Some Thoughts on What Unchurched People Want in a Church

Matt Pinson

Ultimately the question of what unchurched people want in a church is very unimportant compared to what the Bible says people need in a church. But over twenty-five years ago, some church growth experts started telling pastors that the main impediment to their growth was their lack of consumer orientation or cultural relevance or, for lack of a better word, “coolness.” This advice was associated with what was known as the “seeker-sensitive” or “attractional” movement. Many pastors began to engage in an extreme makeover of their churches to rid them as much as possible of any vestige of Christian tradition. While a small minority of these churches experienced growth, most did not. And recent data shows that most of the growth that is occurring, in churches of all sizes, is in transfer growth, not conversion of the unchurched through evangelism.

From Attractional to Missional

This phenomenon has led many ministry practitioners to question the received wisdom of the church growth movement, and refocused the emphasis on church health. Some have labeled this as a shift from an “attractional” church model (“How can we best attract customers?”) to a “missional” one (“How can we best embody the mission of God?”). It has also coincided with the preferences of members of the Millennial generation and Generation Z, many of whom prefer the authenticity of a boutique shop or locally owned restaurant over Wal-Mart and Red Robin.

This growing dissatisfaction with the same old answers of the church growth movement, which most pastors of typical churches have tried to no avail, surfaced in several things I read and listened to recently. This included a book by Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace. Wilson started his ministry in the seeker-sensitive megachurch world, but got burnt out on it. Since then he has written several books that present a more “gospel-driven” approach (characteristic of Mark Dever’s 9Marks and other increasingly popular church health ministries) to other leaders of large churches who seem to be getting burnt out a little on the seeker-sensitive or market-driven approach to church life.

Some of my reading coincided with some seminars presented at the recent Free Will Baptist Leadership Conference by Gordon Penfold, an expert in turnarounds and revitalizations of what he calls the typical “neighborhood church.” What was interesting about Dr. Penfold is that, while he (rightly) stressed that we don’t need to keep doing “business as usual” in dysfunctional churches that have lost their desire to evangelize and grow, he did not outline the same old “seven steps to achieve quick growth in your church by stylistic tinkering” that we have grown accustomed to hearing.

His focus was more on church leaders understanding themselves and the dysfunctional systems that most often cause churches to stagnate and decline. He suggested the need for a more holistic, church health model rather than the corporate and consumer-driven models so often heralded as the silver-bullet solution for the plateaued church—“If you just make your church more marketable to your customer base and their consumer tastes, more people will come and the church will explode. . . .” In his own way, Dr. Penfold was echoing what we’ve been hearing more and more by church health advocates—pastors like Mark Dever, Harry Reeder, Mike McKinley, Jared Wilson, Colin Marshall, Tony Payne, and Brian Croft, who are experiencing growth in all sorts of demographic settings while utilizing the ordinary means of grace found in the Bible.

The Studies Show . . .

Reading and hearing these things caused me to think back over some of the studies that have been done over the last two decades of the unchurched, and what they look for in a church. It has always puzzled me that the actual studies of the unchurched have almost always shown that what is important to them is not the style of a church or the way a church appeals to the consumer tastes of its “market base.” Yet, despite these studies, over and over again, I would repeatedly hear pastors in our denomination who were discouraged because they did not think their churches were “relevant,” “cool,” or “entertaining” enough, and that that was what was needed to bring about growth. The studies consistently showed that, while these characteristics were important for some transfer members who grew up in evangelical churches, they were not generally important to the unchurched.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to matter to many what the studies showed. People were in such a panic mode because of our rapidly changing, secularizing culture that they were willing to throw whatever trendy method they could against the wall to see if it might stick. Yet they never really knew (and still don’t know) what the long-term consequences would be of all these tactics that had never before been tried in the 2,000-year history of the church.

In view of this ongoing problem, I was prompted to reflect back over the studies I’d seen over the last couple of decades. Here are the major ones:


 The Barna Group, in the late 1990s, pretty close to the beginning of the seeker-sensitive movement’s influence in the Free Will Baptist denomination, studied what was most important to unchurched people when they visited a church. Out of the 22 most important things that attract people to a church, the study found that the top five things were:

  1. The theological beliefs or doctrine of the church
  2. How much the people seem to care about each other
  3. The quality of the sermons that are preached
  4. How friendly the people in the church are to visitors
  5. How much the church is involved in helping poor and disadvantaged people.

Things related to worship, style, and music ranked only 12, 13 and 15. (Source: “Americans Describe Their Ideal Church,” Barna Research Online, October, 1998.)

Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched

 Thom Rainer and Lifeway have studied this over and over again, always with the same results: Substantive things are what attract people to church—things the Bible talks about, done with excellence, not cultural trends and targeting consumer tastes. This is summed up in Rainer’s book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, which studied the “formerly unchurched”—those who were unchurched but then joined a church. Here are the top ten reasons listed for why they joined:

  1. The pastor and his preaching (90% said this)
  2. The church’s doctrines (88%)
  3. Friendliness of the members (49%)
  4. Other Issues (42%)
  5. Someone from the church witnessed to the individual (41%)
  6. A family member attended the church (38%)
  7. Sensed God’s presence/atmosphere of the church (37%)
  8. Relationship with someone in the church who wasn’t family (25%)
  9. Sunday school class (25%)
  10. Children’s or youth ministry (25%)

Worship style, music, and other stylistic or consumer-oriented factors were named by only 11% of the respondents as having anything to do with why these formerly unchurched people joined a church. (Also interesting is that  Rainer says it is a “myth” that “the unchurched are turned off by denominational names in the church name,” and “only 4 out of 100 formerly unchurched indicated that a denominational name had a negative influence on them as they sought a church home.”) (Thom Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, 21, 38).

Rainer, Ham, Kinnaman on Why Young People are Leaving the Church

The same basic insights found by others holds true for the question of why young people leave the church, as seen in Thom Rainer’s Essential Church, Ken Ham’s Already Gone, and David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me. Young people are leaving all sorts of churches at the same rates—large and small, urban and rural, contemporary and traditional, charismatic and liturgical. As with the more general surveys like those of Barna and Rainer above, these studies show that the reason young people are leaving the church has nothing to do with stylistic factors and everything to do with the lack of solid teaching, the lack of intergenerationality and mentoring across the generations, the lack of love and community, and what they see as hypocrisy in the church. Church style is way down the list and usually is not listed as a factor. These studies are also undergirded by more serious sociological studies by scholars such as Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton, whose results undergird David Kinnaman’s conclusion that:

“After countless interviews and conversations, I am convinced that historic and traditional practices, and orthodox and wisdom-laden ways of believing, are what the next generation really needs.”

—David Kinnaman, CEO, Barna Group

Millennial Preferences in Church Architecture

A few years ago the Barna Group conducted a study for one of the largest church architectural firms in the country, which wanted to know what style of church architecture Millennials preferred. When shown pictures of the “stage” or “platform” as well as the outside of traditional and modern church buildings, two-thirds of Millennials preferred traditional structures over modern ones. This is not to argue, of course, for a “sanctified” architecture; it simply shows that many of our assumptions about what “the young folks” will actually prefer have been overturned by the Millennial generation, and similar preliminary reports are coming out of the even more secularized Generation Z. This confirms an earlier study by the Cornerstone Knowledge Network and Christianity Today, and another by Lifeway Research that said that the new church buildings most evangelical  pastors wanted to build were the exact opposite of the more traditional structures that two-thirds of unchurched people said they were most comfortable with.

Fuller Youth Institute, Growing Young

These same sorts of considerations continue to be borne out by the research. For example, the Fuller Youth Institute’s latest study, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, lists the top ten qualities churches don’t need to “grow young”:

  1. A certain size (young people don’t care whether a church is large or small)
  2. A trendy location or region
  3. An exact age (young people don’t care whether a church is old or newly planted)
  4. A popular denomination . . . or lack of denomination (young people aren’t negative on denominations)
  5. An off-the-charts cool quotient (“For young people today, relational warmth is the new cool.”)
  6. A big modern building
  7. A big budget
  8. A “contemporary” worship service
  9. A watered-down teaching style
  10. A hyper-entertaining ministry program (“We don’t have to compete. . . . Slick is no guarantee of success.”)


We have many dysfunctional churches, and many that have lost interest in evangelism and are more about internal dynamics than reaching out with the gospel. They need the sort of revitalization that is being talked about by Eddie Moody and Danny Dwyer in the Refresh church revitalization program of the National Association of Free Will Baptists. This program is built on rich, biblical church revitalization strategies.

I also talk with lots of Free Will Baptist pastors who are seeing steady, if modest, evangelistic fruit and gospel growth in their churches. But so many of these decent, faithful pastors are utterly discouraged because they’re comparing themselves to celebrity pastors and consumer church growth methods that don’t and can’t work for most churches and most pastors. What these pastors need to compare themselves to is the New Testament, not to contemporary trends that are more concerned about consumer marketing than the solid biblical teaching, zealous evangelism, and rich community and koinonia we see in Scripture. But if they look at most of the latest studies, they will find that those things are what the unchurched in our increasingly secularized communities say they really want when they get serious about finding a church.


