70% of James Emery White's church's growth comes from previously unchurched people. He shares why other churches aren't convincing or capturing non-believers. - Image courtesy of Mecklenburg Community Church

70% of James Emery White’s church’s growth comes from previously unchurched people. He shares why other churches aren’t convincing or capturing non-believers. – Image courtesy of Mecklenburg Community Church

When it comes to navigating the interface between faith and culture, there aren’t a lot of pastors I look to. Most I encounter tend to be having conversations that lag somewhere between five and 10 years behind secular society and the academy. This isn’t a criticism as much as an observation.

But James Emery White is an exception to this generalization and is often on the leading edge of pressing cultural conversations. White is founding pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church–a congregation that claims 70% of its growth is from unchurched individuals–and a former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has written a new book, “Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated”, in which he explores why so many Americans are allergic to organized religion and what he thinks Christians can do to capture them.

Cover image courtesy of Baker Books

Cover image courtesy of Baker Books

RNS: The fastest growing religious group in America is those with no religious affiliation, the so-called “nones.” Why are so many walking away from church or unwilling to give it a chance?

JW: There are two dynamics at play. The first is the reality of being the first generation to live in a truly post-Christian context. The currents of secularization, privatization, and pluralization have taken their toll. Meaning, there is less of a supportive presence of Christian faith in the marketplace of ideas, spirituality is expected to be kept in our private worlds, and the idea that all faiths are equally valid and true permeates our psyche. But if you ask the “nones” themselves, they would give you another answer along the lines of “lawyers, guns and money.” By that, I mean the perception that Christians and churches are overly entangled with law and politics, filled with hateful intolerance and aggression, and consumed with materialism and greed.

RNS: Many growing churches today are only experiencing transfer growth–that is, Christians moving from one church to another. You argue that this is a problem of evangelism. What are we doing wrong?

JW: This is a significant question, and again, several dynamics are at play. First, too many churches consider transfer growth a kingdom win. They see the church down the street as the competition. Second, in terms of evangelism itself, too many churches are operating as if they are speaking to the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem (Acts 2) instead of to the agnostics on Mars Hill (Acts 17). An Acts 2 approach in an Acts 17 world is doomed to fail. Finally, there is a culture of spiritual narcissism pervading many church communities. So people talk about going where they are “fed,” can be “ministered to,” and where they get something “out” of the worship experience (as if they are the focus of worship). This consumer mindset will inevitably resist doing what it takes to reach out to the “nones.”

RNS: At your own church, 70% of growth represents those who are unchurched. What’s your secret to success?

JW: The short answer is that we have always kept the mission of reaching the unchurched in the vanguard of our church’s life. Strategies come and go and change with time and culture. The secret is our DNA, the mindset that we exist not for ourselves, but for the person who has yet to come. From this, people have a deep sense of the responsibility of reaching out and inviting their unchurched friends.

Following this–and only this–come the various strategies and approaches informed by a keen understanding that we live in a post-Christian context. This really does change everything. My teaching assumes no background knowledge, no known Christian “code” words, and even less the assumption that they will agree with what I have to say. I view almost every talk as contending for the faith. If you are on Mars Hill, you realize that evangelism is both process and event. I find most churches are barely aware of the process leading to the event, and therefore spend little time helping people on that part of the journey.

RNS: A lot of pastors I know live insulated lives, only engaging socially with other Christians. Is part of the problem that church leaders don’t have more personal relationships with those outside the church?

JW: Most definitely. Not only do most Christians, and Christian leaders, have few non-Christian friends, they don’t even view non-Christians warmly. Subtly or not, they are seen as the enemy. It’s as if they perceive the world to be in two camps: on the one side, you have the pro-family, Christian-radio-listening, fish-sticker wearing, Tebow-loving, Bible-carrying types against the left-leaning, evolution-believing, gay-marriage-supporting, “Fifty Shades of Grey”-reading pagans. When you divide the world like that, and have an “us against them” mentality, you won’t have much happening in the realm of effective outreach. Christians will simply fall back into their holy huddles and give into condemnatory attitudes.

