Home > Church > putting ‘unchurched’ to death?

putting ‘unchurched’ to death?

Unchurched-LogoHere is my suggestion.

Let’s put ‘unchurched’ to death.

The demographic category, not the people.

Its the “un” part of the term that bothers me, its the “churched” part.

Since when was it a good idea to make church into a verb, as in “looks like Jonathan finally went and got himself churched” or “If only Susie would walk down the street and get churched . . .”

unchurched-strobelI mean, do we really want church to be a verb?  Is that really the language we want to interact with as Christians?

Do we want to embrace categories like “churched”, “unchurched”, “rechurched”, “postchurched”, “prechurched”, “quasichurched, or “wanna-churched”?

While I understand the original point of “trying to understand the unchurched”, I think that processing the mission of the church in proclaiming the gospel by using such categories is ultimately self-defeating.

If our efforts are focused on “decoding the unchurched” or “getting inside the mind of the unchurched” . . . are we not at the very least implying that our goal is to church the unchurch?

Is that our goal?

unchurched-rainerBiblically, does the verb “to church” or the adjective “the churched” best describe the type of people we want to partner in local bodies of gospel believing Christians?

Will the world we live in by shaken to its core by thousands and millions of “churched” people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation?

Can we just put this way of thinking to death?  Can we oust the “unchurched”?

. . . . . . .

If you answer “yes” to this question, what would you choose to replace “churched” and “unchurched” in the lexicon of Christian missiology?

. . . . . . .

Note: the inclusion of the book covers above is not intended to mock the contents of the books as much as it is to point out the prevalence of the “unchurched” phraseology.  I am sure than these books are helpful contributions to gospel proclamation.

  1. logsatm04
    June 16, 2009 at 10:40 am

    My only question to you is can you separate a Christian from the church? I agree that we do not want people to be “churched” in a sense that means all they do is church, all they are is a Christian in a bubble that doesn’t interact with the world.

    But the gospel calls people into the church. Jesus came to build His church, so in a sense, our evangelism is working to make people the church. Is that “churching” people?

    We kind of push back (me included) against people working to get people to church when we should obviously give them the gospel first, but how terrible would it be to separate the gospel from the church in any measure?

    I just have an idealistic hope for the church that it would become a place where the gospel and mission of Jesus are held as primary and people evangelize together, worship and read scripture together and that a body works for the transformation of people and the cities they live in.


  2. June 16, 2009 at 11:34 am

    ultimately I don’t think that you can separate the Christian from the church. If we try to do that we are going to make an absolute mess of understanding the New Testament. Paul speaks with great force that the church is the place where God’s manifold wisdom is being made known to the world – which is absolutely incredible (Ephesians 3)

    The troubling thing about the “unchurched” language is that, by my reading of it, the term was created to refer to those who have not grown up in a traditional church environment – they are unbelieving people with no predispositions towards traditional Christianity.

    If that is what an “unchurched” person is, if these people are the people evangelicals are trying to figure out, I don’t know how helpful the language is as a primary identifier of their spiritual condition.

    I think it may say more about the culture of the people who are trying to “figure out the unchurched” than it does about the “unchurched” persons themselves.

    I am inclined to think this is biblical: “I just have an idealistic hope for the church that it would become a place where the gospel and mission of Jesus are held as primary and people evangelize together, worship and read scripture together and that a body works for the transformation of people and the cities they live in.”

    I am concerned that determining the “churchedness” (or lack therof) of those we seek to see trust in Christ and join in the kind of mission you verbalized is more of a distraction than a contribution towards those ends.

    • logsatm04
      June 16, 2009 at 12:41 pm

      Thanks for bringing out the definition. That would label me as one of those unchurched. I completely agree with you.

      Jason, I currently reside in a church I love, the Austin Stone community Church. But I also run is circles that discuss/debate the house church vs. megachurch and there is a general pushback on church as an answer to people’s problems. It just appears many disconnect community from Christianity. Our sermons, our classes, books, all seem to focus on an individual improving their condition instead of improving your condition as part of a community seeking to the same through Christ.

  3. Jason
    June 16, 2009 at 11:54 am


    I want to comment on your last paragraph. I hope your idealistic hope becomes a reality in your local context if it isn’t already. (I couldn’t tell from your comment, it was just worded in a way that read as though you were frustrated). True, “we” or our own local community of believers will never look “ideal” or “perfect.” But you described the church, and for all it’s blemishes and less than ideal modes, I still believe this is the true church in America. It’s still alive, real, and connected to the vine, just as Jesus said it would be.

