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August 19, 2009Leadership

Should We Really Listen to the Unchurched?

The most recent issue of Outreach Magazine is out. If you are a subscriber, you have already seen it... but if not, let's get that going!

In this issue, my column asks a simple question, "Should We Really Listen to the Unchurched?"

I am always fascinated by the blog comments I receive from people who say, "We don't need to do research, just read the Bible." Now, I am one who wants people to read the Bible a lot more, but it seems that when you read that Bible you find examples of people like Paul: seeking to understand the culture as they reach it.

I do think that sometimes people listen too much to the culture and have written about that on many occasions. Sometimes people over-contextualize. But, usually the ones who object to listening to the culture and contextualization are, well, the ones who often need to do both.

So, here is my column in the most recent issue.

Should We Really Listen to the Unchurched?

Everybody listens to someone. As parents, we teach our children to listen and comply with what we tell them. As employees, we follow the guidance of those in authority over us.

However, as ministry leaders, we may wonder from whom we should take our instruction. Our theology tells us to look to God, but can we also find any insight listening to people outside the Church?

In our latest LifeWay Research book, Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches That Reach Them (B&H), we studied young adults' views of religion, spirituality and the Church. We used those findings to provide instruction and examples of how best to connect this generation to God and church.

As good as research can be, some question the idea of doing this type of analysis, saying we're surveying the wrong crowd. Let's agree on this: God, through His Word and the work of the Holy Spirit, is the unequivocal authority on ministry and church. But the next questions are: "Do the beliefs of the unchurched really have value? Should their ideas and perspectives inform our evangelistic strategy?" Here is my answer to both: YES.

A Hopeful Response

I believe that God is honored when we listen to the longings of the unchurched because it is mercy and mission that compel us to listen. We pay attention to the longings of the lost because we care for them (mercy) and desire to make the Gospel known to them as clearly as possible (mission). Knowing the people we hope to reach allows us to better address their concerns, articulate the truth and apply the Gospel.

Some believe this generation is disinterested in the things of God and thus, demand the Church alter its beliefs and mission. Our research indicates quite the opposite.

A Spiritual Generation

Spiritual interest is high among the younger generation. Although being spiritual does not always equate with being religious, only 18 percent said they were neither spiritual nor religious.

A majority (81 percent) of younger unchurched adults in America believe that God or a higher supreme being exists. Research also shows, that the theological beliefs of unchurched people in their 20s are closer to historic Christianity than the beliefs of older unchurched generations.

Young adults certainly are more interested in Christianity than many think. Almost 90 per- cent of the unchurched in their 20s would be willing to listen

if someone wanted to tell them about Christianity. Three out of 5 would be willing to study the Bible if a friend asked them.

Asking the Church to Be the Church

Our data showed that the younger unchurched see Christianity as relevant and viable, but more about organized religion than loving God and people. They believe the Church is full of hypocrites and is unnecessary for spiritual development.

However, much of what they are looking for can be found in God and His Church. Our churches should be embodying authentic community, a life of depth, a responsibility to serve others and the desire to connect with other generations. Our research revealed these are the very things that the younger unchurched deemed important.

The younger unchurched don't need us to re-create our message to accommodate their needs. Rather, what they are often seeking is what we need to be doing for the Church to actually be the Church.

Ed Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research (LifeWayResearch.com) and co-author (with Richie Stanley and Jason Hayes) of Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches That Reach Them (B&H). You'll find Ed's research blog at OutreachMagazine.com.

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Should We Really Listen to the Unchurched?