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Reflections on the Word "Unchurched"

I think that one of the oddest words in the Christian lexicon is the word unchurched. Have you heard someone use this word? Usually it's spoken by pastors or church leaders talking about the people they want to save. At some point in the 1980s somebody decided that terms like unsaved, unbeliever, non-Christian, sinner and hell-bound pagan were offensive to the people they described. So they came up with the term unchurched in order to have a nice way of talking about people who are not Christians.

This fascinates me. Who decides when new words get to be made up? It seems like a pretty big deal. Was it a group effort? How long did they brainstorm? Did they have a whiteboard? And what were the other options? They could have chosen unchristianed or unjesused.

I don't know who came up with unchurched, but personally, I think it's kind of lame. If you're the person who thought of it, I hope you're not offended. And I hope you've gotten royalties from all the times people have used your word. (I owe you a couple bucks just for the last few paragraphs.)

The problem I have with the word unchurched is that it conveys the idea that what people really need isn't salvation so much as getting "churched." And what the heck does that mean?

Think about this for a minute. How do you church someone? How many times do you have to go to church before you're churched? Once? Twice? A month? A year? Is it something you feel? When you're being churched do you know that it's happening? Does it tingle? And can you be churched but still not be a Christian? Does it matter what you believe? For example, can you be an avowed atheist and still get churched? Wouldn't that probably really tick an atheist off? And then how many meetings do you have to skip before you become unchurched again? Or is it a "once churched always churched" kind of deal?

These are the questions that keep me up at night.

The above is a random scrap from my work on a chapter about the church for my new book. I doubt it will make the chapter so I thought I'd post it here. Please forgive the strange ramblings of a deadline-twisted mind. If you think of it, please pray for me. I have to finish in the next six weeks.

Comments (24)

Are you sure that's the reason the word 'unchurched' was coined?

It can be a helpful word to distinguish between 'churched' and 'unchurched' unbelievers. The latter will usually need a lot of background before the gospel even makes sense.

However, point taken that without some cautions and definitions it may be unhelpful.

The way I've heard it used, it is to refer to those people who are unbelievers and did not grow up in or around church. Sort of a caution not to assume knowledge of God and Christianity in the unbeliever.

Once churched, always churched? Sounds like a debate brewing. Thanks Josh, a good laugh to end the day!

It's a shorthand way of how much prior knowledge to assume. My collogues use it in children's work (as well as other things, like "parents aren't Christian" and so on). I use the opposite concept of "churched", though not the exact word, in international ministry (where no prior knowledge is assumed and mostly the case).

The children in the Sunday school I help with mostly know rather a lot, the "unchurched" children know a lot less, and much of that rather warped. I think that, while the word itself isn't that good, the concept of having a short-hand way of saying lots of things about prior-knowledge and so on is really useful, to help guide you when with these kids.

It's a really useful thing to know in both those ministries. It's not, perhaps, exactly the best way of putting it, but it's short and to the point and full of information. You have to deal with them differently, just as you have to deal with Theology graduates differently to your average lay man, when it come to evangelising them.

It is rather general and perhaps misleading (is the aim to have people "churched" or saved?) but it's a useful bit of information to know, to convey to others. I'd express the same thing in a slightly different way, and I'll agree the word is misused over in America, however a sweeping condemnation of the word isn't right.

It's clearly better to spell it out and explain where each individual is at, however saying something like "Tom, Dick and Harry aren't church-kids" is helpful for those who don't help with kids stuff at church on Sunday, just with the socialising/outreach stuff at other times.

Likewise saying that "Bob and Fred have a church background" in international work is helpful as it's a different evangelism strategy - it's tweaking information, making sure it's right, and getting it to impact hearts, rather than delivering a load of information. It is, IMV, no different to saying "such and such is a Muslim", as it both gives a framework for knowing roughly where they are at and some information for prayer rather quickly.

I guess I fall in the hate the word, love the concept category.

The terms "churched" and "unchurched" wreak of sacerdotalism, the thinking that salvation is communicated through the instrumentality of the church, confusing salvation by the gospel with salvation through churching. I join your distaste of the terms, Josh. They are unhelpful to theology, evangelism, and sadly hint at the wrong idea all those within the church are converted. Thanks for this post!

