Tripping over the church

The guys over in Nashville at LifeWay Research keep cranking out statistical data that continues to prove helpful in our pursuit of more effective means of evangelism and growth. This time they are releasing a new study that they say shows “Unchurched Americans [are] turned off by church, [but are] open to Christians.” This study, which is released over at as well as, has some surprising and intriguing insights that we would do well to consider. I want to mention a couple in particular that I found to be particularly insightful. If you would like a copy of the article that accompanies the survey click here. For the PowerPoint, click here.

First of all I found it interesting, yet not surprising, that according to their data 72% of those polled felt like the church was “full of hypocrites”. This is particularly interesting when you note that the poll included only those who have not attended a religious service at a church, synagogue or mosque within the past 6 months. This perception is one that I find to be extremely relevant in my context. With the significant number of those who perceive the church in this manner, I am of the opinion that it is probably a reputation that has been earned. What is incredibly fascinating, however, is that the study claims that 78% of those polled would “be willing to listen” to someone who wanted to share what they believed about Christianity. That is highly encouraging to me. It also seems to point to the fact that evangelism that exists in relationship must become more and more of a priority for us.

The study goes on to say that the church, in generic terms, and not the people who make up the church are what is seen as most offensive by unchurched people. 79% of those polled claim that Christianity “is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people”. I think this is another area where this, and other studies like it, must direct our focus outside the walls of the church. In the article that accompanies the study, Scott McConnell says “People outside the church see it [the church] as candles, pews and flowers, rather than people living their love for God by loving others.” Ed Stetzer then gives us the money quote when he says “There will always be the stumbling block of the cross. Yet our study shows that many are tripping over the church before they hear the message of the cross.”

I wonder when we will start recognizing that people are being offended and turning away from the gospel, not because of the gospel itself but because of our presentation of ourselves and the gospel? We have got to start communicating the need to live authentic, transparent lives that mimic Christ-likeness and which are careful to communicate the message of the gospel. In fact, the previous statistic that I quoted about the 78% who would “be willing to listen” to someone talk about their Christian beliefs rises to 89% when you consider only those in the 18-29 year old category. In fact, the study goes on to say that only 28% of adults 30 yrs old and older say that the Christians they know talk too much about their Christian beliefs. There must be a commitment in our churches to examining ourselves critically and considering whether or not we communicate well to those who are unchurched. I’ll share, for instance, one idea that we will begin soon at our church. We are asking some of our church leadership to contact a few unchurched families and giving them a critique sheet and asking them to be a “secret shopper” for us to give us their general impressions of our church. It is our opinion that we will almost always be biased in our understanding of our church. While we never want to water down the message of the cross, we understand that there are often additional barriers to effective evangelism that we may never recognize but which a visitor may notice that can help our evaluation of ourselves.

I’m grateful to Ed Stetzer and the other guys at LifeWay Research for producing this study and I’m hopeful that it will provoke us to reconsider some methods of evangelism and to become more evangelistic than ever before, but to do so in a way that is more effective than ever before. I’m of the opinion that relational evangelism must become our most prevalent method of evangelism, and I think this study supports it. The problem historically has been that our relational evangelism is heavy on relational and light on evangelism. I think this study also supports the idea that our friends are interested in hearing about our faith, and we cannot be reticent to communicate about it. One things is for sure, it’s certainly better than this.

**UPDATE** USA Today has also written an article about the study. It can be found here.

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.

12 thoughts on “Tripping over the church

  1. If you want to study more on the perceptions of “outsiders”, I would highly recommend “unChristian” by David Kinnaman. This book is a real eye opener. I am having my staff read it and dialogue about it weekly in staff meetings.

  2. Brent-

    I’m actually in the middle of unChristian right now. You are right. It’s dynamic.


    I like the house church idea as well, I’m unconvinced, however, that it’s the only model that will be effective and biblical.