    It’s a good point that we can’t separate christians from the church. I think Lee makes a point though, this “unchurched” term is probably not most helpful. It’s confusing for all the reasons listed in the post, and I’ll even throw another one in there – could the authors be targeting “unchurched” as meaning christians not connected to a church? Which goes back to our original problem – christians are in sin if they are separated. I’m assuming they’re using the definition of those who don’t love and claim Jesus as their Lord.

    I would propose using the language I see in the Bible – lost, blind, etc. I almost wonder what the intention or definition of the word is for these authors. It was no mistake they used this term instead of “lost, blind.”

    On the other hand, these folks might have a problem with a rally against the term “churched….” http://www.churchs.com/index.html

  4. Brandon
    June 16, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    William Lee,

    I agree with you. I never understood it in the first place, though I’ve used the term many times. It’s always been one of those things I’ve “said-but-not-really-understood” sort of terms.

    I resonate with the desire to stop using it, too. Here’s my reason: The church is a people built by the gospel, the church is not the gospel. So I feel like if we’re going to use any verb, we should use “gospeled” or “ungospeled” — or something like that. People are not saved by trusting in the church, they’re saved by trusting in Christ.

    The language of “churched” or “unchurched” sounds like we’re making Jesus’ people the center of our message, instead of Jesus himself. Additionally, we can look at the south and say, “Wow. The south is really ‘churched’.” But the South is in bad shape — it has become largely culturally-Christian; that is, southern culture is merely infused with Christian ideas and terminology. But in many areas of the “churched” South, the gospel is absent.

    So…there. I won’t say anymore. Good topic to discuss.

    • June 16, 2009 at 1:44 pm

      i completely agree with your assessment of the South – namely that being “churched” has not done much more good for the salvation of many Southerners than being “unchurched” has for people in other regions.

  5. nateandhan
    June 16, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Lee, great post. This was very thought provoking and I agree about being careful with using the church as a verb. I am going to have to chew the fat a little more on this one before I can say anything else.

  6. nateandhan
    June 16, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Go Lakers.

    • June 16, 2009 at 2:02 pm

      do you even have a soul?

      let me guess, Kobe is your favorite baller and you never miss A-Rod and the Yankees?

  7. June 17, 2009 at 6:50 am

    I’ve never liked the terms “churched” and “unchurched” and I think to those who don’t understand what it really means, it can sound sort of negative, turning them some people away even more than they already were.

    Also, I grew up going to church but that didn’t make me a Christian, that came later and not because of church but rather Jesus Himself. Great post!

  8. June 17, 2009 at 12:20 pm


    Good question. I know I’m late weighing in on this question, but I still want to get in on the discussion. I really appreciate Logan’s question about separating Christians from the church and Brandon’s comment about the gospel, not the church, being the main issue.

    But I don’t think that the term ‘unchurched’ is necessarily a bad term. It ought not to be a primary category (i.e. the two main categories of people are not ‘churched’ and ‘unchurched’), but it can be a helpful sub-category. For example, there is a difference between how you might seek to reach a lost person who has never been to church and a lost person who grew up in church. One is ‘unchurched’ the other ‘churched’ but neither has the gospel. With the ‘unchurched’ you don’t assume anything in your gospel presentation, while with the ‘churched’ you might. Its similar (but barely – I recognize there a vast differences) to how Paul preached to Jews vs. how he preached to Gentiles. With Jews he assumed an knowledge of the OT, with Gentiles he did not even assume they knew the basics about the nature of God. But even in the NT Jew and Gentile are not primary categories, they are sub-categories (at least in the instance cited below) used to describe different kinds of lost people (see 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 where Jews and Gentiles are two different kinds of lost people who respond negatively to the gospel for different reasons and believers are designated as ‘those who are called’).

    Now, to be fair, this may not be how the literature you mentioned uses the term. If not, perhaps what is needed is a redefintion rather than a removal of the term altogether.

    Agree, disagree?

    • June 18, 2009 at 8:33 am

      Agree, for the most part.

      The main point I am trying to get across in this post is exactly what you suggest when you say “it ought not be a primary category” but I am a bit hesitant on retaining the term as a subcategory. I am not “locked in” to that position, but I am pretty certain that I will refrain from using the term.

      Here’s my thinking behind that.

