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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.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2008 Kingdom People blog


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15 thoughts on “Unchurched or Unsaved? What Our Vocabulary Reveals About our Beliefs”

  1. Weston says:

    Excellent stuff. So true.

  2. Eric Peterson says:

    I agree that we too often congratulate ourselves for church growth that is really transfer growth or to put it bluntly: sheep stealing. Now there is something to be said of vibrant churches attracting new members from stagnant churches but if we are not proclaiming and living the cross would we be coming close to imitating the Corinthian church to whom Paul says “Already you have become kings”… New church members should be shown the way of the cross (humility, giving up your life, service, suffering, death) perhaps then “my” church growth would happen more slowly and evangelism would be primarily about the crossing of one Kingdom to another as the Body of Christ grows in number.

  3. owenstrachan says:

    Great stuff, Trevin. Thanks for this post. It’s amazing how little even staunch conservatives talk about hell these days. I’m all for majoring in grace, but the NT has a lot to say about judgment. Judgment is an impetus to repentance. We are to share the love of Christ, yes, and that will be incredibly attractive to some people, but we are also to share the judgment of God. Thanks for your thoughts, and nice writing besides.

  4. Well said.

    I would also add that we need to take a hard look at what we actually mean by “church”. Sadly, for a lot of people, church is just a place you go to on Sunday to sing and listen. I would submit that the church should be much more than that, especially given that the church is called the “body of Christ.” If any local gathering of Christians is not actively being the church (the body – the hands and feet of Christ) to the community around them, they shouldn’t call themselves a “church”. They might as well call themselves a holy club.

  5. Trevin Wax says:

    Thanks for the great follow-up comments. Each of you represent some aspects about church ministry that I have long thought about, and which have influenced this article in some way.

    We need the church to be the church and we need to see grace against the backdrop of judgment.

  6. Dave Reid says:

    Terry:

    I think there is some truth in your contention that changes in terminology can point to a watering down of the Gospel, especially regarding terms such as “unsaved” and “unchurched.” I wonder if the early church was concerned about such issues though! It seems that we’re often more concerned about the need to spread the Gospel than we are about the critical requirement to manifest its power to change our lives! The need in North America is for more evidence of the Gospel’s power to change lives.

  7. Ingrid Schlueter says:

    Amen!

  8. Kevin says:

    Exactly correct…and beautifully written.

  9. Brian says:

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a sermon said, “And there is a word that to Protestants has the sound of something commonplace, more or less indifferent and superfluous, that does not make their heart beat faster; something with which a sense of boredom is so often associated, or which at any rate does not lend wings to our religious feelings. Woe to us if that word to which I refer is “Church,” the meaning of which I propose to look at today.” And so began his sermon. If our Savior intended a definite “form” for his Church, and if one seeks to be obedient to Jesus’ intention, then one should belong to that which most fully embodies that intention. And thus he uses that Church, His Bride, His Body, so that salvation is effected in the lives of others. Unsaved or unchurched? One doesn’t decide between the two; they are not mutually exclusive.

  10. James says:

    Trevin, You are on track, I am an independent, because they for the most part still have the focus on equipping saints, instead of the whole “Chuch growth: idea of entertaining spectators. A little over a year ago Hybils stated that after years of entertainment he found that they had done very little to equip new believers for the duty of every Christian which is telling others about Christ. PC has made us sell the truth of God’s Word for a more comfortable lie. If our neighbor is merely unchurched than it isn’t a big deal that I have never told him about Jesus, but if he is on his way to Hell, it makes it a very bad thing if I have never warned him of his coming doom.

  11. Biff says:

    Great topic, thanks. I was wondering if you would be willing to invest a little time with another local blogger that appears to have immeasurable faith, but seems to need some guidance, and for lack of a better way to put it, understanding? He seems to be fascinated with the apocalypse and its implications. In all fairness, he may really be a nut, but I think he has good intentions and I am sure that I have seen him extend effort to learn. It would not really require any high-end or lengthy comments, but I think that just a little guidance from an educated person of faith would help him. Of course, you would have an anonymous user-name.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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