Who Are The Unchurched?

By Mike Willis

Approximately 80 million Americans, roughly 40% of the total .population, do not consider themselves members of any church (J. Russell Hale, Who Are The Unchurched?, p. 2). Several sociologists have undertaken the task of defining who the unchurched Americans are and what they are like (see Hale’s study, also see David A. Roozen, The Churched and the Unchurched In America: A Comparative Profile, and The Unchurched American [The Princeton Religion Research Center]). Though these studies are primarily aimed at the sociologist, a person can learn some interesting statistics from an examination of these materials.

One of the interesting results of Hale’s work has been his classification of those who are not going to church. By using his classification system, I would like to consider the kinds of reasons people are giving for not going to church. My methodology will be to consider what legitimate criticisms might be involved in each of these groups (with the hope that we can learn to correct whatever might be leading to these objections, so long as the truth of God’s word is not compromised) and then consider what God’s word might answer to each so far as his reason for not going to church might be considered. Throughout this presentation, I shall be using Hales classification and description of those who are “unchurched.”

1. The Anti-Institutionalists. “This category includes those persons who -are defectors from the church on the basis of what they perceive to be the Church’s preoccupation with its own self-maintenance.” Many of those who do not go to church for this reason consider themselves to be better Christians because they do not participate in the institutional church.

What is occurring in modern denominationalism is certainly giving some legitimacy to this objection. Denominationalists (and some liberal congregations of the Lord) are building exorbitant edifices for worship, constantly begging for money to pay for these buildings and some other works, and use every form of promotionalism to raise money and boost the attendance. One certainly gets the impression from what he reads in bulletins and newspapers that an inordinate emphasis on money and numbers is present in not a few churches. Consequently, many Americans have correctly perceived what is going on in twentieth century denominationalism and are properly turned off by what he sees. The emphasis on spiritual things has been thrown out to be replaced with a good dose of positive mental attitude.

This unchurched person makes the mistake of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Because he has been turned off by sinful abuses and activities of denominationalism (both in and out of the church), he simply throws out the church. However, one must not forget that the church is a part of God’s eternal plan through Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:10-11); no less important person than Jesus Himself built the church (Matt. 16:16). Reconciliation to God occurs through Christ in that one body (Eph. 2:16). Hence, God has a true purpose for the church to exist; the church was not born simply because some lazy preachers schemed a way of earning a living without working. This person needs to reject the sinful practices of modern denominationalism and begin a search for the Lord’s people! There are people of the Lord who are serving Him, without being guilty of the things which are turning this group of Americans off!

2. The Boxed-In. “These are people who, for the most part, have once been church members and have left . . . . Doctrine or ethics have been so narrow as to smother them . . . . The church is viewed as worse as a prison, at best as a strait-jacket. Their psychological state is expressed in such phrases as `Don’t fence me in!’ or `Unhand me!’ or `Let me go!’ They want no external restraints. They will be captive to no one. They have taken charge of their own lives.”

There are certain legitimate objections in these kinds of criticisms. Some churches have legislated traditions and opinions which have bound their membership over and above what God has bound. Ridiculous moral regulations which would have the effect of “turning off” the general public include such things as teaching that receiving a blood transfusion is sinful, that celebrating one’s birthday is sinful, that a young lady cannot wear make-up, trim her hair, or wear slacks, that a person cannot attend a movie of any kind, that a young person cannot wear a graduation ring because wearing of jewelry is forbidden, and that using any form of contraceptive is sinful. Obviously, many Americans reject such taboos and are turned off by them.

Others find the doctrines of their church unbelievable; consequently, they are unwilling to go to church because of their doctrinal disagreements. Frankly, I would be turned off by such doctrines as the following as well: (a) the doctrine that God predetermined who would be saved and who would be lost without regard to anything that they do (election); (b) the doctrine that once a man is saved he can never be lost regardless of how he lives (perseverance of the saints); (c) that tongue-speaking is authentic; (d) that one cannot see a doctor; (e) that faith healing is true (especially when one witnesses the sick come to church, testify to being healed, and then turn again to the beds of affliction); (f) snake handling; (g) purgatory; (h) papal infallibility; etc. These and many other doctrines which are taught in modern denominationalism are recognized as ridiculous; many are turned off by churches which teach such ridiculous doctrines.

The other side of this coin is that some Americans refuse to be bound by the revelation of God’s word. They are going to do what they want to and believe what they want regardless of what the Bible says. Hence, they find the doctrinal standards of the Bible to be too confining to them. They are unwilling to believe that there is only one church, that salvation is only available through Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:6), that one must be baptized in water in order to be saved (Mk. 16:16), and similar doctrines. Too, they reject the moral instructions of God’s word. Some Americans refuse to believe that homosexuality is sinful (1 Cor. 6:9-10), that pre-marital and extra-marital sexual relationships will damn one’s soul (Gal. 5:19-20), that dancing is condemned as lasciviousness (Gal. ,5:19), that drinking (social drinking included) is prohibited (1 Pet. 4:3), and that any person who divorced his mate for any reason other than fornication and subsequently remarried is guilty of adultery (Matt. 19:9). Frankly, I do not have anything to offer these unchurched people. They are lawless men – men who refuse to walk in the light of God’s word. Consequently, there is no fellowship with God possible for them so long as they walk outside the revelation of God (1 Jn. 1:6-7).

3. The Burned-Out. These “are some who feel that their energies have been utterly consumed by the Church . . . . The used feel that they have been exploited or manipulated.”