      Right now I am reading a book, distinctively Southern Baptist and distinctly from the 70s, that periodically uses the term “unchurched” by asking questions like “do the statistics on the numbers of unchurched persons reflect an adequate challenge to start a new church?”

      This is a fine question if by “unchurched” you mean “people who are unchanged by the gospel and unreached by biblical gospel-believing local churches” . . . but I don’t know if the term communicates that meaning, in actuality.

      This ambiguity concerns me. When I talk about church planting or missions to unreached people groups, I don’t want the issue of “church exposure” to be first and foremost on people’s minds . . . I want gospel-faith (as seen in profession and transformation) to be the primary issue they are looking for.

      In this book I am reading (“Planting New Churches” by Jack Redford), he suggests a script for taking neighborhood surveys:

      “Good morning. We are taking a church community survey. Could you spare a moment to complete a card on your family? (Without a pause) Where does your family attend church? Do all of you go there? . . .”

      He goes on to stress the important of not lingering for conversation once the survey is complete.

      But I want people to linger, to talk about the gospel, to try to understand if the person they are speaking to loves Jesus and follows him . . . and if they are shepherded by a local church.

      I want them to be evangelists who realize that the central issue in church planting, in missions, in everything, is faith in the gospel . . . not past or present church attendance.

      Can there be some benefit to incorporating “churched” and “unchurched” as subcategories, I can see that, but that is not the flag I think we need to be waving.

      . . . . . . .

      So, as it turns out, it looks like I agree completely with your thinking on the issue.

      Love you bro, thanks for putting your thoughts out there.

      • June 18, 2009 at 1:25 pm

        Thank you brother for your reply. I completely agree that “unchurched vs churched” is not the flag we need to be waving.

        I appreciate the thoughtfulness you encourage and model on your blog.

        Love you too brother.

  9. Jason
    June 17, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Matt – strong argument. I can’t really disagree with using the term in that sense.

  10. Brandon
    June 17, 2009 at 7:22 pm


    I think it’s definitely a question of defining what the term means. I would assume the material Lee is reading, as well as the material I’ve read, comes from church-planting books. In such literature, the need for planting is usually expressed this way: “The Northeast and the Northwest are the two most unchurched regions of the United States. Therefore, we need to go there.” The implication is that the problem is those regions are unchurched, and the solution is that we make them churched. This is the sense in which it probably needs to be rejected.

    Around church-planting folk, this term is thrown around like a disc at a frisby golf tournament, and there’s not much qualification. It quickly becomes ambiguous lingo.

    Thanks for jumping in on this.

  11. June 17, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    Yeah, let’s drop the word “church” all together. That would include all the “un’s” and the “ed’s”. How about words like “gathering”, “meeting”, “hang” etc. Most people out there that don’t know Jesus, don’t want anything to do with “church” anyways.
    Church as we know it is changing big time. Praise God!
    P.S. I am not against meeting together. We need too and should. However, it is long over due for a change. This goes without saying.


    • June 18, 2009 at 7:50 am


      Flipping through your blog real quick, I sense a pronounced love for the gospel and the proclamation of Christ and him crucified. I see a desire to make Jesus known, to herald the truth that it is only by Christ’s sacrifice that we can be reconciled to God. Praise our Lord for your earnest hunger to make him known.

      That said, I hope that my post about dropping “unchurched” as the go-to missiological term for church planting and Western missions did not send you the message that I fear it did from your quick comment above.

      As beat up, broken, and troubled as it may be, the Church and our local churches are indispensable.

      In your passion to make Christ known, I hope that you remember that your biggest ally, your God-ordained non-negotiable friend, is his Holy Spirit filled and Gospel loving church.

      How else can we explain these two passages from Ephesians 3?

      “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.” (v.8-12)

      “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (v.20-21)

      According to these passages it was the eternal purpose of God to display the abundance of his wisdom through the foolish people he has called together to be the church. It is in the church that He is making his mystery, the mystery of the gospel, known to the world.

      “To him be glory in the church and in Jesus Christ”


  12. June 20, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    Thanks. And yes, I am loving Jesus more and more. There is nothing like making Him known to those who are dieing.
    As far as “church” goes, we must remember what it is. It’s not a building or a group of people. It is those that are his children and have put Him first above all else. So in a group of people, there may be some who are really disciples of Christ. “Not every on who says, Lord, Lord will enter in” He alone knows. His word lets us know where we might stand.
    Blessings to you as you experiance His church,

  1. June 17, 2009 at 12:39 pm

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