Who are the unchurched? What do they look like? How do they behave? Where do they live? You can answer all of these questions just by looking around you.
We interact with the unchurched every day. We work with them, socialize with them, witness to them. They’re our friends, our neighbors, our loved ones. And they’re in all cities across the United States. The Barna Group, a research company focused on faith and culture, found that about 40% of U.S. adults qualify as “unchurched,” which it defines as anyone who hasn’t attended a church service at any time within the past six months except for a holiday or special occasion.
In 2014, after an exhaustive ten-year study and sampling from more than 62,000 adults, the Barna Group published a list of America’s top churchless cities. The most unchurched cities, based on the percentage of residents that meet the Group’s definition of unchurched, include:
- San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose, CA – 61%
- Burlington/Plattsburgh, VT – 55%
- Boston, MA – 53%
- Portland/Auburn, ME – 52%
- Chico/Redding, CA – 52%
- Las Vegas, NV – 51%
- Seattle/Tacoma, WA – 50%
- Albany/Schenectady/Troy, NY – 50%
- Phoenix/Prescott, AZ – 49%
- New York, NY – 48%
Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of similarity between the Barna Group’s findings and the findings of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit independent research organization that focuses on America’s religious, political, and cultural landscape. In 2015, PRRI found that the religiously unaffiliated was the top “religious” group in 10 major metropolitan areas, and among the top three groups in every metro area polled.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these major metropolitan areas are rife with sin and vice. They also tend to be far less charitable than their “Bible-minded” counterparts. According to the Philanthropy Roundtable, America’s leading network of charitable donors, many of the very wealthiest urban areas like San Francisco and Boston rank low on generosity. The Roundtable also noted an interesting divergence between two nearby cities in Texas that helps shed light on the difference between more secular and more religious parts of the country.
In examining the giving statistics between Dallas and Austin—which is perceived as a more secular community—the Roundtable noted that although the two cities, just 180 miles apart, share the same economic climate and basic cost of living, they differ rather sharply in terms of culture. “The fact that Dallas residents give almost 40 percent more to charity than Austin residents underlines the powerful influence on charitable behavior exerted by factors like religious practice.”
A Conversation with Waylon Bailey on Unchurched America
These are some sobering statistics about the state of faith in America, but what does the rise of the unchurched and religiously unaffiliated mean for Christians? And what can we do to stem the tide? We sat down with Waylon Bailey to talk about it. Mr. Bailey provided us with some insightful takeaways that help shed light on the issue, as well as what believers and church leaders can do to help combat lostness and shepherd America back to God. Mr. Bailey is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Covington, LA, one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in Louisiana.
Q: The religious landscape in the United States isn’t great. Is this a time for concern amongst Christians?
WB: Everybody grieves when they see the deterioration of our culture, but we shouldn’t ignore the opportunity before us. The more the culture deteriorates, the more the culture must have churches.
Q: What kind of church or model do you think would work best in these unchurched cities?
WB: The temptation is to be the next ‘cool church’ rather than follow biblical principles. We need to connect with people and give them an understanding of why we exist. A young family wants to have the best life possible, so naturally they are going to look for something that helps them raise their children. If the Gospel can help them raise their family, they’ll want to be a part of it.
Q: LifeWay Research asked Christians how many times they had personally invited an unchurched person to attend a church service. Nearly half (48%) responded, “zero.” Do you think invitations work? And how can we improve the experience for those that do accept our invitations?
WB: People are still very open to accepting an invitation—they just need one. But no one wants to go somewhere they don’t feel welcomed. Most people have an internal sensor that tells them whether or not they belong or are welcome somewhere. We must develop a culture in the church that looks for people who are different and let them know that they do fit and that they do belong.
Q: What else can be done to stem the tide?
WB: There’s a great template for us to reach the unchurched. The Prayer Revival of 1857 began in New York City. It was during a time of great economic boom when lots of people were moving into the city and displacing older families that lived there. One church determined that they were going to get people together to pray. They started a prayer meeting for merchants and business owners once a month, and that went from six people meeting once a week to a national movement with prayer meetings all over the country.
Q: What roles do church planters and missionaries play in reaching the unchurched?
WB: You can’t have enough church planters and missionaries to reach the millions of people in cities like Houston and Los Angeles. You just can’t have enough. They begin the process of calling people to Biblical principles by getting involved in their lives as much as possible. They are the ones who sow the seeds. Obviously, you can’t have reaping without sowing.
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