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Thinking of the Unchurched from Parking Lot to Pew

In my last post I shared my notes from a recent conference breakout I led dealing with how churches think strategically about their weekend services as it concerns preaching with the unchurched in mind. Below are my notes about the rest of the breakout where I shared how one can think about the unchurched from the parking lot to the pew. You can boil the spirit of my thoughts to one major goal: removing barriers for the unbeliever. As much as I can help it, the only barrier I want between the unchurched and Jesus is the Cross (cf., 1 Cor. 1:23). While I don’t want anyone to reject the gospel, I’m much more at peace with knowing someone has rejected listening to someone share the good news because they can’t get past Jesus for who he is or what he’s done. However, what troubles me is thinking there are lost men and women who, in trying to attend a church to learn about Jesus, leave never wanting to return because of unnecessary barriers they experienced. Make no mistake, this isn’t a call to be a “goods & services” organization for consumers or a reduction of the Sunday morning experience as a product to be peddled. It is to think through what you do on Sunday in the hopes of better helping unchurched men and women hear the gospel of Jesus not only when they come to your church but to do it in a way that encourages them to return again.

#1: Think of yourself as a host

This helps us see the unchurched as folk who have never been in “our home.” As such, they aren’t familiar with the look and feel of the surroundings. We want to reduce any anxieties they may have. Think about a lost friend and ask yourself: How would [my friend] feel about [element of what happens on Sunday]?  Would he/she be scared, confused, marginalized, about the arrangement of the lobby, the signs on the wall, etc. This is why parking lot, greeter, and usher teams are important. It is also why you, as pastor, should help those teams realize their importance.

#2: Have processes work for you, not against you

Imagine your lost buddy and his wife finally decide to take you up on your invitation to attend this Sunday. They arrive at 8:55AM for your 9AM service. Unfortunately, it takes them five minutes to find a parking spot with all the other cars zipping around. Then they have to find where to take their toddler and middle-schooler for church. Is it in the main building, one of the smaller buildings to the side? Another five to seven minutes pass. Once they get to the preschool ministry they have to wait in line (not to mention fill out a couple pages of paper to register their kiddo for the first time) which, because there’s only one volunteer manning the station, takes ten more minutes. Then you finally see your friends! They enter the sanctuary after the music, announcements, welcome, and the first ten minutes of your sermon. But don’t worry, this won’t miss a thing with your ushers walking them down the aisle in front of everybody so they can sit on the first row. You know, the place guest love to sit. What a first impression, right? If the parents of a normal-sized family (husband, wife, plus two kids) enter the sanctuary halfway into the worship service after driving onto your campus five minutes before the service started, your processes (check-in, registration, signage, etc.) are working against you, not for you.

#3: We want to welcome guests not spotlight them

Do you like going with a friend to a restaurant on your birthday, where the next thing you know is someone puts a huge sombrero (I’m a Texan, we eat a lot of Tex-Mex) on your head, then the entire waitstaff gathers around you and poorly sings a creepy, emotionless chant of how excited they are[n’t] that it’s your birthday? I rest my case. It’s why we don’t have guest seating, guest parking, or lapel stickers. Don’t risk making your unchurched friends feel more awkward than they already may feel.

#4 Reduce the “us/them” as much as you can

Using inside jokes, language, or stories without giving the context whereby everyone can follow only makes the uninitiated feel more like outsiders than guests. This doesn’t mean there aren’t real differences between followers of Jesus and unbelievers. There most certainly are! But finding legitimate places where you can minimize those difference helps your lost friends grow in thinking of your church as their church to learn about Jesus. Reducing the “us/them” factor is also one more reason why you should consider addressing the unchurched throughout your sermon.

#5: Think through your Main Street

The “Main Street” is the literal pathway the majority of people take when walking into the sanctuary. You can leverage this path with your lost friends in mind by making it the place where your next steps, direction, and information can be found. When it comes to your Main Street, ask: Is it clear? Is it clean? Is it attractive? Again, if you had an unchurched guest coming to your home, how would you want your house to appear? Think of Main Street as you would your own home.

#6: Excellence inspires

At CCCC, we define excellence as doing the best you can with what you have. It’s why we try to stay away from handwritten signage or letting kids sing solos because “it’s cute.” It’s also why we coordinate our materials with our church logo and use a communications team to work our website. It’s our “best” right now. So, how do you strive for excellence in things like your signage, music, website? Let me quote Tim Keller about excellence as it pertains to the arts:

The quality of music and speech in worship will have a major impact on its evangelistic power. In many churches, the quality of the music is mediocre or poor, but it does not disturb the faithful. Why? Their faith makes the words of the hymn or the song meaningful despite its artistically poor expression, and further, they usually have a personal relationship with the music-presenter. But any outsider who comes in, who is not convinced of the truth and who does not have any relationship to the presenter, will be bored or irritated by the poor offering. In other words, excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre or poor aesthetics exclude. The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come. For the non-Christian, the attraction of good art will have a major part in drawing them in.[ref]Tim Keller, Evangelistic Worship[/ref]

So, while the earnest but marginally talented dude singing off-key and missing his three chords on the guitar might be endearing for the congregational core who know and love him, it probably will only serve as a distraction for the unchurched friend you invited that day. Don’t misunderstand or mischaracterize what I’m saying. This isn’t excellence in lieu of the Holy Spirit (cf., Derek Webb’s The Spirit vs. The Kick Drum). This is seeing excellence not only as a way that glorifies God but also thinks with the outsider in mind.

#7: Have a Point Person for your Processes (Get a ‘Culture Cop’)

Designate a person who, on Sunday morning, is evaluating the effectiveness of how you are helping the unchurched feel welcomed. He helps push the flywheel on fostering a culture of reaching out to the lost on weekends by observing what is happening in real-time on Sundays. For example, he may gently remind your greeters who are innocently grouping in holy huddles catching up on the week’s happenings that they are to be engaging the scores of lost people walking past them. This person might actually time how long your nursery ministry takes to register kids during a given service. In essence, this is an individual who is responsible for seeing if your processes are producing the uninitiated-friendly culture you desire. If there are places where it isn’t happening, this person helps leaders schedule “Monday Meetings” where things can be sorted out in strategic ways.

#8: Push age-graded ministries to own being missional on Sunday

Ask your preschool, children, and student ministries how they are actively being mindful of the unchurched who attend their ministries? You might find some great ideas for adults as well.

#9: Have a One-Stop Shop

Instead of having ten different tables in your lobby/Main Street for answering each question, reduce it to one. Less is more. Too many choices can actually muddy the waters of where you want people (especially the unchurched) to go. It’s incredibly helpful to point to one place where people with questions about your church can get answers.


Know that doing things like this doesn’t make you a sellout to the unchurched, it makes you sincere toward them by potentially removing unnecessary barriers between them and the gospel. Hopefully, through your ministries, processes, and everything else you do on Sunday your church demonstrates that, like Jesus, you also are a friend to sinners.


Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

3 thoughts on “Thinking of the Unchurched from Parking Lot to Pew”

  1. Not a pastor here, but a LOT of wisdom in these words IMHO.
    There, end of my sermon for today!!!

  2. Excellent. Just excellent. And I shudder to think of all the barriers we’ve had in place for eons. Shouts out from The Woodlands!

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