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"Seeing the Unchurched Returning"
by Tom Goodman
November 30, 2006

At Hillcrest we talk a lot about how to connect with “the unchurched.”  People are “unchurched” who aren’t really connected to any church, even if they hold formal membership in one.  You can divide the unchurched into two groups: those who have never had any real connection to a church, and those who used to.  The first group could be called the “never churched” while the second group could be called the “formerly churched.”

Which is the largest group of unchurched adults?  The second group.

Most of the unchurched have had some church involvement in the past, and LifeWay Research finds more than two-thirds of formerly churched adults are open to the idea of attending church regularly again.

This is good news for Hillcrest.  Though we’ll reach a few “never churched” among unchurched adults, I believe God has prepared Hillcrest to be more effective at reaching the “formerly churched.”  More and more of them are finding their way into our pews on Sundays.

From the Lifeway Research report:

In the summer of 2006, LifeWay Research conducted a survey of 469 formerly churched adults to better understand why people stop attending church and what it would take to bring them back.  The “formerly churched” are defined as those who regularly attended a Protestant church as an adult in the past but who no longer do so.
“We were delighted to see such a large percentage of the formerly churched willing to consider church again in the future,” said Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research.  “This was particularly surprising because the average formerly churched adult has not attended regularly for 14 years.”
Four percent of formerly churched adults are actively looking for a church to attend regularly (other than their previous church).  Six percent would prefer to resume attending regularly in the same church they had attended.  The largest group, 62 percent, is not actively looking, but is open to the idea of attending church regularly again.
McConnell noted that such openness may reflect a cultural Christianity rather than genuine interest, but the fact remains that the majority are not closed to the idea.  “The small portion who are ‘unlikely to consider’ returning (28 percent) should be encouraging when you think about the three out of four who are willing to give it another try” said McConnell.
What would motivate the formerly churched to get active in a church again?  From the report:

For some, the openness to returning is a real yearning for what they once had at church.  More than a third are motivated to consider returning “to fill a gap felt since stopping regular church attendance” (34 percent).  Despite multiple reasons for leaving that often include their own life changes as well as disappointing actions or inaction of the church, a number of the formerly churched miss the benefits of attending church.
The most common motivation of those who would consider returning comes straight from the soul: “to bring me closer to God” (46 percent).  Not surprisingly, this desire for an improved relationship with God is expressed primarily by those who still consider themselves Christian.
. . .
Building relationships in a Christian community is another strong motivator to return to church.  Thirty-two percent of those surveyed want to “be around those with similar values” and 31 percent would consider returning “to make friends.”  Finally, a similar number would return “to make a difference/help others” (30 percent) in their community.  “Too often churches wait for people to be spiritually mature to engage them in service when many projects or tasks are ideal entry or reentry points for people on their faith journey,” said McConnell.
How can we reactivate them?  “Clearly we can encourage Christians to pray that the unchurched would sense God calling them back, but God works through His people,” said McConnell.  “The survey showed that many would respond to an invitation from a friend or acquaintance (41 percent), their children (25 percent) or an adult family member (25 percent).”  The issue of affinity also surfaced in the responses.  Thirty-five percent indicated that they would be inspired to attend church “if I knew there were people like me there.”

Read the full article and take a look at the supporting charts.  I think there’s a lot from this research that can inspire Hillcrest.  A big part of our mission is to get the unchurched in our area connected to spiritual growth opportunities at our church.  And, as I’ve said, though we’ll reach a few “never churched” among unchurched adults, I believe God has prepared Hillcrest to be more effective at reaching the “formerly churched.”

If that’s true, then it’s a good thing that we have so many to reach!


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