I can understand why some would feel that way. Many of the faith healers are constantly writing letters to people all over this country telling how God directed them to write and ask for a contribution. Some people have given thousands of dollars to religious charlatans; no wonder they feel used. Others have worked long hours in different denominations to keep the institutions going. They have been involved in every fund-raising, promotional scheme employed by denominational pastors to increase the membership and contribution. Many of them have seen through the facade to perceive that spiritual work is not being done in these denominations. Hence, they feel that they have been manipulated and used.

The fact that one has been used and abused in the past, however, does not excuse him from future responsibility. Such a man must be guided by the revelation of God in working for the Master, not some denominational machinery. However, work he must (1 Cor. 15:58; Tit. 2:14; 3:1). Our lives are to be filled with serving others, even as Jesus came to serve rather than to be served (Matt. 20:26-28). The day of rest for the servant of God is not in this world but in that which is to come; rest will be given to us at the second coming of Christ (2 Thess. 1:7). Hence, though a man might be burned out by the exploitative schemes of denominationalism, he needs to turn to Christ and work with the saints of God in serving the Master.

4. The Cop-Outs. These are “those who were never really committed to the Church in the first place . . . . The Apathetic Cop-Outs lack any deep feelings for or sensitivity toward what the Churches stand for, say or do . . . . They are indifferent to the point of saying, `I could care less.’ . . . The Drifters are Cop-Outs whose association with Churches has been so marginal that floating from place to place without ever establishing strong ties has become habitual. They may fear the demands of responsibility to others or to programs.”

I can see no legitimate justification for these people not worshipping with saints. The problem is that they have never been converted to Christ. They simply do not love God .enough to be concerned about obeying His word. Some, consequently, simply never take any interest in spiritual things. Others have only a nominal interest. These are the people who visit every congregation in the city and never take an active part in any of them; they hold membership-at-large, being a part of the church universal but not of the local church. Any excuse they give for’ not being involved is simply a “cop-out” because they have never been involved in the first place!

The gospel has no promise of everlasting salvation to such people; the eternal punishment of hell is all that remains for these kinds of unchurched people. Because they refuse to worship and serve God, He will reject them in the final day.

5. The Happy Hedonists. These people “find fulfillment of life’s purpose in momentary pleasures or a succesion of pleasure-satisfying activities . . . . Their hedonism was not often manifested in their idolization of leisure pursuits.”

Many of our neighbors are happy hedonists. They want to spend their Sundays sleeping in, going golfing or fishing, watching sports events on television, and any number of other pleasure related activities. They are happy with the way they live and have no plans or intentions of changing. They remind me of the people described by Paul who were “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4), people “whose God is their belly, and whose glory is their shame, who mind earthly things” (Phil. 3:19). Obligations of church membership to such. people are rejected because they intrude on the time they can spend more profitably on some form of instant gratification.

Unfortunately, the churched Americans are just about as guilty of being hedonists as are some of the unchurched. By constantly preaching on attendance, some of them will be persuaded to attend one service a week. On Sunday evenings and Wednesday nights, they are too absorbed in the pursuit of pleasure to take time out to worship God. They never find time for prayer and Bible study because it interrupts watching television. Like their unchurched counterparts, the church hedonists prefer to pursue pleasure rather than serve God.

When Solomon considered what it was good for man to do all of his days on this earth (Ecc. 2:3), he considered the pursuit of pleasure (Ecc. 2:1-11). He withheld from himself no pleasure which might bring happiness to him. Yet, when he reached the end of his course, he said, “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecc. 2:11). The pursuit of pleasure offers no permanent happiness; “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (Ecc. 1:8). Many people find out how empty life is from the mere pursuit of pleasure and seek, for something else; others go to their grave without learning this only to be tormented forever because they did not “fear God and keep His commandments” (Ecc. 12:13-14). Though pleasurable pursuits are good when kept in proper perspective, they cannot save anyone’s soul.

6. The Locked-Out. These “are the opposite of BoxedIn. These are those unchurched people who feel that the Churches have closed their doors against them.” They include those who have been rejected by the church because of their refusal to comply with some doctrine, those who have been neglected by the church because of various reasons (they are in the wrong social class or some other reason), and those who feel that they have been discriminated against.

Some of these criticisms are legitimate. For example, Wayne B. Williamson frankly admitted that the Episcopal Church has made little attempt to evangelize the poor; he said, “Many of its leaders came close to holding the lower classes in contempt and made their greatest appeal to the affluent and the powerful” (Growth And Decline in the Episcopal Church, p. 138). In some churches, the blacks have not been welcome; many have done little or nothing to evangelize the blacks and other minorities. Older people are sometimes treated as if they were unimportant because they have so little to contribute financially and are unable to do much labor in the local work. Hence, the religious world has “locked-out” some of the world. Fairness demands that we add that some of the minorities have also locked-out the white, middle-classed American.

This should serve to remind each of us of the universality of the gospel. The gospel is to be preached to every creature of every nation (Matt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16). The invitation of Christ is extended to “whosoever will” (Rev. 22:17). Hence, we should make equal attempts to evangelize all men, so much as we have opportunity.

Some are locked-out of the church, however, because they refuse to live by the moral codes of the New Testament. This sociological category includes as “locked-out” those who do not go to church because they have been divorced and remarried without scriptural cause, social drinkers, and other moral perverts who refuse to walk according to the revelation of God. Frankly, I know of nothing. to offer these people except the preaching of a gospel of repentance.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 28, pp. 451-453
July 17, 1980