Part 1. Polling

– PART 1 –


TO study the younger unchurched it is important to talk to the younger unchurched. There are many opinions about the unchurched out there—much of it based on gut, some on conjecture, and some on anecdotal evidence. To understand people, we think you have to ask people. So, we polled them—more than a thousand of them.

We wanted to do something more than just ask young adults who are unchurched. We wanted to know how their views differed from the older unchurched. We believed it might help us understand something important: are their views more negative or more positive than their older counterparts? If so, that might help us understand what was happening—and we found some interesting things.

The polling section is broken into three parts:

Types of the Younger Unchurched

We began by describing some types of the younger unchurched. To be fair, every unchurched person is an individual. However, we have observed that not everyone is equally hostile, informed, or open. Thus, we described four types and created a narrative that continues throughout the book to help tell the story of these younger unchurched types.

What They Believe

The second section is straight polling. We developed a series of questions to survey these younger unchurched people and then asked them questions about spirituality, church, God, religion, and faith. The results were both fascinating and sobering.

What Does the Future Hold?

The third part of this section compares the younger unchurched to the older. The reason is simple. Amid much talk about this generation being so unchurched and lost, we need to ask, "Are they any different from the generation that proceeded them?" And, you might be surprised by the answer. We concluded that basic beliefs about God and their perceptions of the church would be worth discussing more in depth.

Chapter 1. Types of the Younger Unchurched

Types of the
Younger Unchurched

MOST people don't like it when they are narrowly defined by the opinions and expectations of others. For example, it can be a mistake to put young people into one grouping and say, "All young adults think this or that." In our study we found remarkable differences by race, ethnicity, and background, among other things. Based on careful research, we found clear patterns that differentiated the younger unchurched, and we thought it would be helpful to describe those patterns.

So really, Younger Unchurched Al doesn't exist. As we talked to many younger unchurched adults, we found that they fit into several categories, but even these are imperfect. The younger unchurched expressed a desire for churches to care about them as individuals, so it is with great caution that we describe four general types of younger unchurched in this chapter. The intention is to learn about differences among the types rather than create stereotypes.

There certainly is some overlap to these categories, but the four general types of younger unchurched we described are:

  1. Always unchurched (never been involved)
  2. De-churched (having attended as a child)
  3. Friendly unchurched (not particularly angry at the church)
  4. Hostile unchurched (angry at the church or have had some negative experiences with the church)

Always Unchurched

The always unchurched are those younger unchurched who either reported that they never attended church as a child or attended only on special occasions.

Meet Ally, a representative of the always unchurched. She is twenty-five, has never married, and has a college degree. Ally grew up near a large city and has never developed an identity with any denomination, faith group, or spiritual support system. Ally represents about 22 percent of the younger unchurched in our sample.

Compared to other unchurched young people, she has the smallest, yet widest view of God and Jesus. Yes, God or a supreme being probably exists, and this does somewhat impact her lifestyle. But the God described in the Bible is not unique from the gods depicted by other world religions such as Islam or Hinduism. Ally does not believe that Jesus died and actually came back to life, yet she is open-minded enough to admit that having faith in Jesus might make a positive difference in a person's life.

Christianity is so prevalent that it does seem to be a relevant and viable religion for today. She believes Christian churches are probably even helpful to society as a whole. But Ally is convinced that Christianity should focus more on loving God and people and less on organizations.

Ally has no church experience, but she still believes many churchgoers are hypocritical in judging other people. Her lifestyle choices would probably be judged harshly by the church, so why would she desire to subject herself to that? Ally simply has no need for church in her busy life. She can relate well to God and learn about being a Christian without attending church.

Ally differs from her age group peers in several of her views about the church and Christians. Ally is slightly less spiritual and religious than other unchurched twentysomethings, but she is somewhat curious about God, or a supreme being. Some of her friends are spiritual, and she disagrees with the notion that church attendees are more spiritual than she and her friends.

Ally seldom wonders about her eternal destiny because she is not at all certain that a person's spirit continues to exist after death. Heaven just might exist, but Ally is not really concerned about hell. Since her views of the afterlife are weak, they have relatively little impact on how she lives.

