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 LifeWayResearch.com as well as EdStetzer.com, 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.