groups, testing products, retesting products, developing packaging, determining price points, and then beta testing to a larger audience. It’s a lengthy and systematic process, but the results provide a business with a product that drives purchase decisions for their intended market.
Again, the principles from the marketplace to ministry are transferable. To reach the unchurched, we must know the unchurched.
5 Ways to Understand the Unchurched in Your Community
1. Know your target market — literally.
If we say we are concerned with the unchurched in our community but have no personal relationships or friendships with anyone outside the faith, we have no moral authority to lead others to invest in the unchurched. If we as church leaders hope to understand the unchurched community, we must get to know them personally.
Knowing unchurched people in my community was easier when my children were younger. School, recreation sports, and the neighborhood were fertile locals for meeting others. Now, it’s a bit less organic but no less important. The good news is everywhere we go, we have the opportunity to meet people disconnected from a local church. The question is will we engage?
2. Understand the problems of the Unchurched — intimately.
In many, or even most, cases, the unchurched community suffers from the same problems as the churched people. Things like marriage, parenting, contentment, lack of purpose, and loss of hope create problems on both sides of faith. How unchurched people process these issues will be different and, therefore, require a different approach.
When you begin to know unchurched people, you must also investigate their problems and how they look for solutions. While we might agree that Jesus is ultimately their need, they will certainly not recognize this truth on their own — hence they are unchurched.
3. Study your church through their eyes.
Most unchurched people will remain unchurched because they’ve been to church before. We could consider most unchurched people to be de-churched. Unfortunately, most will assume that your church is the same as all the others, including those where they had bad church experiences.
If you want to know how unchurched people see the Church, you have several options. I’ve read about a dozen books to date on the topic, and they’ve all been helpful. You can search through articles and blogs. You can attend conferences. But if you really want to know what your unchurched people think of your church, not just the Church, you need to ask them directly.
When I meet an unchurched person in my community, whenever possible, I ask them: “What come to mind when you hear the word ‘church.’” Then I follow up with one more question: “What do you think about ‘Woodstock City Church?’” Those two simple questions have helped me understand so much about reaching the unchurched in my community.
Personal questions are great, but I’ve also solicited feedback through surveys. It might sound crazy, but paying unchurched people to attend your church and complete a survey after the service might be your best learning tool. I have invited so many people to our church for the simple purpose of getting their informal and formal feedback—and I’m always shocked at how willing they are to “help” me and how honest they are about their experience.
Ask some people who are not connected to the church to visit your church to help you understand what they are seeing. Their perspective will be invaluable.