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:
- The theological beliefs or doctrine of the church
- How much the people seem to care about each other
- The quality of the sermons that are preached
- How friendly the people in the church are to visitors
- 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:
- The pastor and his preaching (90% said this)
- The church’s doctrines (88%)
- Friendliness of the members (49%)
- Other Issues (42%)
- Someone from the church witnessed to the individual (41%)
- A family member attended the church (38%)
- Sensed God’s presence/atmosphere of the church (37%)
- Relationship with someone in the church who wasn’t family (25%)
- Sunday school class (25%)
- 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”:
- A certain size (young people don’t care whether a church is large or small)
- A trendy location or region
- An exact age (young people don’t care whether a church is old or newly planted)
- A popular denomination . . . or lack of denomination (young people aren’t negative on denominations)
- An off-the-charts cool quotient (“For young people today, relational warmth is the new cool.”)
- A big modern building
- A big budget
- A “contemporary” worship service
- A watered-down teaching style
- 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.