Ally's lack of church experience will make it difficult for existing churches or Christian acquaintances to reach her. As is true of all the younger unchurched, Ally would listen to believers who were willing to share with her about their Christian beliefs.

Like her peers, Ally has a good friend who is a Christian and knows several others. But they get on her nerves sometimes. Last year when Ally's friend Ann became a Christian, their relationship suffered.

Ally has indicated that she will not be attracted by a particular music style at church. She is ambivalent about churches caring for her as a person and sharing truth with her in relevant ways. She just has no comfort level at church. The potential benefits of church involvement do not outweigh the perceived negatives for her.

The De-Churched

We were surprised at how many of the younger unchurched indicated they had attended church as a child. For some, this childhood attendance seemed to be a negative experience. We looked at those who attended as a child and now thought the church was full of hypocrites. Our assumption was that many of these people had a bad experience in church—and therefore, they were de-churched.

To be fair, this category is probably overestimated—most people tend to report that they were involved in activities that society affirms (i.e., if you ask them if they voted in the last election, more say "yes" than actually voted). However, this group displays some characteristics that are interesting and helpful to know. An increasing number of studies show that people estimate their church attendance at twice the amount they actually attend—and this may be even higher if they are reflecting back on childhood.

Because the de-churched are the largest subgroup (62 percent of respondents), their responses are similar to the overall survey totals. Their interest and receptivity are generally higher than the other types of younger unchurched.

Dean is similar to his unchurched peers, and like many of them, he attended church weekly as a child. Even though he no longer attends, Dean's upbringing has influenced his understanding of God, Christianity, and church toward more traditional views.

Dean's agreement with God's existence and uniqueness is strong, but he still leaves open the possibility that supreme beings of other world religions may be similar to the biblical God. He was taught and accepts the bodily resurrection of Jesus as fact, and he is convinced that believing in Jesus makes a positive difference in one's life.

Dean's receptivity to Bible studies or conversations about Christianity is above average. The church still has work to do overcoming the negative feelings that Dean holds about hypocrites in the church. He also has personal lifestyle issues that make him wonder if he would be accepted at church.

Dean wonders occasionally about his eternal destiny, much more than Ally, his friend who never went to church as a child. He has little doubt that a person's spirit continues postmortem, and he is more comfortable with the notion of heaven than hell. His lifestyle is impacted to some degree by his beliefs about the afterlife.

Dean knows many Christians and is open to spiritual discussion with them. He finds that some Christians do get on his nerves. His friendships are not limited to those who are spiritual, and church attendance does not convince Dean that a person is more spiritual than he is. After all, he indicates weekly that church attendance is not required for a person to have a good relationship with God and an understanding of Christianity.

Dean looks and thinks like the typical twentysomething not in church. It will not be easier to reach Dean than it will be to reach Ally, even though he is formerly churched, but it will help some. The big question is—where and how would Dean fit in if he came back?

Friendly and Hostile Unchurched

Friend or foe? The last two types of younger unchurched respondents are best viewed in contrast. On the one hand, 15 percent of the younger unchurched attended church weekly as a child and have no current animosity toward the church. The "friendly" unchurched do not view the church as a bunch of hypocrites, and Christians do not get on their nerves. This group is a subset of the de-churched younger population. Aaron will represent this group.

On the other hand, 37 percent of the younger unchurched are hostile toward the church and Christians. Regardless of their childhood experiences, this group agrees that hypocrites fill the pews and that Christians can often be annoying. Jacob will represent this group. Choosing masculine names has no particular significance, as both genders are equally represented in each type of the younger unchurched.

Aaron and Jacob are on opposite ends of the receptivity scale among the younger unchurched. Aaron is not angry with the church. With his background of church attendance and friendly disposition, it almost seems accidental that he is not in church. Jacob, on the other hand, is anti-church and probably considers the church and her members to be bigoted and dangerous.

It is likely that Aaron's theology and views toward the church are more favorable than many who attend. In his mid-twenties, Aaron strongly agrees that God exists and is unique. While Jacob is less certain about God's existence, he flat out disagrees that the God described in the Bible is the only god. Jacob believes that the biblical God is the same as those presented by non-Christian religions.