What does one do about a "churched" person who was part of some cult like the JW's or the Mormons? Because although they have been churched, they have been taught wrongly about the Bible. Does one call them "mischurched"?

Then again, does "mischurched" imply that they have missed out on the right services by going to the wrong ones, sometimes through the fault of their parents?

Oh, c'mon...leave it in the book. ;-)

"Please forgive the strange ramblings of a deadline-twisted mind."

If I thought it was awesome does that mean I have a "twisted mind" too??? Hahaha

I will totally pray for you bro.

BTW, My new favorite is "gospelized"(or I guess "ungospelized" as the case may be).

Excellent post! Personally, I think that it is because of this term that many people sitting in the pew think that they are saved, simply because they go to church. How many of us have asked someone if they are saved and gotten the response,"Well, I go to church..." ? Works do not get us into heaven,Christ does.

You seem to enjoy words. I do too. This is a good study. Thanks for making me do it this morning. I think the word "churched" or "unchurched" is more referring to the REAL church....like these verses:
Matthew 16:18
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Matthew 18:17
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Acts 5:11
Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Acts 8:1
And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. [ The Church Persecuted and Scattered ] On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Acts 8:3
But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
Acts 9:31
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.
Acts 11:19
[ The Church in Antioch ] Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.
Acts 20:28
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
Romans 16:4
They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.
I LOVE THIS ONE>>>>>>>> Romans 16:5
Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.
Romans 16:16
Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings.
1 Corinthians 1:2
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ--their Lord and ours:
1 Corinthians 5:12
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?
1 Corinthians 10:32
Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God--
Ephesians 1:22
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,
AND THIS IS LOVELY!...............
Ephesians 3:10
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,
Ephesians 5:23
For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.
1 Timothy 3:15
if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
Hebrews 12:23
to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect,
3 John 1:10
So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
Revelation 22:16
"I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star."
So...........I don't have a hard time with calling believers the church.
I think I get your meaning though about the POSSIBLE political correctness of the word 'unchurched'. I am HOPING the initial original meaning was true....truly meaning those outside of the BODY OF CHRIST. ( I would be curious to know when this word came into use in the church?)
I personally think you are wasting paper and ink to go off on it.
I am glad you deleted that part from your book.
Trust in the Lord concerning your deadlines etc.
His will be done....on earth as it is in Heaven.
Mrs. RBC
PS. It WOULD be interesting to study what God calls unbelievers in the NT. I am not sure how to go about finding that, besides reading through the whole NT and writing my own book! Hmmmmmmm........ Maybe when the kids are gone!

I don't know how serious you are about this but I have to say that I had a good laugh as I was reading it.
I too find it interesting to ponder such things. For example:
Can someone be "churched" and never enter a church building? Believers are after all the church not the building so it only stands to reason that if we "the church" go out into the world and "church" the "unchurched" than they become the "churched". Right?
Anyway, thanks for the laugh and the thoughts.

Related is this from James MacDonlad in an '07 sermon. I love to hear MacDonald talk about terms that irritate him...

"There are a whole lot of religious people in the churches of America. Just going to church--"My dad did this, I do this..."
But, are you saved? Are you really saved? I seldom talk to someone that I've never met before, without saying to them, "Have you given your life to Christ? Are you saved?" And use biblical terms. Down with "are you a seeker," "are you pre-converted," "are you unreached..." ARE YOU LOST? How's that? "Are you lost?" I'm going to think that God's not upset about the Bible. I think that he likes his terms. I'm going to stick with those. "If you're lost, you need to be...found." "If you're unsaved, you need to be...saved." You need to be forgiven. You need Jesus Christ in your life...This is nothing we want to mince words about. I don't want to be clever about this, I want to be CLEAR about it.

I never thought much about that word before, but that was hilarious! It deserves to make it into your book.

This post threw me off. It's not the humble, gracious Josh I'm used to hearing. I didn't realize it was suppose to be funny till I read the comments. Maybe I'm the only one who made that mistake, but I thought I'd say something in case there are similar sounding sections in your new book. I know you know how easy it is for people to take you wrong... Grace to you!

