A study found that 6 percent of members of mega-churches, like Saddleback Church in California, had never attended a worship service before joining the church where they now belong. (Photo: Jonathan D. Bloom)
A recent study by Leadership Network and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research looked at the demographics of those who attend mega-churches, defined as a congregation attended by 2,000 or more each week.
The study determined that almost half (44 percent) had come from another local church, 28 percent had transplanted from a distant congregation, and 19 percent had not attended church for a while. Just 6 percent had never attended a worship service before arriving at their current church.
We could talk at length that these figures seem to validate the observation that there is a lot more "member swapping" than true evangelism in churches today, but I was most taken by the last finding that 6 percent of those reporting had never attended a worship service before joining the church where they now belong.
When we talk about the "unchurched," the assumption is that we are actually talking about those who are "dechurched" or who have walked away for the church for some reason. In reality, there are a number of people in our population who have never been inside a church building except for a wedding or funeral.
This was brought home to me recently when my granddaughter invited a friend to church who said that he had never been to church in his life. Now this is a young man who is from the Bible Belt where there is a church within five minutes' drive of anyone's home. I don't know all of the background here, but I am pleased that she invited him to go to a worship service with her, and he did attend.
This is a reminder to us that we should reassess our assumptions about those who are not part of the church. Just because we put a sign in front of our church saying "Everyone welcome," we cannot automatically expect non-churched people to come flooding into our worship services.
They may not understand or appreciate what churches offer them. Perhaps we have erected barriers that need to be removed. The key, as with most things, is a personal contact. We must develop a level of trust in our relationships so that people will be willing to accompany us to church-related activities. When they do so, we may have to be guides or "docents" interpreting what is going on for them, then spending time with them afterward to debrief.
Is this evangelism? I suppose it is, and this approach will become more important in the coming days as the church continues to be marginalized in our society.
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.