A notable prevalent trend among church life is about half or more of members are absent from church services on any given week. In fact, in many traditions, most cannot even locate half or more of their membership. Could it be that the increase of ‘churchless believers’, ‘nones’, and ‘dones’ could present possibilities for a fresh path for engaging inactive, disinterested or apathetic members? A growing number of boomers seem to be ‘missing from action and participation’ in institutional church life. I think there may be a connection worth exploring. However, I’m quick to acknowledge this cannot be ‘bait and switch’ situation or a ‘witch hunt’. It has to be genuine, authentic and nonjudgmental avenue for engaging the faith and creating community among those who, for whatever reason, left the assembly of the local institutional church. Let’s begin to explore as we identify some ‘foundational principles’ and some ‘practical paths’ for engaging inactive members.
Churchless believers are not abandoning the concept and experience of church, but they are seeking to return to the highly relational, less programmatic, less ritualistic community. Whereas institutional church often left many feeling cold and judged by churches some encountered. Churchless believers may just be part of the cycle of institutionalism history has seen in church life for centuries. Findley Edge, my mentor and seminary professor’s classic Quest for Vitality in Religion, offers us a biblical, historical and sociological view of the cycles of institutionalism that seem inherent in church life, and many other institutions. The cycle seems part of the way God brings freshness and reframing of church for new cultures and generations.
Foundational Principles to Consider
Almost everywhere I’m privileged to travel and speak, church leaders ask, “How can we reach our inactive members?” Such a concern is commendable but research and experience seems to suggest that the time, energy, effort and money invested in reaching inactives can be better spent on reaching newcomers. However, due to our prior relationships with inactives, we have a passion for reactivating them in the life of the church. The effort and risk required to reach the unknown seems too overwhelming for many.
I’m wondering if the churchless believers might be engaged by practicing some foundational principles and creating innovative, engaging ministries based on their passions instead of the institution’s concerns. The engagement with churchless believers would not be so much to get them back into the institution, but rather to encourage, affirm and learn from their ongoing journey of faith AS church in the world. Many churchless believers seem to find renewal of their walk with God AS church when they become ‘unchained’ from the programmatic obligations to learn to BE church in the world. Many can articulate beautifully how they are being ‘salt, light and leaven’ AS church in a variety of situations in their daily walk with God at work, home, community clubs.
I think there may just be a great link here for renewal of faith and to grow into a more New Testament expression of church. Some of my readers always say, ‘Well they will become another church institution’; or ‘Where did their faith come from originally…probably some institutional church.’ While these are both nuggets of truth, these statements and beliefs also provide the ‘chains that bind and boundaries that limit’ the fresh expression of faith and church that God is calling some to be part of today. Not to ignore the institution, but rather to trust and follow God’s Spirit to be part of the ‘new thing that God’ is about. Not to diminish the institutional expression, for those who benefit from it, but to be obedient to the ‘new work of God’ AS church in the world. Seeking to engage the churchless believer calls institutional leaders to work on attitude and perspective that is open rather than judgmental and often demeaning.
Reaching out to the churchless believers cannot be deceptive, self-serving or a bait and switch situation. Such a ministry needs to be characterized by at least 4 issues of concern to the inactive.
- Approaching the churchless believer with a non-judgmental spirit is imperative. If there’s judgement that ‘they need to be back in our church’; or ‘God is not pleased with their unfaithfulness to church’ then the efforts are dead in the water. The inactive person will sense/feel you are after them to ‘fill a pew or put an offering in the plate or to serve on a committee,’ when their heart is to discern and follow the Spirit AS church in the world.
- Communicate to churchless believer by allowing them to use non-member language. They most likely consider themselves Christian and part of the Church but not planning now to be ‘active in your class or worship service’. Many are finding and experiencing worship, Bible study and ministry involvement through other very meaningful, and often, very credible means.
- Create community building opportunities with and for churchless believers without the ‘hook or expectation’ of getting them back into your class or church. Be part of their community. Open yourselves to learning from and with them about the move of the Spirit. Be open to the new. Prayer is about being open to God. My experience with churchless believers is they bring an openness to God that is not as confined to tradition, denomination, and rituals as many institutional believers might bring.
- Encourage and experience the establishing of fresh rituals, routines and traditions that reflect God’s ‘fresh movement/expression’ in their lives. For some it might not be ‘new’ but for the churchless believer there is an experience of newness and authenticity at that time and through that specific experience that has meaning for them and is faith building for them AS church. Being open to learning what makes it special and fresh is a great opportunity to communicate trust, value and openness to the new work of God in and through them.
Who are some ‘churchless believers’ in your circle of friends and associates?
What are they learning about faith and church without the walls of the institution?
How might all benefit from a gathering AS church rather than just focused on a gathering IN church?
 I speak of this concept in detail in Spiritual Leadership in a Secular Age: Building Bridges Instead of Barriers.