Josh! Amidst all your hard work, we are so glad you are having fun! We love the humor, the twisted-mind and your ability to love Jesus, the "Christians", "Psuedo-Christians" and the "Pre-Christians" i.e. the "Churched", "Unchurched" and "Mis-churched".

If nothing else - keep whatever humor God allows in the book! In these times all of us - whatever category or label we have, need the reminder that none of these circumstances have taken our God by surprise and He is not shaken!

Ross and Hilary

The way I've always used and heard the word used it's a "once churched always churched" kind of thing. Sadly, many people's only experience with the Bible has been being 'churched' -- no clear presentation of the Gospel, no explication of the doctrines of Grace, just churchy things.

I do find it helpful to understand if someone has a church background or not -- the term communicates nothing about their salvation. So I guess I don't think it's lame. The implication, actually, is that if a person or group is referred to as churched or unchurched, then they are likely not saved. At this point it is a fairly generation driven designation. There was a period in the 1980s where you had a more even mix of adults who had been 'churched' and those that were 'unchurched.' At this point the vast majority of the unregenerate in America are 'unchurched.'
I'm all for satirizing useless words into the dustbin ala Seinfield, but this is one I'll keep around for a little while longer.

It's not so bad. To some extent, the word 'unchurched' underscores how the onus on evangelizing is on us, the Christian community. I guess it depends on the meaning people give to church; definitely if you stick to mere 'physical church' it feels like a deplorable word to use.

I work in outreach ministry programs at my church. we use 'unchurched' to describe someone's prior knowledge and understanding of the Christian faith and practices.
Not anything to do with their salvation more to do with what level of knowledge we need to start with in discipling these people. No point in having a full on bible study with a lot of flicking to different passages if they've never picked up a bible etc.

90% of the youth at my church are 'unchurched' they call out jokes during the sermon, they get up and leave when they want, giggle through communion etc... not because they are rude just because they don't know that it's not how you behave in church... they are 'unchurched'.

I think "church" became a verb a few years after "school" did. We can use them in many of the same ways, like "Oh snap, you just got churched!"

The Barna group (who probably invented the word) defines unchurched as an adult (18 or older) who has not attended a Christian church service within the past six months


Great thoughts... I also balked at the word "unchurched" when I first heard it. But I've actually come to appreciate the term. To the extent that we believe that Christ calls us into community---and that life with Him implicates both an individual will and collective identity (i.e. the Church)---I think it can be a worthwhile term.

Like a lot of words that we come to use in an offhand way, I suppose it's a matter of perspective. If we mean lack of access to brick-and-mortar buildings and wooden pews when we say "unchurched," I think my response would be the same as yours. If we mean an antipathy to and lack of connection with the body of believers that Christ calls us to be, I think the word "unchurched" is pretty apt...

greetings from malaysia

church or unchurched...wow a good topic. i havent heard people talking abt unchurched..but just a little information for you.

there is one church tht i went to in spore that catergorize non believers as pre-christians. To have faith that those people would be saved as well...by the grace of God to act faith in it. they call their non-christian friends pre-christians.

just a thought. cant wait for another new book from you. God Bless.

Hey Josh,

I think that it is more a term that has importance recently because of so many so called Christians who love Jesus but not the Church.
I don't believe it is meant to be synonymous with salvation. I think it is actually meant sort of as discipled, because so many have grown tired of the Church due to its imperfection.
I believe it is more of an encouragement like "hey, I'm glad you have come to know Jesus, it is his desire in his Word that you work this thing out in community with a local body of believers."
So, I think it was a reaction to the current trend of bucking against the local church and still trying to live out sanctification.

Yep. Right on.

The last thing a lost guy needs is to be "churched". He needs Jesus.

And there are plenty of "churched" folks that need Him too.

Jesus did not come to seek and to save those who were not "churched".


I am glad I found this blog and your post on this misunderstood word "Unchurched" - I have always found it offensive and all often a condescending way for many self-righteous people to categorically express their disdain for anyone who doesn't go to church.

