5 Ways to Better Understand Your Unchurched Community

This is Part 3 of a blog series on Creating Continuous Growth in Your Church.

SERIES SUMMARY:

Every church leader facing a growth barrier desperately wants to break through, because every church leader, including me, desires a growing, thriving church. Not because church attendance is the only measure of success, but because increasing attendance is proof that people are being reached.

I’d like to ask a better question: What if instead of just breaking through a specific barrier we were able to barrier-proof our church? Pause for a moment and imagine never hitting a growth wall again.

I believe barrier-proofing is possible for every church in any denomination, and that’s exactly what we are going to evaluate in this blog series.

I have discovered 6 specific ingredients to create continuous growth in your church. In this post, we are going to look at the second ingredient:

Ingredient 2: KNOWING YOUR TARGET MARKET.

I spent a decade in the marketplace before transitioning into ministry. Most of those years were spent in marketing, specifically working with companies to better acquire new customers and increase the frequency of visits and/or purchases from current customers. As a business, that is how you increase revenue. It’s fundamental.

In the church, the same premise is true. We can grow attendance by reaching new people or increasing the frequency of our current attendees. The latter would make numbers look better and probably help each individual spiritually grow, but the Kingdom would not grow. And capital “K” Kingdom growth, not simply my church growth, is the real goal.

Therefore, to state the obvious, growth through sheep stealing is not good growth. If people leave another church to attend our church, the Kingdom does not win.

That said, growing The Church while growing as a church requires reaching the unchurched. Here is the great news: There are far more unchurched people in your community than empty seats in your church. In fact, there are probably more unchurched people in your community than empty seats in all the local churches combined. In the business community, that is wonderful news. Plenty of potential customers. It’s a target rich environment.

Now, we just need to reach them, because if your church can learn to consistently reach the unchurched, your church will never lack for growth.

UNDERSTANDING THE UNCHURCHED

To understand how to reach the unchurched, let’s go back to the business community again. In the marketplace, when a company wishes to reach a specific market, they conduct market research. Lot’s of market research. Days, weeks, and sometimes years are spent organizing focus groups, testing products, retesting products, developing packaging, determining price points, and then beta testing to a larger audience. It’s a lengthy and systematic process, but the results provide a business with a product that drives purchase decisions for their intended market.

Again, the principles from the marketplace to ministry are transferable. To reach the unchurched, we must know the unchurched.

Here are 5 tips to help you and your church better understand the unchurched in your community: 

1. Know your target market — literally.

If we say we are concerned with the unchurched in our community, but have no personal relationships or friendships with anyone outside the faith, we have no moral authority to lead others to invest in the unchurched and we will only understand them second-hand. If we as church leaders hope to understand the unchurched community, we must get to know them personally.

This is primarily why I play tennis. I love the game, and I love any sort of competition, but the fundamental reason I participate in tennis is to build relationships with people who are unchurched. Over the years, I have built meaningful connections with dozens of people who are far from God, and these relationships have helped me lead our church in new, fresh ways. These relationships have also created a path for me to share the gospel and invite unchurched friends to church.

At Watermarke, my approach to leading, speaking, and preaching on Sunday has been informed by the unchurched relationships I’ve formed. It keeps me connected to the target.

2. Understand their problems — intimately.

In many, or even most, cases, the unchurched community suffers from the same problems as the churched people. Things like marriage, parenting, contentment, lack of purpose, and loss of hope create problems on both sides of faith. How unchurched people process these issues will be different, and therefore require a different approach.

When you begin to know unchurched people, you must also investigate their problems and how they process for solutions. While we might agree that Jesus is ultimately their need, they will certainly not recognize this truth on their own — hence they are unchurched.

3. Study your church through their eyes.

Most unchurched people will remain unchurched because they’ve been to church before. We could consider most unchurched people to be de-churched. Unfortunately, most will assume that your church is the same as all the others, including those where they had bad church experiences.

If you want to know how unchurched people see The Church, you have several options. I’ve read about a dozen books to date, and they’ve all been helpful. You can search through articles and blogs. You can attend conferences. But if you really want to know what your unchurched people think of your church, not just The Church, you need to ask them directly.

When I meet an unchurched person in my community, whenever possible, I ask them: “What do you think when you hear the word ‘church.’” Then I follow up with one more question: “What do you think about ‘Watermarke Church?’” Those two simple questions have help me understand so much about reaching the unchurched in my community.

Personal questions are great, but I’ve also solicited feedback through surveys. It might sound crazy, but paying unchurched people to attend your church and complete a survey after the service might be your best learning tool. I have invited so many people to Watermarke for the simple purpose of getting their informal and formal feedback—and I’m always shocked at how willing they are to “help” me and how honest they are about their experience.

Ask some people who are not connected to the church to visit your church to help you understand what they are seeing. Their perspective will be invaluable.

4. Pay attention to culture.

I’ve stopped listening to Christian radio. Partially because it’s all just too happy, but mostly because I want to know what the unchurched world around me is experiencing. Of course, there are limits (let’s not get all “slippery-sloped”), but I know engulfing myself in Christian circles insulates me from the culture I’m trying to reach. We can’t be insulated from the world and reach the world.

I listen to current music. I watch current movies. I watch current television programming. All to a point, and all for a point. Being a student of culture helps leaders understand those participating in the culture — especially those we want to reach.

5. Analyze their demographics, socioeconomics, and lifestyle choices.

All unchurched people are not the same. That’s like suggesting baptist are the same as catholics who are just like methodist. The unchurched should not be stereotyped or lumped into large categories. The more you can understand the makeup of your unchurched community, the better you will be able to design experiences, and eventually a church, that reaches them where they are. And, your church will be positioned to grow continuously.

If you are in a family heavy environment like we are at Watermarke Church, then your programming and church offerings should reflect and appeal to that demographic. If you’re executing ministry in a more urban context, your attempts to reach the unchurched must reflect the demographics of your target.

Same for socioeconomics. An unchurched, white collar community will be drawn to different churches than a blue collar community.

From a lifestyle perspective, it’s good to know where the unchurched people in your community are on Sunday? When the church people are at church, where are the unchurched people? If you don’t know, it’s going to be very difficult to reach them.

One last thing: While the unchurched community might be segmented into demographics, we can never treat them as a target market. Target markets are great for research, but they make for terrible relationships. God changes people, not projects or targets. We can’t empathize with a target market, and we don’t minister to population segments. Evaluate your community in total, but love your community one person at at time, because they are not a project to accomplish, they are people who God loves.

If you aren’t sure how to reach the unchurched in your community, get to know them personally. That’s a great first step. It’s also a great excuse to play some tennis!

  1 Comment

  1. Seth Irby   •  

    Do you have a sample of the survey you give to unchurched people that you can share?

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