RNS: As we think about engaging with “nones,” what’s the felt need? What are they wanting that we might be able to provide?

JW: Several things come immediately to mind. First, they want authentic community. Second, they want to be part of a “cause” or “mission” that is larger than they are and helps them make a difference with their life. Third, they want to believe in God, but need help–interestingly, perhaps more with God’s character than His existence. They’re asking, “Is God really good?” Fourth, when it comes to following Christ, or following anyone/anything, they want to know how it will intersect the deepest needs of their life. And finally, though they are not often in touch with it on the surface, they crave the forgiveness and restoration of a relationship with God.  This means the twin dynamics of truth and grace.  People make the mistake of believing that in our culture’s rejection of truth, it has lost its hunger for it. In reality, truth and grace–together, not separate–remain their deepest longing.

23 Comments

  1. “spirituality is expected to be kept in our private worlds, and the idea that all faiths are equally valid and true permeates our psyche.”

    I think the main problem is while pastor finds things to be bad for spreading his faith, the rest of society finds them conducive to a civil and peaceful culture.
    The idea that all faiths are equally valid and true is essential to things like religious freedom, avoiding sectarian conflict and being civil to one another in a pluralistic society. Such things are not in the agenda of a church seeking to proselytize.

    There is obviously more concern of “collecting souls” than contributing to a society where one has to interact, deal with, and show a modicum of respect to people who don’t necessarily share your views.

    • Essentially because people choose a certain religion means they think it retain more proposition truth. . . .Just to sterilize all religions under the phrase “all faiths are equally valid and true is essential” is essentially against propositional truth because not all can be true. Yes, gather truth from all religions, but people will finally land on one, because they believe it to be closer to the truth that they have found in their life. I say this just to give you a heads up as to why this thinking isn’t going to promote unity around mutual respect for all people, no matter what religion they find themselves in (if you do find a religion that believes this most closely by actions and not just words, than that’s the religion for you).

  2. samuel Johnston

    Preachers like James White depend on their audience being uninformed.
    ” ..truth and grace–together, not separate–remain their deepest longing.”
    This is the theory of “needs driven” religion. It is a sort of neo-platonic argument that if a need exists, then it will be met (by God presumably). The trouble is that it is neither Christian doctrine, nor true.

  3. Another great article from Jonathan Merritt – Thanks!

    So important:
    “Not only do most…Christian leaders, have few non-Christian friends, they don’t even view non-Christians warmly.”

    Despite my constant tirades against religion,
    I have tremendous sympathy and affection for Preachers.

    We must forgive them – THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO!

      • @Doc,

        I may be a hypocrite. I need to work through this.
        Though I hate religion furiously, I cannot bring myself to be cruel or furious toward Priests, Christians or Muslims themselves.

        Most Priests are such good people. Their stories often break my heart.
        Many pursued Jesus because they believed – as I once did – and it is tied up in emotions. They wanted to do good, preach LOVE and dedicate their lives to it.
        How can I hate that? I cannot! I want to reach out to them and let them know I understand when they feel doubts and that it is okay. I care about them very much.

        Only a cruel, unloving person could hate a Priest who sacrificed so much to dedicate his life to such an idea.

        Unfortunately, as many Priests discover, Christianity is incredibly divisive.
        It is a disaster of contradictions:
        Hell is horrible and makes no sense.
        One cannot preach love and “excuse God” from his Old Testament cruelty.
        Jesus is clearly an Apocalyptic preacher and poorly reverse-engineered to fit Judaism as the Gospel of Matthew reveals embarrassingly.

        I don’t condescend to Christians, Pastors or Priests. I’m NOT smarter than them.
        But when someone says “I just have to keep this faith” they are copping out. Because Muslims, Zionists, Hindus and Aztec Murderers say the same thing and it can’t all be validated as true based on ‘faith’.

        And though I can love people, care deeply about them and will do whatever I can to help if I can be of service, it is hopeless if someone decides I must go to Hell for my lack of faith. That is an unnecessary wall between people – and it Makes me hate religion even more.