I love your take on this matter and do believe it is a very relevant topic - perhaps one that not only needs to be included in your up and coming book but one that in my opinion is deserving of a chapter by itself. In fact I'd like to see someone with your insight write a book on it because most of what is out there with that word in the title is just more of the same drivel aimed at Harry & Mary (with apologies to Lee Strobel) who aren't Christians.

I personally believe this is a very timely matter and one that needs addressing too in these uncertain times that resound of global conflict mirroring Scripture dealing with End Times prophecies and God's promises regarding the Church. Perhaps if nothing else it would serve to clarify a true definition of the phrase. Even more importantly you could shed some much needed light on a growing trend within the 'institution' of organized churches and denomination where a large group of Christians as well as unsaved seekers are becoming more and more turned off with what passes for 'church' and leaving the church on the corner and dissociating themselves from their denominations and or any group. Organized church denominations are up in arms that the increasing numbers of those who are doing this and they ask why. The Polls that circulate regarding this occurance are in no way representative of the who and why when they refuse to acknowledge that Christians are getting fed up with man's programs and corporate philosophies which are passed off as 'church' every Sunday morning all across America, be they Evangelicals, Fundimentalists, Charismatics or Classic Pentecostals, they are all feeling the draft as the door swings wide and people exit the building, never to return. Empty seats, pews and vaccant parking places speak the loudest when the offering plate is passed to collect those tithe checks and gifts of money that keep the electricity turned on. The 'churches' claim they are doing the work of the ministry in their churches when in fact if one reads the Bible, particularly the New Testament and searches for a resemblance of what the status quo particularly in the Westernized Christian churches have arrived at in America in the last 100 years, there is actually very little that even comes close to what the Early Church as reported in Acts of the Apostles as chronicled by Luke (as Part Two of his Gospel of Luke!) or what Paul or the other Apostles described in the epistles the make up the New Testament which is the New Covenant which in many ways remains yet a dynamic of God's relationship to man that has often been set aside for the religion of 'church' thus creating a type of 'Churchianity' and 'Religiousity' that doesn't include the finer points of the Covenant God struck with man thru the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, bought with the price of His sinless blood.

All too often 'churches' demand participatory enslavement as a form of works to prove ones dedication to the church that in turn reflects upon their relationship with God - according to their particular definition of 'works' which is all too often reduced to time and money, which in effect is interpreted and defined as attendance and tithes payed according to ones gross income. These are just two of the major factors that have turned Christians off from 'church' for years since the evolution of the organized church corporation philosophy regarding a paid pastor with a big building where folks who attend there are expected to pay the bills, keep the lights on, pay the pastor and meet his needs for him and his family. Which all trickles down (for those of you familiar with reverse Reaganomics) to leaders who run the denomination, a board of directors, on down to the guy who sweeps the mens room at the head offices. The long and short of all of this is many of not most don't concern themselves or are even aware of many of these factors but the facts are the churches have set themselves up for income for life in perpetuity until Jesus comes and when you factor Him back in to the picture the facts are the churches have not concerned themselves with the Great Commission in taking the Good News of the Gospel to every creature in all four corners of the world! The Lord's crops are white for the harvest and His barns are not filled and He is coming.

When? We don't know but it doesn't take a genius to see the glaring comparisons of today's newspaper headlines to the prophecies of old regarding the last days and the end times events around the time of the appearance of antichrist and the Second Coming of Christ - let alone the things that those who believe in the Rapture find in the Bible that are mirrored as well to their beliefs.

For way too many years now, decade after decade the churches have become so self-involved that they are irrelavant and impotent in the faith that once was preached and accepted. They've become money changers on the corner with a cross and a steeple that preach either one of two messages regarding money: a) that Christians can buy God by giving their money, especially tithes which are hammered on service after service as a duty to the Christian, demanding they pay that 10% of their gross each time the hat is passed OR b) that God wants to make all Christians healthy, wealthy and wise and the way to attain this is to pay that 10% tithe and then give over and above, and then give again until it hurts, and when you've given until you have no more to give then God is obligated to give back to you and He will make you rich on top of increasing your wisdom and divine health.

