I asked one woman who was about to be baptized, "How long have you been coming here to church?"
"Two years," she said.
"When did you meet the Lord?"
"Two weeks ago."
I was intrigued. After the service I looked for her and asked, "You have to tell me: Were you here every week for two years, or once a year, or what?"
"I came almost every week."
"And you just received Christ last week?"
"I don't want to make you feel bad," I said, "but why did you wait so long?"
"My family started out Christian and kind of broke up. I've had three abortions and drug problems. I attended one of the church musicals with a friend, and she brought me to the worship services. I had heard this was a place where I would be loved for who I am. But it took me a while to believe it."
In America, unchurched people who come to Christ usually go through a long "preconversion phase." We find most visitors attend at least four outreach events before they come to one regular service. This preconversion phase may last a year to two and be marked by sporadic attendance.
Why? When unchurched people walk into our building, they're at a different starting point than the unchurched of fifty years ago. The truly unchurched are thoroughgoing relativists, having taken pluralism to its absurd limit, and cannot perceive how Scripture could be authoritative in their lives.
They need a safe and often long preconversion stage, in which they build confidence in the church, establish the authority of Scripture, and cement relationships. We have to honor that phase. Unchurched people today distrust the church, and they need to come and just watch for a while.
The biggest difference between a church successful in outreach and one that is not is willingness to begin with people, and patience with them during the preconversion phase.
Over the years we have put much prayer, research, and trial and error into helping people overcome the high hurdles between them and the Christian faith.
Focus On Bringers and Includers
Getting unchurched people to an outreach event isn't all that hard. But getting them to regularly attend a worship servicethat's hard.
At Eastside Church, we sponsor support groups and twelve-step programs, hold a Christian arts and jazz festival, and put on musicals and seasonal events at Christmas and Easter. We have always been able to muster a crowd for such outreach events. But getting someone to a special event is one thing; getting him or her to a church service is another.
A church will fail if it tries to assimilate today's unchurched person only through events and programs. The effective glue is relationshipsfriends bringing friends and including them in church life. Research has shown that of ten people who visit a church and stay, nine were brought by a friend.
We invest the bulk of our time and money not in advertising but in helping our people bring and include their friends (rather than evangelism we use the phrase bringing and including).
At least four times a year, we hand out a bringing-and-including packet. It includes training tapes on how to include your friend in a small group or an outreach event (which we call bringer-and-includer services). The packet includes cards to give to friends; each card lists service times and shows a map to church.
We also survey our people: "What would your friends be most disposed to come hear?" Several times a year we use those results to create messages geared toward people without church experience. One sermon series on the family, for example, targeted the unchurched. We assumed hearers were unconvinced about God's plan for the family, so we explained and illustrated why God's plan works. In such an outreach sermon, we begin with our culturea contemporary song or current filmand work toward the Bible, ending with exposition.