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preaching article Unchurched or Unsaved? What Our Vocabulary Reveals about Our Beliefs

Unchurched or Unsaved? What Our Vocabulary Reveals about Our Beliefs

based on 15 ratings
Jan 4, 2012
Scripture: none
(Suggest Scripture)

In 1914, Ernest Henry Shackleton led an expedition to cross the entire continent of Antarctica, but wound up shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. To rescue his team, Shackleton sailed a tiny boat across 850 miles of rough seas to South Georgia Island. Despite the choppy waters and gray skies, Shackleton was able to safely navigate the boat to their destination. If his coordinates had been off by even one half of one degree, his team would have missed their destination by hundreds of miles and perished.

Ship captains, airplane pilots, and astronauts will be the first to tell you that the tiniest navigational error can have disastrous consequences. The same is true for those of us who have been commissioned to lead our churches. A seemingly insignificant shift in direction can have major implications.

In recent years, leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention have bemoaned the falling number of baptisms. Pastors, missionaries, professors, and analysts have all offered a variety of reasons for why our numbers are declining, along with advice for how we might get back on track.

But I wonder if one of the main reasons for the dwindling number of baptisms is represented by a subtle shift in vocabulary—so subtle that we might overlook it.

There was a time when we spoke of unsaved people as “lost and dying and on their way to hell”—a phrase that painted a vivid picture of the stakes of being outside of Christ. We spoke of unsaved people in this way for so long that such terminology became something of a cliché.

Today, it seems that many pastors and church members tend to shy away from terms like “lost,” “unsaved,” and “unbeliever.” Instead, we speak of the people we are trying to reach as “unchurched.”

I believe that this change in terminology betrays two mistaken beliefs:

1. First, it indicates that our people believe the goal of the church is to grow the church.

Evangelism becomes less about reaching the unsaved in order to see them get saved, and more about reaching unchurched people in order to get them churched (or even worse, reaching other-churched people in order to get them to our church). Outreach becomes little more than an attempt to sell people on the benefits of coming to church.

Church-focused outreach is easier than Christ-focused outreach. In many places in the South, church attendance is still woven into the fabric of the culture. Many unchurched people already assume that they should go to church. So our outreach merely reinforces the cultural assumption that church attendance is important.

Furthermore, we are more comfortable reaching out to people with a Christian background than we are witnessing to Muslims and Hindus. In our increasingly multi-cultural world, it is much easier to reach the nominally “Christian” who already share our assumptions than the foreigners who are moving into our neighborhoods.

2. Secondly, our shift in vocabulary indicates a lessening of the eternal stakes of salvation.

I am thankful for the Conservative Resurgence in our denomination that has brought a renewed emphasis on orthodox theology. But I wonder how much of that orthodox theology is truly believed by the people in our churches.

Do we truly believe that Jesus is the only way to God?

Do we truly believe that people outside of faith in Christ will perish eternally in hell?

Do we truly believe that people who claim to be Christians and yet show no fruits of repentance have a false assurance of salvation?

Do we truly believe that people of other faiths are “lost and dying and on their way to hell”?

If so, why do we lessen the stakes of evangelism by speaking in a way that emphasizes church attendance over salvation in Christ?

Of course, evangelism includes inviting people into our churches. But inviting people to church is not the goal; it is only one means whereby God may accomplish his mission of seeking and saving the lost.

So yes… we believe that people need what the church has to offer. But we are not called to sell others on the greatness of our church, but to proclaim the greatness of our Savior.

In the choppy waters of our postmodern, increasingly post-Christian society, staying on course is no easy task. Jesus told us the way is narrow. God commanded the Israelites: “You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.”

If we need a course correction, let’s do it now. Let’s remind our people of the Christ-centeredness of the Great Commission. Let’s plead with lost people to flee to Jesus and escape the wrath to come. Let’s make evangelism and outreach about Jesus again. Maybe then, we will see lost people be found, unsaved people get saved, condemned people be pardoned, and then (and only then) unchurched people be churched.



Trevin Wax is first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ. His wife is Corina, and they have two children: Timothy (7) and Julia (3). He is an editor at LifeWay Christian Resources of a resource titled TGM—Theology, Gospel, Mission, a gospel-centered small group curriculum focused on the grand narrative of Scripture. He has been blogging regularly at Kingdom People since October 2006. He frequently contributes articles to other publications, such as Christianity Today. He received his bachelor’s degree in Pastoral Theology from Emanuel University of Oradea in the country of Romania, where he was involved in mission work in several village churches from 2000–05. He received a Masters of Divinity at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. He spent several years serving the wonderful people of First Baptist Church in Shelbyville, TN as Associate Pastor. His new book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope, was released in April.