While Jacob's hostility is primarily focused on the church, he also holds lower views of Jesus. He is ambivalent about the resurrection, though he reluctantly admits that believing in Jesus may have positive effects. Aaron, on the other hand, is very comfortable with Jesus' resurrection.

Aaron's affinity toward the church of his childhood is born out in his agreement that Christianity is relevant today and that the church is helpful to society. Neither of these notions resonates with Jacob.

So why is Aaron not attending? He is quite sure that it is not necessary to attend church in order to relate well with God, and he does not require instructions regarding Christianity from the church. Jacob's animosity toward the church is set off if anyone suggests that he needs the church for either relationship or instruction.

Since both Jacob and Aaron are interested in knowing more about God, each considers himself to be spiritual. Aaron is much more religious than his peers, and he may even identify with the denomination of his childhood. Jacob's hostility allows him no affinity toward any denomination or faith group.

Aaron still remembers being taught about heaven, and he wonders about his eternal destination occasionally. He believes strongly that heaven and hell both exist, and Aaron lives his life with that in mind. Jacob's lack of certainty about the afterlife, especially punishment, has much less impact on his lifestyle.

Anger is part of Jacob's response to the church, and he has no doubt that the church is all about organized religion instead of loving God and people. Both believe that Christianity is still a relevant religion, but even Aaron has concerns about the church organization taking priority over people.

Aaron is much more open to a small group study where he could learn about the Bible and Jesus. Jacob hates that idea. Familiar music at church would have some appeal for Aaron. Both Jacob and Aaron would appreciate a church that cared about them as persons.

A church that wants to reach Jacob with the gospel is going to have to do so on his turf, because Jacob is not coming to church. Aaron may respond to an appropriate invitation to church, especially from a friend.

These findings reveal some big implications for the church. For many, church evangelism has been focused on "bringing friends to church." That won't happen with Jacob or Ally. It might with Aaron and Dean. However, it is essential that churches focus on more than invitations. Further, the focus also needs to be incarnational—going and living among people who are far from God. Effective evangelistic outreach will not be a "one size fits all" approach.

The Younger Unchurched and Cultural Issues

Before we leave the polling research, it might be helpful to look at two more issues. Areas of controversy certainly exist within our culture that have an impact on how the unchurched view the church and its response to certain issues.

In the survey the unchurched twentysomethings were asked what impact two stances by a church would have on them. First they were asked, "If you were considering visiting or joining a church, would knowing that the church did not endorse the ordination of women as pastors negatively or positively impact your decision?"

Sixty-five percent of all the younger unchurched said this would negatively impact their decision. Only 6 percent said that this would be a positive. So, the negatives outnumbered the positives ten to one. (Almost 30 percent of respondents either said that the stance against women's ordination would not make a difference or that they were not sure.) The only major difference among the four types of unchurched were the friendly unchurched, and even 47 percent of them said this stance would negatively impact their decision to visit or join a church.

Another question was asked, "If you were considering visiting or joining a church, would knowing that the church did not welcome and affirm homosexual members negatively or positively impact your decision?" Once again the overwhelming majority of the younger unchurched reported this would negatively impact their decision. The range of responses by type—83 percent of the always unchurched and 52 percent of the friendly unchurched—indicates that each type would react negatively to a church that does not affirm homosexuals as members.

Certainly these are controversial issues and we have strong beliefs about them. Yet, you cannot have a serious conversation about reaching the unchurched, particularly the younger unchurched, without addressing issues of gender and sexuality. Later in the book, we will share details of how churches have dealt with and worked through these issues.


Mitch Phillips lowered his head over his bass guitar and chuckled at the site of Aaron's contorted face as he bent the strings of his sunburst Stratocaster, holding a note so long Mitch thought the strings would break. The crowd loved it; they always did. There are times Mitch is convinced Aaron believes he is the second coming of Eric Clapton, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, or Derek Trucks—and some nights he is closebut most nights the two of them realized their little band is lucky to land some semi-consistent gigs here at the Cozy Note doing covers of everything from Clapton to Coldplay.

