New study shows factors that attract and keep new members

Attracting and keeping people considered unchurched is rated as the top predictor of growth through new professions of faith at small churches, according to a new study encompassing 12 Christian denominations including Southern Baptists.

“These churches are places of invitation, welcome, and involvement for the unchurched,” the study’s authors said. “So, the unchurched stick around in greater numbers. And they come to Christ and get committed to the church in greater numbers.”

The Billy Graham Center of Wheaton College conducted the newly released study in partnership with Lifeway Research of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Caskey Center for Church Excellence of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The telephone survey of 1,500 pastors and church leaders found and ranked 29 predictors of growth through Christian conversion at churches of 250 members or less. Study authors released the top 10 growth predictors June 26.

Second to attracting and keeping the unchurched, small churches that grow by Christian conversions tend to offer classes for new attendees, the study found. Such classes help even when they are not evangelistic.

Third, small churches that grow through new baptisms are led by pastors who routinely undergo personal evangelism training.

“If the pastor is a learner and stays inspired and growing in the area of evangelism,” study authors said, “that pastor’s church will reach more people who commit to Christ and who stick.”

Newcomers church growth chart

In response to declining baptisms in the U.S., Southern Baptist Convention President Steve Gaines appointed a 19-member evangelism task force at the 2017 SBC annual meeting. The group of SBC seminary presidents and professors, pastors, and a state convention leader are expected to report its findings at the 2018 SBC annual meeting in Dallas.

Nearly 90% of Southern Baptist churches had weekly attendance of 250 or less as recently as 2013, and qualified for the “small church category.”

In the Wheaton study, the other top growth predictors among small churches are:

  • The pastor more frequently “pops the question,” asking people to commit after he shares the gospel.
  • The church spends a higher percentage of its budget on evangelism and missions.
  • Church members often tell the pastor that they themselves are sharing the gospel with others, rather than relying on the pastor to carry the load alone. “The church does not need superstar pastors who share their faith while everybody in the church cheers them on from the sidelines,” study authors said.
  • Unchurched visitors often communicate favorable feedback to pastors after weekly worship services.
  • The church shares the gospel outside its walls and conducts community service.
  • Churches that grow through conversions concurrently tend to draw members from other congregations. “In other words,” study authors wrote, “transfer and conversion growth tend to go together for small churches.”
  • Cited as the 10th most predictive factor of growth through new conversions, according to the study, “the pastor more frequently blocks out time in the calendar for the purpose of sharing the gospel with non-Christians. If the pastor is to lead evangelism in the church, the pastor must first personally live out the evangelism call.”

Smaller churches in the survey, those with 150 or fewer members, tended to grow more easily than the larger small churches in the survey, the study found. Additionally, predominantly Hispanic and Native American churches tended to fare better in growth.

Joining Southern Baptists in responding to the survey are members of the Assemblies of God, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, Converge Worldwide, the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Evangelical Free Church in America, The Foursquare Church, the Missionary Church, Vineyard US, and The Wesleyan Church.

Study authors include Ed Stetzer, executive director of Wheaton’s Billy Graham Center for Evangelism and former LifeWay Research executive director.

LifeWay Research plans to release a full report of the study at lifewayresearch.com.

– Diana Chandler, Baptist Press

A sunset in the rearview mirror of car as a races down the road

I recall researching an article a few years back on the actions messengers took at certain conventions. Some years were marked by insightful and course-altering votes; others had no discernable effect. With the advantage of hindsight, we ask, What actions from the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention will have lasting impact on our denomination and the effectiveness of our work in the world?

The vote on alt-right racism will be remembered; and the appointment of a task force on evangelism has the potential to change our direction. But there was one motion that could produce even greater, meaningful change—if it makes it past the Executive Committee. And there’s a second that I want to suggest.

Modest proposal 1: Shall we merge the mission boards?

A couple of years ago, a messenger moved that a merger of the North American and International Mission Boards be studied. When his motion was ruled out of order for parliamentary reasons, the messenger pleaded that exploration of the issue not be delayed because of procedural rules. He cited the emerging financial crisis of the IMB and cuts in missionaries on the field that had just been announced as motivating factors. At the time, it was clear that NAMB had plenty of reserves, and a merger could fix the money crunch. But rules are rules, and the motion was dead.

Until this year.

A similar motion was made at the 2017 meeting in Phoenix. Here’s how Baptist Press reported it, in a list of motions that were referred to the Executive Committee:

“A motion by Harvey Brown of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., requesting the president appoint a study committee to consider the feasibility of merging IMB and NAMB.”