Talk about it...

Michael Aden avatar
Michael Aden
0 days ago
I appreciate this article. The end state is not church but Christ. Forgiveness and eternal life is in Jesus. In the post modern world where truth is relative the start point of the discussion has changed.
Darryl Woodson avatar
Darryl Woodson
0 days ago
Excellent article and well thought through!
Brad Brucker avatar
Brad Brucker
0 days ago
Good article. Don't know if a few different words are really the issue though. I think unchurched can very much mean unsaved without thinking I need them to come to my church. I believe the main problem is unsaved people aren't attracted to our churches anymore, because we have ceased being like Jesus. Jesus attracted the irreligious folks. Like the Pharisees, Many churches have become too religious and it's simply unattractive/ugly. Or, they become glitzy - all show. Jesus gave us he formula for winning the lost and it's quite simple - "Cling to the vine and you will bear fruit." Often, I think pastors and church growth proponents make it way too complicated. The Great commission, the Great commandments - clinging to Jesus - that's what he asked us to do. Everything else will follow! "I planted, Apollos water and He will cause the growth!"
Jim Ressegieu avatar
Jim Ressegieu
0 days ago
I'm forwarding this to my superintendent to read--I've felt for some time now that my denomination has been putting salvation--the saving of a person's soul from eternal torment--second to getting them into the church door so that the church/pastor can show "growth" during the year. Thank you for this article!
Justin Milliken avatar
Justin Milliken
0 days ago
Excellent article! Lack of passion for the lost is a significant problem in churches today. Many people talk about getting people in to church but you rarely hear them articulate the fact that the person is lost. I believe it makes it more palatable for us and less convicting when we fail to follow the Great Commission. Just listen to our prayer meetings and you will hear prayer for the sick but it is rare that you hear people asking prayers for specific lost people and for God to help them witness to them along with the Holy Spirit to convict them of their sin. The article hits on a fundamental issue of why our churches are declining. In Christ, Justin Milliken
Jason Davis avatar
Jason Davis
0 days ago
Thanks for the article. I have found differentiating between unchurched and lost important in our vocabulary because if we define success as reaching the unchurched then you could be "successful" without impacting lostness. The goal is changed lives through Jesus.
Glenn Hawkins avatar
Glenn Hawkins
0 days ago
We are a brand new SBCV (Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia) church. Part of our vision statement is that we exist to "care for people, the lost and the found". Having served in a "seeker sensitive" church (which is a misnomer according to Scripture: the "seekers" in Scripture are believers, but I digress), I was used to hearing the unsaved as being merely "far from God". But when we developed our vision statement, it seemed a little strange to my ears to include "the lost", thinking it may offend, but in order to identify those outside the kingdom of God the way Scripture does, we included the phrase. Your article gave me great assurance that what we are promoting--and I'm proclaiming from the pulpit--is going in the right direction. Thanks!
Paul Porter avatar
Paul Porter
0 days ago
I don't think the author understands these words. This a both-and proposition, not an either-or. Unsaved means: lost, dying, going to Hell. Unchurched means: not a part of a local body of believers (may or may not be unsaved). It is important to reach both groups. Jesus did not commission us to make converts. He called us to make disciples. That involves both reaching the unsaved and engaging the unchurched.
James Sellers avatar
James Sellers
0 days ago
Wonderful, well thought out article. I agree that our vocabulary reveals a lot about our beliefs. Thank you Brother Trevin for a well articulated article.
Alexander Shaw avatar
Alexander Shaw
0 days ago
I cannot be clearer than in my "Nairnshire Telegraph" column of 13 December. "Rubberised" It had to be taught again in Nairobi and Mombasa, but not in Kisumu where these principles had been put into practice. When people came forward for prayer for a whole variety of needs, I always asked how they came to faith. My questioning would go something like this, "Do you believe in Jesus?" "Yes." "Did you turn from your sins to God when you came to believe in Jesus?" "Yes." "Have you been baptised in water?" "Em, no." At that point I would call over the pastor to deal with this serious omission. "Have you received the Holy Spirit? Do you speak in tongues?" Another reluctant "No" would occasionally be given. Again, the pastor was called to ensure that believers in Kenya were equipped with everything New Testament believers received. At one morning service seven people were baptised in the Holy Spirit, by the living Jesus. As they were filled with the fullness