  1. This is an important subject. Our culture is starved of things deep, substantial, reliable, and wise. The rate of change in virtually every area of life has left people dizzy, disoriented, distracted, and many with little sense of identity, history, or memory. As Daniel H. Williams in “Retrieving the Tradition, Renewing Evangelicalism,” says,

    If one word could sum up the current theological situation, it would be *amnesia.* The real problem with amnesia, of course, is that not only does the patient forget his loved ones and friends, but he no longer remembers who he is. Too many within church leadership today seem to have forgotten that the building of a foundational Christian identity is based upon that which the church has received, preserved, and carefully transmitted to each generation of believers.The primary reasons for this widespread condition of amnesia are, directly and indirectly, an outcome of the Free Church/evangelicalism’s negative perspective of most of church history, as well as the result of European and *North American Christianity’s voluntary subjection to cultural faddism and trendiness.* On this latter point, it does not matter whether a given congregation is growing numerically at a fantastic rate or barely hanging on; the vacuum created by the absence of theological awareness and guidance provided by the church of previous ages is being *quickly filled with a hankering after new techniques and gimmicks in the exercise of ministry.* Loren Mead has labeled this condition the “Tyranny of the New” in which all our energy is used up inventing the new and marketing it. He writes, “When the new way is considered the only way, there is no continuity, fads become the new Gospel and in Paul’s words, the church is ‘blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine.’” [Loren Mead, The Once and Future Church (New York: The Alban Institute, 1991), 77.].

    We must devote our time, resources, and energy to the things that will produce deeply rooted and grounded disciples. As the old saying goes, “A toadstool sprouts up over night, but it takes a hundred years to grow an oak tree.” There are no shortcuts and no substitutes.

    He gave some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, *to mature manhood*, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
    Eph 4:11–15

    1. Jeff- your point on the lack of an awareness of and connection to church history is so spot on. That which we have received from our spiritual ancestors should serve to anchor us as the church of today. Only recently have I begun to understand the importance of church history and historical theology and the anchor and identity they can provide to us. Of course, we should always seek to always reform and become more biblically grounded, but there is much wisdom in the past.

  2. Thanks, Dr. Pinson, for such an insightful article. I am actually quite surprised (and heartened) by what the different survey participants in the various studies you cited see as priorities in selecting a church. It then begs the question: Why are pastors and church leaders deemphasizing the very things that people, in the end, are looking for?

    Ultimately, I think what may be the real issue is our (pastors’/ church leaders’) understanding of the spiritual significance of the church. The church is not a human institution that is simply to be perpetuated and expanded. It’s not a business or an enterprise.

    Instead, the church is the spiritual body of Christ (of which we are all members). The church is one of the means of grace used by God to build up His people. The church is a visual representation of the Gospel for an unbelieving world to see. The church is God’s instrument for proclaiming the Gospel to a lost world and for the making of disciples. The church is the Bride of Christ.

    When we have a proper understanding of the church in mind, then proper action as the church should naturally follow.

    I’m thankful to the Lord for this article and for the recent emphasis on church health (for example, in ministries like 9Marks). My church and I have benefited greatly from them and I pray that more literature and thinking along these lines continue to be published and shared.

    God bless,

    Jerry Nunes
    Iglesia Cristiana Bautista de Nueva York
    Yonkers, NY

  3. This article presents a refreshing perspective on biblical church growth. The consumer-driven approaches to church growth are killing churches and stifling true discipleship from taking place. It is imperative that churches stop falling for the lie that they must be “cool” in order to appeal to the young unbelievers in our culture. What these unbelievers need is truth, which is why churches must seek to ground themselves in the truth and utilize the ordinary means of grace that our Lord has provided.