  3. The church is full of hypocrites. That’s what the unchurched have been trained to say, isn’t it? That’s what former church members say when they stomp out after getting their feelings hurt. Is it true? In the sense that there is no perfect church member. But I bet if you ask these 72% to name five hypocrites in any churches, not just one church, they couldn’t do it. Oh, they’re liable to throw out Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker or the more recent Ted Haggard, but that’s about it. So part of the problem is perception.

    The other part of the problem is that the pews of our churches may actually be filled with nonChristians. Not everyone who sings “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” not everyone who says “Lord, Lord,” has been born again. I can’t find the source right now, but I have heard one estimate of up to 90% of the people who attend a given Sunday morning worship service may not be truly saved. I think Spurgeon even made a similar observation. For a disturbingly powerful message along these lines, check out Paul David Washer’s “Youth Evangelism Conference 2002” download at

    Although “Christianity” or “the church” get all lumped together in surveys like this, remember that there are all kinds of churches and people out there operating under the name of Christianity. One blog I frequent has a poster who doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, or His miracles, or His sacrificial atoning death, or even in a personal God, and yet proudly calls herself a Christian.

    Finally, as our culture gets farther and farther away from even an rudimentary understanding of the God of the Bible, it should be expected that the unchurched will find church to be strange, uncomfortable, or undesirable. And in this postmodern era, it is not surprising that many are willing to listen to what Christians have to say about Jesus. The trick will be when you tell them Jesus is not part of the smorgasbord you can add to your religious plate, but must be the exclusive Truth in your life.

  4. Micah, good observations on the study. I believe Ed and Scott McConnell (associate director, LWR) would both agree that the the best use of the research is to not leave it in the theoretical but use it as a tool to press forward with the gospel. Thanks for including it.

    Another resource for your readers is the podcast with Ed and Scott where they discuss implications. It can be found at

    Chris Turner
    Media Relations Manager

  5. GREAT info! As scathing as it is, it is true. I work as a mechanic in a shop full of unbelievers. This is their preception, along with money hungry and judgemental. I have no choice but to use the relational approach and it works. I have found more, and more opportunities to share the gospel as I build credibility. Recently I got mad at work and swore, I told the person I was with ” I am sorry there was no excuse for that” he seemed suprised because nobody would ever think to do that where I work.

    We know that this perception is mainly our own doing; yes the message of the cross will always be an offence to people who’s hearts are still hard, but I know that in my community churches that preach a works based gospel are not helping the matter. We need to be representatives of God’s grace to those around us. Not cheap grace, but sovereign grace that glorifies God in our love for others. I thank God for my Pentecostal upbringing in many ways, but one reason I no longer consider myself Pentecostal is that God’s grace is always mixed with works. It is not just Pentecostals, I believe that this muddy mixture of grace and works can be found throughout the Body of Christ. Lets work together and change that.

    Does it suprise us that people are put off by the aesthetics of the Church? Perhaps the traditional models of church meetings need to be considered? It is important to meet together once a week as a large group, but should that be the percetion of unbelievers, or should their first impression be that of a more organic structure that branches out all over town? I think we must touch society at multiple levels. Not in an unorganized manner quite the contrary, we must be organized and purposefull to safeguard the integrity of our purpose and witness. Just food for thought.
    I look

  6. I don’t know if you’re interested but my church started an evangelistic outreach called The Question. I don’t if you’ve heard of it, but what it is is that we are supposed to ask people the question, “Can I pray with you about something?” There’s a hurting world out there and that question isn’t very offensive, so people are more likely to respond. It’s just one idea.

  7. The Gospel itself is, to those who are perishing, an offense.
    There’s no doubt, however, that many don’t really find or hear the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ because they hear and “read” us before they encounter much of the the Word and have no desire to seek any further. If they’d see genuine, aggressive, unconditional love; if they’d see humility transparency in us; if we’d understand that we can’t expect Christian understanding and behaviors from those who aren’t Christians and therefore quit being judgmental of them–then we’d get some place. We can preach the message with faithfulness and fervor within the walls of our church, and we can devise the very latest in evangelistic outreach methods, but others have to see the daily messengers we are to be, sending a message of love and grace and authenticity, or the sermons and the outreaches will make no difference.

