“For the formerly unchurched, relationships played a part in 57 percent of the decisions to return to the church.”
The church is losing influence in our larger culture. Our evangelism challenge is growing rapidly. One indicator is that, today, many people who in the past identified with Christianity no longer do. Last year, Pew released figures that tell us that in the past seven years, the number of people in the U.S. who consider themselves Christians has gone down from about 78 percent to about 71 percent.
What’s more, the people who say they identify with no religion (the “nones”) have gone up in the last seven years from about 16 percent to nearly 22 percent. And for emerging adults ages 19 to 35, the change has been from 25 percent to 35 percent. Our mission field is getting bigger.
With this in mind, how do we best reach the unchurched? At the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, we are pursuing research to help us find answers to that question. But we do have earlier research from Thom Rainer that tells us what was working in 2000, when his survey was conducted. These findings came from interviews of the formerly unchurched and demonstrate the impact relational evangelism can have on formerly unchurched people.
For the formerly unchurched, relationships played a part in 57 percent of the decisions to return to the church. Here are conclusions about those relationships:
1. Relationships are the single biggest factor in the formerly unchurched choosing to go to church.
2. Rarely do relationships alone explain the best way to reach the unchurched. A myriad of other factors are at work, as well.
3. God sometimes works to reach the unchurched without using any relationships, using avenues like conviction of the Holy Spirit, direct evangelism, friendliness of the local church and preaching.
4. Of the relationships, family relationships are the most important.
5. The wife is the most influential relationship when it comes to reaching the unchurched.
Since relational evangelism is the biggest factor in the unchurched becoming churched, the more we can mobilize people in our churches to grow in that area, the more effective we will be at reaching the lost.
How can we best break down the challenges of relational evangelism? How can we equip and mobilize ourselves and the people in our churches for relational ministry with the unchurched?
In my church, we are equipping people to pursue what we are calling the “BLESS” practices. BLESS is an acronym for five practices that we are teaching everyone in our church to learn in their relationships with the unchurched.
B: Begin with prayer
We encourage every person in our small groups to intentionally implement one BLESS practice a week in their families, neighborhoods, networks and third space relational spheres of connection (e.g., Starbucks). It has made a huge difference. It is simple and doable. People don’t get overwhelmed.
This is also relational evangelism at its best: blessing people and loving on people in concrete and practical ways that help them take another step in the journey toward Jesus.
Rick Richardson is evangelism fellow at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism and director of and professor in the M.A. in Evangelism and Leadership and the M.A. in Missional Church Movements programs at Wheaton College.