How to talk about faith with someone who's been skipping church

Posted September 7

Heather Sears took a break from church during college. She wasn't bored or lazy; she was confused, and needed time away from Sunday services and Bible studies to figure out what she believed.

"I knew I had to take a step back. I had too many questions and doubts," said Sears, who is now 24. "But part of me knew I might want to go back and try this out again."

Her faith was on hold for months as she finished school and launched her career as a social worker. She was part of the group of Americans that a recent LifeWay Research study calls the "unchurched," or people who haven't attended a worship service — except for a wedding, funeral or religious holiday — in at least six months.

But this summer, Sears has been visiting churches again. She credits her friends and co-workers with inspiring her return to religious practice, noting that they kept inviting her no matter how often she said no.

"The main draw is the people I care about are going," Sears said.

Her experience illustrates one of LifeWay Research's key findings: unchurched Americans are open to discussing faith or attending church with friends and family. Nearly 8 in 10 said they'd talk about religious beliefs with a friend who really values their faith.

"'Unchurched' does not mean the closed and unspiritual. I think these people are open and, in many cases, spiritually inclined," said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College and the former executive director of LifeWay Research. The Unchurched survey, which has a 2.7 percent margin of error, was conducted from May 23 to June 1 for the BGCE.

Deseret News National asked unchurched members of the Public Insight Network to reflect on their relationship to faith. Here's what their responses, as well as LifeWay Research's recent study, tell us about people who've been skipping Sunday service:

Let's talk faith

Although Sears stopped attending church for a few years, she never stopped being interested in thinking and learning about religion. Some of her college friends practiced non-Christian traditions such as Islam and Zoroastrianism, and she liked to talk to them about their experiences.

Many unchurched Americans are open to conversations about faith, even if they describe themselves as nonreligious and don't plan on attending a worship service anytime soon.

Nearly half (47 percent) of those who haven't attended church in at least six months will discuss religion freely if the subject comes up, compared with 11 percent who try to change the subject as soon as possible, LifeWay Research reported.

And many unchurched Americans still associate with a religious tradition, researchers noted. Although 1 in 3 (32 percent) say they're nonreligious, more than half are Christian, describing themselves as Catholic (25 percent), Protestant (20 percent) or non-denominational (11 percent.)

Tom Hauwiller, a 69-year-old from Oakdale, Minnesota, said that he embraces opportunities to hear what other people believe.

"Sharing thoughts and the reasons for why we (have) them is how we learn," he said.

Those who avoid religious conversations said they've had negative interactions in the past, noting that feeling judged by believers is a turn-off.

"I have had very few discussions of religion that were not extremely unpleasant and had the end goal of converting me or shaming me," said Selena Beckman-Harned, a 32-year-old atheist from Carrboro, North Carolina.

Inspired by service

Evangelism comes in many forms. Church members might post on Facebook about an upcoming special worship service or chat with someone about the key aspects of their religion's teachings.

However, the simplest way to pique an unchurched American's interest is to talk about religiously inspired good deeds and other positive benefits of being faithful, according to LifeWay Research's survey.

Almost one-third of respondents (32 percent) said they'd be more interested in listening to what Christians had to say if they saw believers treat others better because of their faith or care for people's needs because of their faith (31 percent.) Additionally, 26 percent of the unchurched said they'd be more interested if they saw Christians be happier as a result of their religious practice.

"I think people are open to talking to genuine people," Stetzer said. "People may not like 'Christians,' but they like their neighbor who is kind, cares for others and cares for the world."

He added, "Be the type of person who lives like Jesus. If you live like Jesus, people will want to learn more about Jesus."

PIN network members who haven't attended church recently agreed that positive stories are more compelling than fear-based arguments.

"I want to hear about how Christianity has helped them to be better people. About the good works they have done. How they have been uplifted," said Judith Trimarchi of Vienna, Virginia, who is 59. "I don't want to hear about squabbles between the various sects."

Personal invite vs. Facebook

LifeWay Research's report also explored how unchurched Americans would prefer to be invited to worship services. Participants said they'd be most receptive to invitations from loved ones and less interested in cold calls and other generic invites.

One in two unchurched Americans (51 percent) said a personal invitation from a friend or neighbor would be effective in getting them to visit a worship service. Even more (55 percent) said the same about a personal invitation from a family member, LifeWay Research reported.

Overall, a personal touch proved to be more meaningful than other efforts, such as television commercials or online evangelism videos. Only 18 percent said a Facebook ad would be effective.

Sears credits repeated encouragement from her friends and roommate with bringing her back to church. Her group of friends attend together and then go for coffee, brunch or a picnic after the service.

"It's kind of a social thing," she said.

Uncertainty of the unchurched

Sears isn't sure yet if the church she's been attending this summer is the right fit in the long-term.

"People are starting to recognize me," she said. "But I don't identify as a member, and I don't take communion."

She's looking forward to visiting other faith communities in the Chicago area and continuing to reintroduce religious practice into her weekly routine.

Around one-third of unchurched Americans (33 percent) can envision themselves regularly attending worship services in the future, LifeWay Research reported.

Although that means two-thirds don't expect to join a church, believers shouldn't be discouraged, Stetzer said. As a whole, unchurched Americans are more open to religion than many people assume.

"Christians and other people of faith need to start the conversation," he said.

Email: Twitter: @kelsey_dallas


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