  4. The thought that comes to mind, when I read the sentence in this article about transfer growth as opposed to organic growth and growth from the unchurched, is we want a finished product without putting in the effort to disciple and nurture it in our own churches. This idea is not uncommon in today’s day and age, we don’t want to get our hands dirty by making our own furniture that takes skill, planning, and work to craft and will last for generations. We want the cheap, pre-made, pre-drilled, and cookie-cutter furniture that we can pick up at the store or online that will fall apart in a year or two, it’s the same way with our church members, its a lot easier to attract and pull members from other churches that someone has already invested their time, energy, and lives to disciple them rather than go and develop relationships with people and do the work of the church, and make disciples. We get so caught up on what we think the problem with the church is that we are at that we let our minds wander to thoughts of “If we had the resources of that one church we would have that many people too” or “We should mimic how that church does music on Sunday mornings thats why people are going there.” The problem with this mode of thinking is, it is from the perspective and personal preferences of a churchgoer which means it is the personal preferences of that churchgoer not the preferences of the unchurched. When we compare ourselves to other churches we do our church and the other church a disservice, because we do one of two things, we automatically assume that the bigger church is successful and healthy because of their size, or we look at what we think draws the crowds, but leave out the behind the scenes and unnoticed discipleship and love for one another in their church that is the real contributor to the growth and overall health of the church. More often than not the measuring stick that Churches are measuring themselves by is faulty in other words big numbers do not always equal church health. In this article, it was mentioned that several pastors across the nation are having success by doing the fundamentals of Christianity by instituting the ordinary means of grace in their services and reaching out into the unchurched community and doing the hard work of discipling them and equipping them to continue the work of the ministry, just as the early church did. The truth of the matter is that our churches have lost their purpose and the love for the broken and dying world around them, we would rather see our numbers grow even if it is from transfer members that already know the gospel they just like how we do things at our church better. In doing this we have become what the unchurched hates more than anything, hypocritical, and inconsistent or ignorant to our purpose. If the Church is to truly continue to be the hands and feet of Christ we cannot only look inward but must look outward to the lost world around us and show them the light that is within us to rid the darkness and oppression of this world from those that are already ransomed but have no idea.

    Thank you for your thoughts on this very important subject I look forward to how we as FWB can continue to encourage and implement the ordinary means of grace in our daily lives.

  5. Dr. Pinson, thank you for this insightful article.

    I couldn’t agree more with the comments above.

    The Evangelical church’s metric of success has long been skewed by our adoption of the values of corporate America, where growth is always a good thing. The church is an organization but is it first an organism. Rapid, unfettered growth in an organization might always be a positive thing (though that too is debatable), but rapid, unvetted growth in an organism is not. It is cancer.

    The Bible does make reference to rapid AND healthy growth in the church, but it is ALWAYS the result of and vetted by devotion to “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42) You do not find rapid, healthy growth in the Scriptures that is not also heavily rooted in the spiritual founts of the ordinary means of grace. More often than not the Scriptures portray growth as gradual and organic, derived in actual relationships and deep cultivation of spiritual practices and patterns of life. Jesus deliberately drove away crowds that were simply interested in receiving consumeristic gimmicks from him:

    Crowd: “This guy can make bread out of thin air, we’ll be set for life!”
    Jesus: “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.”
    Crowd: “…”

    Many churches today pay lip-service to the means of grace, but in terms of time and energy only have a sliver of a root dipped into them. They have instead rooted themselves in the passing trends of the day, and as a result, each time they suck dry the attractional merit of one puddle of fads, they must then move on to find another. All the while failing to recognize that their malnourishment is not coming from their failure to find the right puddle but from their failure to root themselves in the deep waters of spiritual faith and practice given to us by our Lord in His Word.

    I think it helpful to point out that these puddles of fads take on a range of forms that cannot be squared with the stereotypical “conservative” and “progressive” dichotomy. There are “conservative” churches that are just as devoted to their fad puddles as the trendy “progressive” churches. A clear marker in both types of churches is a predominant emphasis on attracting consumers as opposed to ministering to fallen human beings with a range of spiritual and relational needs. My prayer is that our pastors and churches will trade their obsession with gimmicky attractionalism, for the cultivation of organic relational ministry, centered around the Spirit-empowered means prescribed in the Word. The studies you cited demonstrate that this approach to ministry, while not attractional, is attractive to a generation that has lost its moorings for truth and identity.

  6. Thanks for all the positive comments. We have an urgent need to revitalize our churches. My hope is that we don’t get the problems wrong and spend our sparse energies and resources on temporary quick fixes–band-aids that in most cases don’t even produce measurable short-term results for the average church and pastor. Instead, let’s focus on addressing unbiblical and dysfunctional habits that are keeping our churches from church health and gospel growth. As these young men have commented, this will demand utilizing the ordinary means of grace revealed in the all-sufficient Word, and doing so with excellence as we pattern our fellowships after the NT Scriptures: engaging in evangelism and discipleship in the context of authentic personal relationships, helping the poor and hurting, creating opportunities for the authentic, biblical koinonia and community people are so hungry for, preaching and teaching the deep but practical truths of God’s Word, fostering intergenerational mentoring and leadership development, and prioritizing the spiritual disciplines individually and corporately When we spend all our time and resources intentionally pouring ourselves into the ordinary means of grace revealed in Scripture, we won’t have time for anything else. Yet God will bless those who trust in the intrinsic power of his Word and Spirit through the gospel, which alone is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes, from every culture and background.


    Matt Pinson

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