There was no discussion this time around, or emotional pleading for the sake of missionaries on the field. And frankly, it seems some of steam has escaped on this topic.

IMB reported it is on firm financial footing. IMB President David Platt has weathered a couple of storms, and with the honeymoon over, he appears to be settling in for a long ministry focused on global missions. Platt still partners with NAMB, speaking at conferences about church planting in North America. But his heart beats for the peoples of the world.

And NAMB President Kevin Ezell has stopped making the offer, publically at least, for IMB to relocate from Richmond to Alpharetta. During Platt’s first year, Ezell said there was plenty of room at NAMB’s Georgia headquarters since his administrative staff had been radically downsized. Ezell still cheers for Platt’s presidency, but the pair aren’t making as many joint appearances. Maybe both have found their footing.

The question arises every decade or two: Is the distinction between “home” missions and “foreign” missions outdated (just as those terms are)? Should missions today be focused more on people groups and languages than geography—including in the United States? As the “nations” (translating ethnos as “nations” or “peoples”) have come to North America, should missionaries here share the gospel with them in the same ways they would back in their home countries?

And this: Should state conventions (again) lead church planting in their states, as the missions personnel most familiar with the nearby mission field and with the partner churches who can facilitate evangelistic church planting ministry?

Will one mission board focused on people groups, and state conventions focused on their own neighborhoods better achieve the evangelization of the world and the U.S.?

I can’t say for certain, but it’s a good time to explore the issue.

Modest proposal 2: Virtual messengers? In the next issue.

– Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.

The Briefing

Charlie Gard’s parents end fight for treatment
Charlie Gard’s parents ended their bid to get an experimental treatment for their 11-month-old son after doctors determined he had irreversible muscular damage. Lawyer Grant Armstrong blamed the long delay in treating Charlie for ending his chance at life: “It’s too late for Charlie. The damage has been done.”

Supreme Court asked to hear Baptist florist’s appeal
Less than one month after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review the case of a Colorado baker who declined to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding celebration because of his religious beliefs about marriage, lawyers asked the high court to combine it with a similar case involving Barronelle Stutzman, a Southern Baptist and owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington.

‘Message’ author retracts support for same-sex marriage
Eugene Peterson, author of over 30 best-selling books — including a paraphrasing of the Bible, “The Message” — is reversing on comments he had previously made that seemed to support same-sex marriage. The 84-year-old caused a controversy in the evangelical community when he said during an interview with Religious News Service that he would perform a same-sex marriage if he were still working as a pastor.

Ole Miss coach resigns amid scandal, requests prayer
The forced resignation of Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze — an outspoken follower of Jesus — amid what the university described as “moral turpitude” has left believers disappointed and expressing hope for repentance. Freeze, a regular speaker at churches and conferences, resigned after the university discovered a “pattern of personal misconduct inconsistent with the standards we expect from the leader of our football team.”

Americans feelings mixed on sex, religion
Americans love to fight about sex and religion; but when faith and sexuality clash, which side should prevail? Americans can’t decide. About half of Americans (48%) say religious freedom is more important in such conflicts when faith and sexuality clash, according to a new study. A quarter say sexual freedom is more important and a quarter aren’t sure.

Sources: World Magazine, The Daily Signal, People, Baptist Press, LifeWay Research

Interior of airplane with people inside

Boarding a small airplane recently, I immediately noticed the cheerful, positive demeanor of the lone flight attendant. It was early in the morning, and amidst the crowd of bleary-eyed passengers shuffling onto the plane, she beamed like a ray of sunshine.

After welcoming us on board and making sure we were all buckled in and our carry-on luggage stowed, she proceeded to give us the prescribed safety instructions that anyone who has flown often could probably recite from memory. But instead of monotonously reading from a script about emergency exits and unlikely water landings, she delivered the entire speech from memory, yet with great personal warmth and conviction.

I was impressed, even inspired. But what I have not yet forgotten about this exceptional young lady are her spontaneous words after delivering that mandatory safety speech. She paused, and then with the most childlike wonder and enthusiasm you can imagine, she said, her eyes twinkling, “And now—it’s time to fly!”

Oh, I wish I could better convey in writing the way she bade us to the heavens with that one well-delivered phrase. As many times as she had undoubtedly endured the routines of stowing luggage, delivering safety speeches, and serving soft drinks and peanuts, she had not yet lost the wonder of getting to fly.

