I have a confession to make—I’m a church conference junkie. In the last 10 years, I have been to dozens of church conferences looking for a magic bullet that will propel my ministry to superstar status. I’ve been to the leadership conferences of 5 of the 10 largest churches in America. I’ve even visited two churches in Korea that were so large, they made those huge American churches feel like living-room Bible studies.
I am one pastor in a sea of desperate pastors.
Of course, I’m not the only person at these conferences. I am one pastor in a sea of desperate pastors. We are all very aware of the downward trend of churches in America. Let me share some alarming statistics.
According to the Barna Research Group, evangelical churches failed to gain an additional two percent of the American population during the second half of the 20th century. In other words, we are not even reaching our own children.
According to Pastor H. B. London, in the past 15 years, the church in America has spent 500 billion dollars on domestic ministry and yet has shown no appreciable growth.
According to Charles Arn, not one county in America has a greater percentage of churched persons today than it did a decade ago.
The root of the problem is more than just declining attendance; it seems to spring from our inability to reach lost people with the good news of Jesus.
Evangelical churches failed to gain an additional two percent of the American population during the second half of the 20th century.
barna research group
The doubly depressing fact for me is this: After all the time and money spent, I discovered what people who are smarter than myself have known for a long time—there is no magic bullet. While models, systems, and methods all have their place in effective evangelism, these are not what drives evangelistic effectiveness.
As part of my doctoral studies, I have spent three years studying churches that are very effective at evangelism. Instead of looking at their evangelism methods, I looked below the surface and discovered that the power of a church that is effective at evangelism is not found simply in great ideas or great people. The real power is found in a much more subtle place: inside the collective soul of the individuals in a church.
In the past 15 years, the church in America has spent 500 billion dollars on domestic ministry and yet has no appreciable growth.
pastor h.b. london
In secular leadership writings, the corporate world is coming to appreciate that the culture of an organization has more to do with an organization’s effectiveness than methodologies or leadership. In the church world, I have discovered that one who cares deeply about evangelism for the right reasons is probably the most effective “method” of evangelism.
After visiting and interviewing dozens of people at America’s most evangelistic churches, I have found some common threads in the way that they intentionally shaped their church cultures. Let me share some of these with you.
At one church I visited, after weekend services, the leaders would linger to look for people whom they thought might be interested in a spiritual conversation. It was through these conversations that most of those who came to faith in this congregation began their spiritual journey.
Not one county in America has a greater percentage of churched persons today than it did a decade ago.
Leaders at this church worked to include others in spiritual conversations. These conversations enabled them to model to other leaders—potential and current—how to have a spiritual conversation and how to pray with someone to receive Christ. When leaders recognized that someone was ready to receive Christ, they would do what they called a “handoff” to a mentor. The leader would tell the person, “My friend here will pray with you,” and would then step aside and allow the mentor to pray with that person to receive Christ.
Last year, more than 1,600 people at this church made decisions to follow Christ. The leaders seemed to understand that what they model becomes part of the church’s culture over time.
Clarity of Purpose
When I interviewed people at these churches, I was amazed at how easily and clearly they were able to articulate why their churches existed and what their churches valued. They asserted that their church exists for those who are far from God. As a result, they have little room for Christian “consumers”—church shoppers who are looking only to have their own needs met. One of the leaders told me, “We’re not real concerned about getting churched people to come. If we were, we would probably do things a lot differently.”
Without our mission, we would not continue. We would not be a church just to be a church. We are a church with a mission.
A woman at another church put it this way, “Without our mission, we would not continue. We would not be a church just to be a church. We are a church with a mission.” This clarity of purpose seemed to repel those who had other agendas for the church, and attracted those who had a heart for the mission.
America’s most effective evangelistic churches have specific ways in which they celebrate someone coming to faith. At one church, for instance, the baptism ritual was a great time of celebration, in which the one who was most instrumental in bringing the new believer to faith carried out the baptism. At another church, the ritual was a little more fluid. Celebration usually focused around a personal declaration of faith in Christ; the leaders believed that it was important for the new believer to tell his or her own story as soon as possible.
These groups approach the celebration of new lives in Christ in different ways. However, they all recognize that what we celebrate shapes our culture. For this reason, they all take great care to see that those who come to faith in Christ have the opportunity to publicly attest to this new experience.
One surprising thing I observed about these churches was how informal the accountability was among the leadership for carrying the burden of evangelism. At one church, as part of weekly discipleship, the leaders were asked each week whom they were leading to Christ, with whom were they in spiritual conversation. These discussions were not in the form of formal accountability reports, but rather simple reminders each week of who they were as a body, and why the ministry existed.
I was amazed at how quickly these pastors could tell me how many people had come to faith in the last month or year. They had systems to measure their effectiveness in reaching out to the lost. I think they understood that what we measure gets our attention and therefore, shapes the culture.
Tying Everything Back to Mission
Each of the churches I studied communicated the importance of evangelism by showing the connection between what they did and the overall mission of the church. In one church, they had just finished a $25 million capital campaign for new and expanded children and youth facilities. The theme that they chose for the campaign was, “The Ripple Effect.”
Every week leading up to pledge Sunday, the church played a video interview with someone who had come to faith at the church. Then, they showed how that person’s coming to faith was tied to the one who had brought this new believer to the church, as well as to others who were affected by this conversion. After several weeks, the picture of the family tree was clear: When one person brings someone new to church, a “ripple effect” occurs as others come to faith as well.
Thus, the campaign for funding in this church was built not on the needs of youth or children or the desire for new facilities, but how these new facilities would provide a “ripple effect” for generations to come as children and youth came to faith in Christ at that church.
It is clear that even the most mundane of activities is done with the mission of the church in mind. For instance, nursery workers were not recruited. Instead, the leaders sought people who would provide safe environments for infants and toddlers so that the parents of these children would be able to hear about the love of Christ without fearing for their children while they attended their own age-specific services.
In conclusion, I have learned that the churches in America with the most effective evangelism don’t talk much about programming. A surprising 60 percent of those interviewed for this study indicated that their church had not given them any formal training in evangelism techniques. When pressed further, however, many realized that they had received plenty of informal training–through observation, mentoring, and paying attention to anecdotal stories. In short, evangelism was nurtured through the shaping of the corporate culture of these churches.
We need to think less about quick fixes and more about how to show the world that Jesus cares for them.
The culture of any organization does not change quickly. When new ideas are introduced, it can take as long as four years for change to happen, depending on the size of the organization. Frankly, most of us are not that patient. That is why we run to church conferences looking for magic bullets. However, if we are serious about reaching people for Christ, we need to think less about quick fixes and more about how to show the world that Jesus cares for them. It is only in this way that real evangelism can happen.
DANA ROBERT HICKS serves as lead pastor of Real Life Community Church in Nampa, Idaho, as well as Adjunct Professor of Missional Leadership at Northwest Nazarene University