The graph divides the respondents based on how long they have been at the church. Reading left to right, those who have been members more than 20 years have the largest percentage, 18 percent, who indicated their church reached them while they were not Christians. For those who have attended for 11-20 years, that percentage drops to 17 percent. Only 10 percent of those who have been at the church 6-10 years became Christians after attending their church. In the time frame of 4 to 5 years, it drops to 9 percent, and in the last three years, it is 4 percent.
We started seeing this trend about 12 years ago. We discovered this stark reality: During a time in U.S. history when the population of unchurched people has grown significantly, the church has become increasingly ineffective at reaching them (see the chart below).
The church in America is falling behind the curve in its ability to reach unchurched people. Why? The strategies used in the past are not working for the new, postmodern, unchurched populations.
I think it’s unquestionably true that the strategies used in the past no longer work. Gospel meetings, Jule Miller filmstrips, and sermons about why the Baptists are all going to hell don’t work. I’m not sure that they ever did. I mean, they may have worked to persuade believers to change denominations, but they weren’t nearly so effective at converting the unchurched. After all, they were targeted at the question: which denomination? rather than: which Lord?
As a result, older generations were converted to a doctrinal system and a pattern of worship, but not to a mission. Oh, there was lots of evangelism, but much of that evangelism was targeting Baptists and other branches of the Churches of Christ. There wasn’t nearly so much evangelism of true unbelievers. Of course, there weren’t as many true unbelievers as there are now. (I once spoke to a missionary in India who claimed great success by converting existing Christian congregations to a cappella music. He said that it’s easier to convert Christians than Hindus!)
A case can be made, based on the statistics, that the 20th Century methods were better at creating unbelievers than believers.
And because Christianity was defined as right doctrine and attendance, rather than mission, the church lost its moral standing in this country — causing “Christian” to become an insult in many circles. We were far more concerned with defeating evolution than poverty and with keeping prayer in the public schools than having Jesus in our homes.
The graph tells the story. Other denominations had their own problems, of course, but the overall problem was a form of Christianity that was both ineffective and unappealing.
Therefore, the last thing we should be doing is romanticizing the Christianity of the 20th Century or proceeding by compromise between 20th Century Christianity and true Christianity. We have to have the real, unadulterated thing.