A Community for the Unchurched

By Russell Jarvis

The Samsons of Waterford, Michigan, are a typical American family. So are the Ortegas of Tularosa, New Mexico. The Sulemans immigrated to Centerville, Virginia, last year. The Bakers retired to Bradenton, Florida, and the Kovalenkos bought a house in Wheaton, Illinois. The Ibangas started their twins in kindergarten in Havre de Grace, Maryland.

Today’s Americans are multiethnic, formed into families of various definitions, young at heart, and older on the average. They enjoy reasonably good health and hope for pleasant retirements. They have found friends at work, at dance lessons, and at the fitness center. They may even have attended your worship service last Christmas or Easter.

A majority of Americans affirm a personal faith, but their involvement in the institution called “the church” continues to fade. According to the Barna Research Group, only 17 percent of American adults would affirm the statement: “A person’s faith is meant to be developed mainly by involvement in a local church.”1 Seventy-three million adults in America regularly avoid going to religious services, and that figure swells to 100 million when their teens and children are added.2

The odds continue to stack up against those who have a stake in American church culture. Some categorize their unchurched neighbors as carnal, unspiritual, uncommitted, or unbelieving. Such negativism serves no useful purpose. “Nonbelief or unbelief is really a Christian theological category—it is not the name by which our fellow human beings know themselves.”3

Behind every moral, ethical, or religious decision there is a personal story that deserves to be heard. J. Russell Hale proposes 10 descriptions of the unchurched that respect people’s experiences of faith and church.4


First are the Anti-Institutionalists. These are the solitary souls who seem wired to travel down faith’s highway in an unaffiliated manner.

Next are the Boxed-In, those who escaped depersonalizing religious experiences and who resist anything that looks familiar to it.

Then come the Burned Out, whose religious activity consumed something within them and exhausted their verve.

Behind them are the Floaters, who never really committed to the church in the first place.

The Hedonists saunter along the shoulder, rejecting organized religion because, no matter how hard it tries, it cannot compete when it comes to having a good old time.

The Locked-Out feel shamed by the church because of their lifestyle or political/moral stance.

Nomads are those whose ties with former faith communities were severed by life’s circumstances, and they have found nothing else that feels like home.

Pilgrims live by an ideology of seeking and therefore fear premature closure and value keeping an open mind.

Next to last, but most numerous, are the Publicans. These people decry religious hypocrites and phonies. At the same time they exclude themselves from belonging, claiming that they cannot live up to all the expectations.

Lastly come the True Unbelievers (the smallest group) who are authentically atheistic.

To these individuals, absence from church life does not necessarily indicate a lack of confidence in the Christian faith. Instead, it may show a lack of confidence in the typical American expression of the church as a place to experience spiritual community.

Americans remain unconvinced of the necessity of the collective faith experience. This is partially because the typical church model esteems attendance rather than interaction and immersion, partially due to the superficial experiences most believers have had in cell groups or Christian education classes, and partially attributable to our cultural bias toward independence and fluid relationships.5


The innate need for community cannot be suppressed. Sooner or later, people will find a vehicle through which they can experience interdependence. But the rules of engagement are changing.

Addressing the reticence of the unchurched takes more than prayer and hard work. It requires a lot of deep reflection to see the world and the local church from a completely different angle. . . . The rapidly swelling numbers of unchurched people may be forcing existing churches to reinvent their core spiritual practices while holding tightly to their core spiritual beliefs.6

Twenty-first-century Americans seem wired for an experience of spiritual connection that is far more experiential and inclusive than many churches are prepared to offer. What kind of experience of Christian community is called for in America today? Perhaps it is not really new at all. Paul had experienced a radical shift from an exclusive Pharisaic Judaism to an inclusive Christianity. Out of that experience he could write, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

James Fowler contends for something he calls a “public church”:

A public church is one unafraid of engagement with the complexities and ambiguities of thought and ideologies in this age of ideological pluralism. Convinced of the truth of its conviction of the sovereignty of God . . . it engages with others in confident openness, guided by the confidence that God often uses the truths of others to refine, reground, or correct our own . . . In the service of this massive fact the public church can be a community of faith committed to civility—to a quality of rigorous but calm discussion of truth.”7

In the present religious crisis, the church complains that people have turned their backs on the church. What if the opposite is true—that churches have turned their backs upon people?


Psychologist Kenneth Pargament has studied how individuals cope with threats to their continued significance (i.e., “crises”). Simply put, people cope by reviewing and revisioning what matters to them. They make a choice to sustain or to transform their means and/or their ends. His findings have application to church cultures that find themselves in a crisis of identity and purpose.8

Some churches opt for preservation. This is the continuation of both ends and means (i.e., “staying the course”). These churches equate their own culture and manners with the kingdom of God. They invite others to become like them if they want to be welcome. One expression of this is the remnant orientation typical of fundamentalist churches. Robert Bellah calls this attitude “a collective egoism that ignores the larger society.”9

Other churches reaffirm their community’s goals, but implement other methods of achieving them. This is reconstruction. Many evangelical practitioners of church growth practice this coping style, following the strategies that profit-conscious businesses resort to when their market changes (i.e., “oil” companies becoming “energy” companies). They market their services in hopes of winning new customers.

Some churches continue their liturgy and customs while investing them with different meanings. These are doing what Pargament calls revaluing. Mainline denominations have done this through reinterpreting the gospel message.

Re-creation is the most radical way of coping. This is the most difficult change of all and is often the last resort after other avenues have been exhausted. It is revising both the road taken and the destination sought.

It is illustrated by the athlete who through some tragedy becomes a paraplegic and then exchanges his identity for that of an advocate for the disabled. In a similar fashion, churches can continue to protest their fate or they can do the hard work to exegete the culture and determine where God may already be moving.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following from a Berlin prison:

The first service that one owes to others consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. Many are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening.10

People remain incurably interested in authentic community. Like Jesus’ parable of the seeker of fine pearls, they will sell all they have to possess one of great value.

The early followers of Jesus were called “the Way.” The churches of tomorrow will be those who still see themselves “on the way” today. No doubt Christ will continue to transform churches into those that will embrace his offer to become a personal community (“come unto me”), to become a relational community (“I stand at the door and knock”), to become an enlightened community (“repent and believe the gospel”), and to become an adventurous community (“follow me”).

The question is will those churches be yours and mine or another?


1“Americans Have Commitment Issues, New Survey Shows,” The Barna Report, 18 April 2006, www.barna.org/BarnaUpdate.

2“The Unchurched Population Nears 100 Million Mark in the U.S.,” The Barna Report, 19 March 2007, www.barna.org/BarnaUpdate.

3J. Russell Hale, The Unchurched: Who They Are and Why They Stay Away (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), 8, 9.

4Ibid, 100–08.

5“Americans Have Commitment Issues, New Survey Shows,” The Barna Report, 18 April 2006, www.barna.org/BarnaUpdate.

6“The Unchurched Population Nears 100 Million Mark in the U.S.,” The Barna Report, 19 March 2007, www.barna.org/BarnaUpdate.

7James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1981), 25.

8Kenneth Pargament, The Psychology of Religion and Coping (New York: The Guilford Press, 2001), 111–13, 378–88.

9Robert Bellah, The Good Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 217, 218.

10Hale, 183.

Russell Jarvis is lead chaplain with the Hancock Regional Hospital in Greenfield, Indiana.

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