Tammy D. is a fairly new Christian; she accepted Christ four months prior to out interview. She joined and was baptized in a nondenominational community church near Scottsdale, Arizona. Our time with Tammy was a delight. Our initial and follow-up interviews lasted over ten hours.

Tammy, a grandmother in her mid forties, dealt for nearly a year with a social service agency. She blamed the child’s other grandmother for much of her troubles. She said that she had the “weight of the world” on her shoulders. “I hated social services and I hated the other grandmother.”

This crisis and her unbearable bitterness prompted Tammy to seek relief and answers. She started looking for a church even though she rarely had attended church in her lifetime. Like many unchurched people, Tammy chose Easter Sunday as her day of entry into the church.

The week after Easter another major crisis took place in Tammy’s life. She came home from work to find her husband dead. That same evening the pastor and a woman from the church visited her, unaware that Tammy’s husband had died earlier in the day.

“Their visit was like seeing two angels walk through the door,” Tammy reflected. “I didn’t have anyone to do the funeral, and they just showed up. The pastor agreed to do Bob’s funeral,” she told us. Shortly after the funeral the same woman from the church asked Tammy to lunch. “Jodie told me how to be saved, how to accept Jesus,” Tammy exclaimed. “I guess I was a pretty easy sell. I was looking for hope.”

Tammy, though a new Christian, was hesitant to go to a church on a regular basis. She also was uncertain about baptism. “Look,” she said, “I knew very little about church. It just wasn’t the life I was used to.” That problem was solved when she discovered that a friend had started attending the church that she had visited on Easter Sunday. “I felt braver going with a friend,” Tammy told us. They continued to attend as they found the church members to be extremely friendly. The factor that sealed Tammy’s decision to join the church was the pastor’s preaching. “His sermons are deep but easy to understand. He is always able to hold my attention,” she related.

We understand that Tammy’s story is not typical, but then again, we rarely spoke to any of the formerly unchurched who had a “typical” story. That is our point. We cannot offer simple explanations to describe the pilgrimage of a person from the ranks of the unchurched to the churched. How would you explain Tammy’s decision? Among the possibilities you might include:

    • The crisis of losing custody of her grandchild
    • The crisis of the death of her husband
    • The crisis of bitterness in her life
    • The in-home visit of the pastor and a church member
    • The big event of the Easter service
    • The personal evangelistic witness of a church member
    • The relationship of a friend
    • The friendliness of the church member
    • The preaching of the pastor

While we would certainly affirm that the relationship Tammy had with her friend was an important factor in choosing the church, many other factors were at work. Thus, it would seem unwise to devise a church strategy to reach the unchurched based on one factor alone. As we further examine the issue of the unchurched and relationships, we will do so with the understanding that many other factors are at work. Our study compliments other studies that concluded that relationships are key to reaching the unchurched. Though our findings diverge in some of the specifics related to this issue, we nevertheless affirm the validity of the basic thesis. Melody N., for example, visited an Evangelical Free church after a neighbor invited her. Her story is not unusual among the numerous interviews we conducted.

“Our kids play together in the neighborhood,” Melody told us. “It was just a natural part of our conversation. I don’t even remember how we got on the topic. The next thing I knew, she had invited me to church and I had agreed to come.” Melody continued, “My husband wouldn’t go, but he was okay with me going. Now that I’m a Christian I’m working on him.”

We could recall hundreds of stories in which the formerly unchurched told us of the importance of relationships in their coming to Christ and to the church. But the issue of relationships is only a part of the story. The story of Melody N. could leave one with the impression that her neighbor’s invitation was the sole explanation for her visiting the church. But Melody told us that God was working in other ways as well. “If I had been invited to a church four years ago, I probably would not have accepted. But since I had a daughter, I felt a responsibility for her and me.”

No matter how we asked the question, at least one-fourth to one-half of the formerly unchurched indicated that they came to a church without any established relationships. “I didn’t know anybody,” Mickey R. of West Virginia shared with us. He continued, “Three people from the church I ended up joining showed up at my house one evening. They told me how I could get saved. I accepted Christ that night, got baptized three weeks later, and I’ve been attending church ever since.”