In some ways Mitch wondered if this wasn't their way of hanging on to cool, at least in their minds. As they saw it, they were hip musicians on an occasional Friday and Saturday night. But would the occasional autograph seeker ask for a signed coaster if she knew Mitch had been a finance major, managed 401ks during the week, and drove the same Honda Accord he'd been driving since high school; or that Aaron taught high school English in the 'burbs and was a faculty sponsor for the yearbook staff? At the same time, it didn't matter to him if she would. At twenty-six and single, he knew Aaron and him at best probably only had a few more years playing together before life's reality finally overtook them.

Mitch still remembers the day they met six years earlier when they were both twenty and beginning their junior year. It was late August, and he'd just dropped his stuff in his dorm room when he heard familiar blues riffs ricocheting off the white cinder block walls. The sound pulled him up a stairwell and dragged him down the hall to an open door where he found Aaron sitting on his amp and wearing a pair of sunglasses and headphones. He was playing along with an old Allman Brothers song, but all that could be heard was Aaron's playing. Mitch raced back to his room"Forget the unpacking," he thoughtand grabbed his bass. A friendship was born, a band blossomed, and they eventually picked up some spare change playing frat parties.

Mitch's interest in music began ten years earlier when his parents began attending a new church. He didn't recall a word the preacher said from back then, because he couldn't take his eyes off the band. He loved music and the guitar player was phenomenal. James had been a studio player for years and noticed an enraptured Mitch dragging his parents every week to the band's side of the theatre where the church met.

"Do you play?" James asked one Sunday.

"No, but I'd love to learn," replied Mitch, somewhat embarrassed his admiration had been so obvious.

"Have you heard about the music club the church has?" asked James. "I teach in it as well as the other guys in the band. We have another session starting up. You don't need anything to get started. We've got some extra guitars, not great, but good enough to learn on. All I ask is that you commit to show up for the lessons and to practice. How 'bout it?"

"How 'bout it?" Mitch thought. It was a chance of a lifetime. He became a sponge and learned all he could. James became like a much older brother, inviting Mitch to studio sessions, and he even gave Mitch a slightly used Gibson acoustic guitar. The relationship grew, and James began to challenge Mitch about real life issues—girls, education, his relationship to Christ, life goals. Mitch had always been a good student and a good kid, but no one had ever confronted him with spiritual things. To be honest, he'd never given them much thought, but over time he couldn't get away from James's explanation of why he needed to ask Jesus into his heart. He put his trust in Christ midway through his junior year of college.

It was about that time the band's bass player had a job transfer, and they needed somebody to fill his place. Mitch volunteered, having goofed around with a bass off and on as he and James played. It came easier to him than the guitar, so he stuck with it. By the time he and Aaron connected he could hold his own. He and Aaron's friendship grew based on mutual respect for each other's musical ability.

But that was about all the two had in common. Mitch was a whiz at math and finished near the top of his high school class. Aaron was an average student who enjoyed art, literature, and music. He didn't necessarily want to be a teacher, but he saw having summers off as an opportunity to concentrate on music with an eye toward playing full time. Mitch was good with money and often found himself coaching fellow students out of a financial pit. It turned into a career. Aaron can't remember the last time his checkbook balanced, and in college often asked Mitch for advicestill does.

Mitch is serious about his Christianity and has grown in his theological understanding. Aaron went to church as a kid for a short time and periodically contemplates God, heaven and hell, his life, and why bad things happen to good people, but rarely are they deep thoughts. Music is his spiritual connection to God and he believes played with feeling and expression, music is a prayer. If people enjoy how you play, "music is a ministry to weary souls who forget about their troubles for a while," Aaron often tells Mitch.

"If that were the case," Mitch thinks as Aaron finally releases the note and turns his licks toward the song's end, "Aaron would be a high priest of soul salve tonight."

Just then Mitch catches Ally's wave as she and Dean break from the shadows and cigarette smoke to find their way to the "friends" table near the stage. He knew they'd make it. He knew they'd be late. Mitch glanced at his watch, shook his head and chuckled. He couldn't remember a single occasion when she'd been on time for their meetings at Starbucks.