About seven years ago I wrote an article regarding what it means to be unchurched. Below is the article. Other than some basic grammar fix-ups, this is what I wrote then and still believe today. I will have more to say in future blog posts. Enjoy.
What does it mean to be unchurched? Generally speaking it refers to anyone who does not actively participate in a church community. The problem with this definition is that it is a general description that goes beyond what being unchurched actually would seem to refer to. Most people that “get saved” were once actively apart of a church or ones that feel they are grandfathered into the church by bloodlines. For example, if you were to walk start up a conversation with someone about going to church, they will imply they already have a church – even though they have not attended it in several years. Technically they would be considered unchurched. Most of the unchurched people who the church reaches would fit in this category.
Another group of unchurched includes those who first attend for the purposes of moral instruction. Usually this involves a young couple wants to let their children know the difference between right and wrong. The goal is to get them involved as quickly as possible to help nurture them in the church. More times than not this is the target group for those who have a passion to reach out to the world. Overall, this is not a bad thing, for having young people in the church is very important to learn the traditions of the church and move forward into the future and embody the church to a new generation of believers. Yet it seems that sometimes cater to this “target group” in excess leading to consumer driven faith, the idea that the gospel is to be consumed instead of participatory.
I have no idea how many possibilities there are in the unchurched category, but the one I would like to focus on is what I like to call the unchurchables. At best, we usually refer to this group under the compassionate ministries grouping. The least of these, so to speak, is usually the highlight of this group. We take Matthew 25:31-46 and quantify all those who are down and out as the focus of compassionate ministries. I am all for compassionate ministries, but unchurchables reach beyond this label. Unchurchables in most of the communities I have lived include, but not limited to, those who are referred to as gamers, Goths, punks, metal-heads, druggies, pot-heads, and the like. More often than not this cross-section of society is passed over except for their contributions to pop-culture and is virtually ignored by the church except in references of how the world is going to hell in a hand basket.
This bothers me on several levels, as I am always scared when the church ignores entire segments of society. When we refer to these people in any kind of positive way, it is how we helped them break from their games, clothes, music, and drugs. We turn to the outward signs of appearance as a symbol that they have the inner grace. The problem is that many of these people embrace the things they embrace as a reaction to Christian hostility.
We Christians have done a good job of creating our own subculture of the world where we rip off the ideas of the secular world and market them as Christian. So we take the symbols of the world and “Christianize” it to market to Christians, all the while being on the verge of breaking trademarks and copyright infringements. By doing this we ultimately keep out all the things of this world unless they are things that can be Christianized. So instead of reaching out to punks, we create Christian punk bands and ask punks to embrace us for us to embrace them. We often take popular clothing fashions and add a Christ here or a Jesus there to show how cool we Christians are and how people can relate to us.
That, ultimately, is the problem. We expect those who are unchurchables to relate to us because we make our stuff look like their stuff without ever really reaching out. In fact, we don’t realize how much we insult their trades and hobbies when we mimic these things as a gimmick to salvation. There is a popular unchurchable retail chain called Hot Topic. Basically their business is to sell memorabilia of hard rock/metal persuasion with a gothic feel to the store. They sell a lot of clothes with Japanese artwork as well as comic book themes. They even sell the now popular sarcastic shirts/buttons/bumper stickers that are meant to get a cheap laugh. An interesting thing about this store is that “good Christians” can hardly stomach the store for all the “pagan” symbolism and “devil” music. Many of the church have informed me of how wrong this store is and the evil that engulfs it.
We have heard the phrase, “Love the Sinner, hate the sin,” but I wonder how well we are able to separate the sinner from the sin. I live in a small town. We are declining by at least 2% every year and are aging as well. But there is a small, yet strong contingent that fits my unchurchable description. I prefer to call them other siders, or the untouchables, because of how people refuse to positively affirm their existence. They smoke, cuss, and sometimes they find beds to lie in or do drugs. Generally they wear black, but that is far from a definitive. Many of these people feel like they are alone, even though I regularly engage a couple different ones every day. These people have deep church scars where it is physically impossible for them to stomach Christians very long. One recently went to the mall with some friends; they walked into a Christian bookstore. He took a few steps in and started to get woozy. Another untouchable went to this same store as a Christian, and was basically told how their business was unwanted and unneeded.
Many of these untouchable unchurchables are my friends. They don’t have a problem with Jesus. They have a problem with Christians. These Christians have spent so much time condemning them to hell that there has been no hope of salvation. To make matters worse, some Christians try to build relationships with these hurting people for the pure reason of trying to get them saved. Again the consumer culture invades the church. These unchurchables are seen as means to an end rather than people that the Almighty God created in his image. People, are more than subjects to be conquered with salvation. The end result of these sneaky tactics are plain rejection of these Christians and whatever gospel they are selling.
Any ideas of how to reach them needs to stop there. We need to look at them less as people who need our help and see ourselves as people in need of a savior. Once we start embracing the concept that we need a savior, as opposed to the fact that we are already saved, then we have a common quality with those who acknowledge they need help in this world as well. Unchurchables are skeptical of the church and its Christians, and rightfully so. It takes years to build up trust that we are not going to stab them in the back as soon as district superintendents or important leaders of the church come around. They need to know we love them because of who they are right now instead of what they might become.