Martie is another person who gave us numerous reasons why she came to the church and became a Christian. She is representative of the nearly four in ten formerly unchurched who insist that a relationship was not a factor in leaving the ranks of the unchurched. “I can’t explain my decision to try church other than I knew I wasn’t living for God,” Martie told us. Martie’s first foray into church was a mid-size Southern Baptist congregation in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. “The minute I entered the sanctuary, I knew I was in God’s presence,” she exclaimed. Even though Martie has been a Christian less than a year, she has already begun to speak like a churched Christian “The Holy Spirit convicted me the moment I heard the preaching. God’s Word pierced my heart.”

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Martie continued her story: “The people at Davis Baptist Church are so friendly. I bet I was greeted by ten people before I left church that day.” And by Monday evening Martie had received a visit from three people from the church. They were part of the FAITH ministry, she discovered. FAITH is a Southern Baptist evangelistic ministry that seeks to integrate all of its activities through the Sunday school. We found that 8 percent of our respondents had received a FAITH evangelistic visit. Of course, the percentage was higher among Southern Baptist churches.

Martie listed for us the most important factors that led her to Christ and to the church:

  • Holy Spirit conviction: Martie told us: “I was looking before anyone ever came to talk to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but God was getting my attention. I probably would have accepted Christ by hearing a television preacher. The people at Davis Baptist just showed up at the right time.”
  • Direct evangelism: Despite the detractors who claim that a oneon- one sharing of the gospel is ineffective, Martie was one of many we interviewed who was personally evangelized.
  • Friendliness of the church: Martie “fell in love with the people of the church.” “What if,” we asked, “you had walked into Davis Baptist, and the people had not been friendly?” “That is a question that scares me to death,” she told us. “It really scares me that friendliness has eternal implications.”
  • Preaching: Once again we heard from the formerly unchurched that preaching was a major factor in their decision-making process. And once again we heard two key works to describe the preaching: biblical and relevant. Marion W. of Indianapolis was different than most of those we interviewed. She was a senior adult (seventy years old) when she became a Christian. Rarely did we speak to a formerly unchurched person over fifty years old.

While many of the people described thus far named multiple factors that led them to Christ and to the church, Marion’s explanation was simple: her niece invited her to an Easter presentation at a Presbyterian church. The gospel was presented, and she accepted Christ, Joined the church, and is very active in the church two years later at age seventy-two.

Would Marion have attended the Easter event if someone other than her niece had invited her? “I honestly can’t say,” she responded. “But I do know how much I love my niece, and that had to affect me.” Far more than any other person, the family member was influential in persuading an unchurched person to come to church. Just less than one-half of the respondents indicated the importance of this relationship.

When we asked those who were influenced by a relationship to come to church who influenced them the most, over one-third responded that it was their wives. The implications of this response are noteworthy.

Men seem to be more likely to be reached by relationships than women. Women were more likely to visit a church without an invitation from a friend, acquaintance, relative, or coworker. Men, on the other hand, were more reluctant to go to a church where they knew no one. The paradigm of effective youth and children’s ministry seems to be changing. Ten years ago the paradigm of youth ministry was “reach the parents to reach the children.” Today the paradigm is “reach the children to reach the parents.” Almost one out of five of the formerly unchurched who were influenced by some relationship indicated that their children were the most important of these relationships.

Most churches indicated that their members included a significant number of churched wives who were married to unchurched husbands. The implication of this issue may be profound. We may have within our churches today a group that could be the most effective in reaching unchurched America.

What do these unchurched family members (and other unchurched persons) see when they walk into the church? How do they perceive the people in the church? The music? The order of service? The facilities? All of these issues were important the formerly unchurched told us.

Church growth is complex. Reaching the unchurched cannot be accomplished by some quick-fix ministry or program. Myriad factors are at work. God is working through events, people, and life situations to bring people to himself. We in the church are to use our God-given wisdom to discern those issues.

Excerpt from Surprising Insights from the Unchurched.

Copyright © 2001 by Thom S. Rainer, published by Zondervan, used with permission.