of God, they overflowed at the mouth, praising God in languages they had never learned, just as the early disciples did. In the book of Acts, when folk came to faith in Jesus Christ, they repented of their sins as they believed in Jesus, were baptised in water, and received the Holy Spirit. One practical aid used over many years is the word 'rubber'. Omit the vowels and you have 'RBBR'. It is essential that a man repents when he comes to believe in Jesus, is baptised in water, and receives the Holy Spirit. One comment was that parts of Kenya had been "rubberised". No matter where the Gospel is preached, be it Nairobi or Nairn, these four basic elements are essential. This is how the early disciples came into the Church of Jesus Christ, and nothing has changed. Are you aware of any other way?
Richard Graf avatar
Richard Graf
0 days ago
Our vocabulary has always revealed our beliefs. How unfortunate to say "unchurched" and mean "not like me and my church." And to say "unsaved" and mean anything other than "believing in and accepting the grace of God revealed in the words and works of the Savior, Jesus." Rather than "going to hell," when will we start preaching Jesus' message: that he came to give us abundant life here and eternal life forever. Terms like "unsaved" and "going to hell" fall on uncaring ears. Knowing, understanding, believing, and behaving according to the "Sermon on the Mount," and using Jesus' vocabulary there rather than "mincing our religious words," is true Christian Discipleship.
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
I believe that this article may make uncomfortable reading for some who contribute regularly here. The harsh truth of the sinful, lost condition of all who have not received Christ as personal Saviour is not only offensive to the unsaved, but sadly also to many liberal theologians of today. Go to China, North Korea, Indonesia,Cuba, etc., and you will not find the evil virus of universalism. Young successful pastors who boast in their prowess in filling mega-churches should pause and consider what is being said in this article.
Michael Wright avatar
Michael Wright
0 days ago
I agree that our vocabulary betrays our beliefs but you've praised a number of words that do just the same. I for one have a hard time believing a Calvanist or Arminian church can be evangelistic when they believe Christ's atonement wasn't good enough for people to invest their time and energy into all they encounter. The word "unbeliever" is incredibly deceptive as well. You will find a hazily articulate belief on both sides of the fence, and I would argue that there is no such thing as an unbeliever. Perhaps a better word is "decieved." But I also see that on both sides so what can you do? I personally find that thinking you can reach out to the wrong sort in any shape and form hurts evangelism. Even if its two Christians helping each other, the friends of the recieving Christian who are not in the faith still benefit from that experience.
Brad Brucker avatar
Brad Brucker
0 days ago
Good article. Don't know if a few different words are really the issue though. I think unchurched can very much mean unsaved without thinking I need them to come to my church. I believe the main problem is unsaved people aren't attracted to our churches anymore, because we have ceased being like Jesus. Jesus attracted the irreligious folks. Like the Pharisees, Many churches have become too religious and it's simply unattractive/ugly. Or, they become glitzy - all show. Jesus gave us he formula for winning the lost and it's quite simple - "Cling to the vine and you will bear fruit." Often, I think pastors and church growth proponents make it way too complicated. The Great commission, the Great commandments - clinging to Jesus - that's what he asked us to do. Everything else will follow! "I planted, Apollos water and He will cause the growth!"
Samson Akinshoto avatar
Samson Akinshoto
0 days ago
I'm so blessed by this article!! This is now a fundamental issue for consideration by the church. It's about the eternal work of salvation that Jesus did. It's indeed a call to restore the ancient landmark. The language has got to change back, for us to have the right focus again. Thank yoiu
Roger Lewis avatar
Roger Lewis
0 days ago
Great article. I know what I am saying when I refer to the unchurched but you are right. What it may be communicating is a watered down misdirected Gospel. Thanks for rattling us!
Keith  B avatar
Keith B
0 days ago
Good article.
John E Miller avatar
John E Miller
0 days ago
I do not wish to get into an argument, but referring to Michael Wright's post I must defend Trevin Wax's use of the word "unbeliever". It is entirely scriptural and along with the words "unbelief" and "unbelieving" appears frequently in the New Testament. The Lord Jesus uses the apellation in Luke 12:46.
David Mende avatar
David Mende
0 days ago
Excellent article! I've been reminded by the Lord once again that it is not about my church-growth, but it's about His Kingdom-growth! Pastor David Mende, India.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.