        • Understood. If I had only known a Christian faith that consigned people to hell — I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. Fortunately I learned early on that universalism was a powerful stream running through the history of Christendom, (not the only one, but it is one) and I chose to follow it.

  4. I really appreciated the reminder to watch out for spiritual narcissism. It’s easy to drift from church to church without settling on a community because I’m so consumed with how each doesn’t perfectly fit my needs. As a sexual minority already timid about making myself vulnerable to other Christians, it’s just another reason to keep running. What I need to extend to the church, and what churches need to extend to outsiders or “nones” like me, is grace to struggle together in the tensions within our communities.

  5. I think I’m rather glad we are living in what people are calling a post-Christian society, if what we meant by Christian society was one where people felt the need to conform outwardly to a populist idea of what Christianity must be, but without inward personal conviction of belonging to Jesus.

    It’s like C.S. Lewis said about doing away with mandatory chapel services at university: those who believe and desire to attend will still do so, while those who do not believe will not be forced into an act of conforming hypocrisy.

    Cheers,
    Tim

      • I’d go back all the way to then 1st Century, Shawnie. Both Paul and John mentioned them in their letters, and of course Jesus himself had some strong words about this in Matthew 25. What a mess!

  6. This business about wanting to know about God’s character, asking “is God really good?” is so very important today because the fundamentalist churches have brow-beat the public narrative on God for so long. They have made God out to be a bloodthirsty ogre who is incapable or unwilling to forgive us for breaking “his” precious law unless someone or something dies. So, Jesus died to save us from this angry god.

    This is heresy and I am trying to get the word out by getting a manuscript published that is geared toward the very people he is talking about. It’s a short book that dives right to the heart of the problem in a way anyone can follow and understand. I wrote it for those with no theology training or knowledge of the Bible. You can read the first three chapters and if you like it, please vote once each day. If I win this contest, the book will get published: https://www.crowdscribed.com/challenges/48

  7. I note that his church is in Charlotte, NC. I wonder what it means to even talk about the “unchurched” there or anywhere in the Bible belt. Are they people you might find in other parts of the country who have had no experience of the Christian church? Who never went to Sunday school, and whose parents are agnostics? I am particularly interested in what is meant by the “unchurched” who would be comfortable with a pastor who has signed the Manhattan Declaration — and therefore made conservative public stands on abortion and same-sex marriage. At the very least these are cultural conservatives, not the cosmopolitan 21st century equivalent of the crowd on Mars Hill. I suspect these are “cultural Christians,” who for one reason or another weren’t attending church anywhere before they came to his church.

  8. The statement: Not only do most…Christian leaders, have few non-Christian friends, they don’t even view non-Christians warmly.” is totally bogus. I think it is exactly the opposite, m

  9. Craig A. Miller

    The late Harold Camping had it somewhat
    correct,1988 judgement begins with the house of GOD,Church age finished,1st watch,1994 second watch,2011 third watch,now the world has been warned ,now comes Christ as a thief,fourth watch, spoken about in matthew,n mark !

  10. Craig A. Miller

    Hel is not what weve imagined,fire n brimstone, forever n ever! Its where you cease to exist ,no eternal life with God,no rememberance of this world and even being,loss of birthright,n kingdom of god ! No suffering,hell is the grave !!!!!!

  11. Craig A. Miller

    Matthew 24 vs 43 thru51
    Luke12 vs. 37 thru 45
    Revelation 16 vs. 15
    Mark 6 vs. 47 48
    Matthew 14 vs. 23 thru 25
    What is God talking about a watch here for??? Because his children will only see and hear and be watching n ready ,can it ne October of this year,? Much more scripture points to it being aware to those whose faith is Christs faith,he is faithful and true,only can be ONE truth ,who has it???? Gods Will Be Done,His Kingdom Come .

  12. Craig A. Miller

    Just as God brought judgement on synogogues n temples ,no longer using them as external represention of kingdom of God,so as of 1988 did same thing to churches,satan is loosed for a little season,God allows him to rule in every church on planet earth,Holy Spirit taken out, I will be worshipped as God,I will rule above the stars of God,I will sit in the temple of God,for that day will not come until the great FALLING AWAY,judgement day !

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