It's a Catch-22 in the Westernized churches of America in the mainstream denominations as well as the fring groups who either want to send you a bill to collect your tithes or they are a bad version of a Tony Robbins get rich scheme gone wild. The very fact that the churches have set themselves up as Tithing Collections Agencies and / or providing investment counceling via the pulpit is enough for me to envision Jesus, were He here among us, come in the flesh as He did 2000 years ago, He would certainly sit on a street corner and carefully, premeditatedley braid a cord with which to whip the money changers out of His Fathers House in almost any town in America with it's Main Street USA small church fellowship reflective of the large denomination in a community or the huge Mega-Church with the sprawling manicured landscape on the hillside in the inner city of one of our Metro areas, where He would go in and whip the pastor out of 'his' pulpit, turn over the chairs and dump the offering bags on the floor for the poor to scoop up and then chase out the false sacrificial animals made up of carnal deacons on the board and then declare that "My Father's house shall be a house of prayer!" Clearly that is a picture of modern day Temple defilement in todays misuse of money matters in the churches.

Where is the interaction of the Church via the churches to the lost in the community? They're not Unchurched, they're lost and don't know Jesus died for them, they don't know God loves them and they don't know Jesus! What do the churches do about the needs of their own people in their midst i.e. the widows, the fatherless and orphans, the infirm and handicapped? What about those who are absent from their fellowship because they're in jail or prison, or in some type of slavery (in bonds)? What about the needs of their own community in their own neighborhood? Do they help the homeless? Are church members taught to be an active part of the church body by sharing the Lord with others by testifying in the assembly and by sharing on the street with the lost in any kind of community outreach or are they just told to attend and pay they their monthly bill to the church that collects their 10%?

It's things like this that have ran many a church goer off from recognized, organized churches and their denominations who are more interested in crunching numbers and counting beans by keeping track of attendance and money instead of doing what Jesus asked of us. James the half brother of the Lord and the pastor of the church at Jerusalem made it clear that faith without works is in vain and in fact dead. Not once did he take an offering in his missel nor did he mention tithes. Instead he painted a picture of the Church at work doing the works of Jesus, but not one of them were spoken off as works that save but instead works that prove one is saved. These works are in fact love as an outgrowth of faith and this faith exresses itself by giving to others in need out of love - love not only for the Lord but love of those in need. It's the proof in the pudding that puts the icing on the cake. It's the love that proves the faith which gives hope to others. It's this missing dimension which causes the faithful to leave the Institution of 'church' and it's this same missing dimension that causes the unsaved that are seeking God to vacate the premises because there is truly nothing in our mainstream denominational churches and fringe groups that reflect these things in their teaching, their preaching or their practices.

These are but a few of the things which are driving the once churched folks to becoming "Unchurched"! Anytime man's philosophies or ideas circumvent God's truths in His house the Spirit of the Lord is the 1st to leave and when that happens we as faithful Christians should follow suit! You don't have to be in a large group to have 'church'! Jesus said, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in your midst." He set the example by two or three gathered in His name, whether in a house or a park or wherever. It isn't about the building. WE are the Church! HE has made us as The Church ie His Body by His Blood not a temple erected by human hands, or the will or plans of man.

In these days that are uncertain one thing seems to resound within the Body: there is an awareness that persecution of the Church is on the rise and it's sure to increase in the coming days, months and years should the Lord tarry. Someday it may be illegal to own a Bible - that's why it says, "Hide my Word in your heart that you might not sin against me" ie the Bible needs to be studied and taken at His word as His Word and it has to be the very dfoundation of our lives. In due time the churches on the corner may well indeed be closed and the persecution may increase past the confiscation of Bibles and closing of church buildings. In time Christians will be rounded up with a price on their heads and killed for their faith in Christ! In the beginnings of all of this I believe the Church will go Underground as a Body and will be the most visible in the streets as a body of witnesses praying for folks and leading them to Jesus as well as working miracles as the Spirit leads. In this situation we will meet in small groups in homes and houses without paid pastors, without pews and altars and hymnals and all the churchy things we have become accustomed to. In many ways this advent of the Church will be the most powerful in it's history. Our strength is not in our denominations or our big buildings. Our strength is in Jesus! He didn't send the Body of Christ to 'church' - He sent the Church to the World! He sent us to the lost not the "Unchurched"!

03 Oct 2009

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