  8. The perception of the church by unbelievers as being full of hypocrites is not surprising to me. I really do not believe it is a new perception. This probably would not be popular to mention to those folks. But the true hypocrites are those who think they can take care of their own spiritual needs without the help of others or even Jesus! They remain the most deceived people on the planet.

    I believe there are two things churches can do to change that perception over time:
    1) Admit it. Admit our hypocricy. Don’t act like sinners are not in your church. Make frequent public statements stating that your church is not a perfect place or a place for perfect or nearly-perfect people. It is a place for sinful and hurting people to come and find help. The church, every church, ought to be more like like an ER for the hurting than a musuem for those who have arrived spiritually to be on display.
    2) Cooperate with other churches. I am a big fan of cooperative ministry to the extent we can do it without compromising doctrine, spiritula integrity, etc. When churches, especially from different denominations, cooperate to do something positive together it sends a powerful signal to the lost. Cooperating together for community benevolence needs or some sort of concert is an excellent way to get started. if you do not have a Min Alliance you feel comfortable being a part of begin a coliation of churches you do feel comfortable doing something with! I really do not believe Jesus was kidding in John 17:21 that the unbelieving world is not about to give us the time of day until they can see that we are one in the Body of Christ–and that goes beyond the walls of our own church/denomination.

  9. I too am concerned for the direction of our denomination and the falling away we see taking place. It is disturbing to see the great and growing tide of hypocrisy and apathy toward the Word of God within our churches. Could it be that we are seeing a fulfillment of Bible prophecy? “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; (2) Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron;” (1 Timothy 4:1-2) and “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;” (2 Timothy 4:3)
    And let me ask this, where are we told ever in God’s Word to go ask the unchurched how to do church or what they would like to see in the church? Haven’t we assimilated enough to the worldly system? Haven’t we had enough of this “relativistic” approach to God’s Holy Word? (1 John 2:15, 2 Corinthians 6:17, 1 Peter 1:16).
    With that said, I personally can’t wait until LifeWay does an SBC in-house survey and ask probing questions like these of attending church members,…..
    “What does it mean to be saved?”
    “What is salvation?”
    “What is sin?”
    “Who has sinned?”
    “Is repentance necessary?”
    “What is repentance?”
    “What does it mean to take up the cross?”
    “Is the Bible sufficient in converting the soul?”
    “How much time do you spend in the Word of God each day?”
    And maybe even a real tough one like “Is Jesus the only way to heaven?”
    I believe the answers would shock us and reveal why there are so many hypocrites within the church.
    I seriously doubt our friends at LifeWay would do such a probing survey, it would prove to be too offensive and revealing about the true condition of our SBC churches.
    Perhaps the real issue is that we have become far too enamored with being accepted and liked than we are at pleasing our Master. I got an idea (well actually it’s the Apostle Paul’s) he said ….. “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (3) And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. (4) And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: (5) That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:2-5)
    Although I fully agree with you that it is encouraging that 78% of these unchurched people said they would be willing to listen to a Christian share their beliefs, but I have to ask what will be our message? I can only pray that it will be the full gospel of Christ that still includes tough words like, personal sin, repentance and holiness.
    Isn’t time we get off the pragmatic bandwagon of doing church and back on a clear, unashamed proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16)…then we will once again see a dynamic and Jesus honoring denomination!

    Thanks for your blogs

  10. S.G.,
    There is no need for the defensive tone. I don’t know of any SBC person who wants to change the message. They just want to make sure the full gospel message gets a fair hearing.
    The hypocricy charge is really nothing new. I doubt if the percentage sayingthere are hypocrites in the church would have been much lower in the blessed 50s and 60s. If we want the gospel to be heard by unbelievers with a lessening cultural connection to Christianity we must do more than turn up the volume. We need to make sure we are answering questions people are asking in order to bring salvation to the lost today who are more ignorant of Christianity than ever in our history. To answer the questions we are most comfortable answering simply will not get the job done.

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