What Do You Call People You're Trying to Reach?


Your church wants to connect, serve, evangelize, and equip emerging generations. You know Millennials and members of Generation Z are increasingly disconnected from Christianity.  Perhaps children who grew up in your congregation are now “de-churched.” Maybe you are concerned with reaching the “unchurched.” What do you call the people you are trying to reach?

We’ve heard about non-Christians, non-believers, and the nones. Some outside of established traditions call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” or “spiritual but not affiliated” (SBNR or SBNA, respectively). There is also the term “spiritual eclectic.” You may talk a lot about the lost, the unreached or “secular” people. Or, you might refer to those outside your fellowship as the damned, the dying, the pagan, the children of the evil one, or “the Baptists” (of which I am one). There are a lot of different labels out there.

And that’s our problem. There are numerous ways of speaking about those outside of the Christian family. Many of those labels are found within the narrative of Scripture and can serve a helpful, descriptive, and clarifying purpose. But considering the present moment, which of these labels are actually helpful? Are there some that should be deployed at all?

In the September 2018 edition of Presence, a journal focused on the practice of spiritual direction, Janice Lundy writes that some labels, “can damage the way the speaker regards herself,” and “can be experienced as a brand, an identifying mark that conveys the message, ‘You are not like us.’” And while Lundy grants the validity of certain labels and the usefulness of terms in helping us classify, clarify, and understand, she challenges us to think about the terms we use and how they might be received by someone who does not identify with a particular religious tradition.

Lundy goes on to offer and explore the usefulness of the term “spiritual independent,” which she discovered in the work of Rabbi Rami Shapiro. This term allows a person to use their own words to define their convictions about God and the inner life, encourages a posture of listening and mutual understanding in spiritual conversations, and stresses the importance of genuine presence with the other as a companion and friend rather than as a debate-partner or opponent.

Granted, Lundy is offering wisdom to spiritual directors, who meet people from all different kinds of religious traditions and seek to help them explore the spiritual life through deep listening, insightful questions, and the encouragement of ancient spiritual practices. But if your church is seeking to connect with emerging generations there is wisdom here for you, too.

How you refer to people outside of your fellowships sets the table for your practice of hospitality, both within the context of the worship service as well as how your congregants will receive people as representatives of Jesus Christ at home, work, and in the world. It shapes how you practice evangelism. Your language in church shapes interactions outside church.

So think about your labels. Think about what they say about your theology. And think about how they would be received by Millennials and Gen Zers who are not part of your fellowship. There is no need to soften or downplay your Christian convictions. This isn’t an effort to persuade you to abandon some of the hard truths that accompany the gospel. But it is a challenge to be a winsome evangelist, a perceptive missionary, and a good neighbor.

Think about what you call people you’re trying to reach. Ask if it is the best way. If yes, remain steadfast. But if not, adjust your language in a manner faithful with both Scripture and tradition, and then joyously work to gather people in.