A few days later, I heard a comedian on a talk show describing his own recent experience on an airplane. As he awaited takeoff, he said he was contemplating the miracle that he would soon be sitting in a cylindrical tube 30,000 feet in the air, hurling through the atmosphere at 500 miles-per-hour to arrive cross country in less than four hours, a trip that used to take early pioneers a lifetime. Just then the flight attendant announced that wireless internet would not be available on that flight, and the man sitting next to the comedian flew into a fit of profanity. How quickly, he observed, we turn miracles into entitlements, and entitlements into opportunities for criticism.

How quickly indeed.

The word “miracles,” of course, turned my thoughts to the many spiritual blessings that I too often take for granted, or consider entitlements. Every week, I gather freely with other believers and have fresh opportunity to celebrate the resurrected Lord Jesus and the transformational difference he has made and is still making in my life. Every week I sing, along with people I call brother and sister, the songs of our deliverance from sin, our new life purpose, and eternity in heaven. Every week, I hear from God’s word a new, relevant message that applies to me personally.

With all that being true, it seems that every week, every worship leader in every local church should stand and tell us, “And now—it’s time to fly!” Yet it may be more common for us to settle into familiar weekly routines and even rituals. It may be more common for us to take for granted the gathering for corporate worship, and consider it an entitlement. It may be more common for us to complain about what programs or services didn’t meet our standards, or what people disappointed us.

That cheerful, positive flight attendant reminded me that it only takes one sincerely excited and grateful worshiper to call other sleepy souls out of their routines and criticisms. One person who recaptures the wonder and miracle of the church assembling together in God’s presence can rekindle that wonder in others. This Sunday, I will not be a presumptuous passenger who feels entitled to the miracle of access to God that cost Jesus so much. This Sunday, my worship will say to any on board with me, “And now—it’s time to fly!”

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.

Young family

Gen-Z has its own language and way of communicating. How can we connect?

Her inquisitive 4-year-old sat in his booster seat snacking on chips, staring out the window, and watching the world pass by.

“Daddy, why is the sky blue?”

Leneita Fix listened as her husband gave a simple yet scientific answer to her sweet boy. Then boy asked, “Why do cows moo?”

Her husband began talking about the communication strategies of livestock when her son posed a third question.

“How did Jesus do it? How did he take away my sin?”

Fix and her husband glanced at each other. Wow, where to start? Better not mess this up with the wrong words and confuse him. Maybe talk about the ABC’s of being a Christian? Or focus on the theology of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. Probably need to tell him the definition of sacrifice—

“Whoa! Look at the size of this Dorito!!” the child said next.

“I love to tell that story because it perfectly exemplifies the reality of Generation Z,” said Fix, speaker, missions and training coordinator for BowDown Church and Urban Youth Impact in West Palm Beach, Florida, and author of several books including No Teenager Left Behind. “This generation has so much information at their fingertips that they are used to having the answers immediately. They want to soak up information, including deep spiritual truths about who God is, but they have only about an 8-second attention span.”

Getting it right
Generation Z is the group of children and students who are being raised and launched into the world right now. Born between 1995 to the present, Gen-Z is nicknamed the “Always On Generation” because they’ve never known a life without a touchscreen, without global terrorism, without civic unrest and financial unrest, and they have a unique perspective of what a normal family unit looks like.

“Another difference is while Millennials are well-known for dealing with FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, Generation Z is more concerned with FOMU, or Fear of Messing Up,” Fix said during her D6 Connect Tour presentation at First Baptist Church Bethalto.

Sky, cow, Jesus, Dorito: This teacher’s story shows how today’s kids can think deep thoughts—and shallow ones—almost at the same time. How will parents make the most of the moments they have to communicate about the more important matters?

“They have a deep need to know the right answers and having Google at their fingertips leaves no room for doubt. Studies show that Gen-Z is destined for success in both college and career and they care about injustice more than any other generation in history.” However, it’s their fear of imperfection and “not getting it right” that Fix said could easily derail their ambitions.

“We have to teach them the difference between messing up and intentionally making wrong decisions,” Fix said. “It’s OK to not know the answer or to have questions. We all have questions and don’t have it all figured out. Give them the space and grace to not be perfect. However, if they intentionally choose not to do a homework assignment or some other truly wrong decision, that’s not OK.”

And despite every preventive measure taken, Brian Housman, author of Tech Savvy Parenting, said wrong choices and moral failures are going to happen. He said parents and the church support system must always parent with the end game in mind.

Housman used the example of a video he once saw of 16-year-old Bobby Fisher playing ten games of chess at once. He won every match and when interviewed about how he kept track of each game Fisher said based on the opponent’s prior moves and body language, he developed a strategy to win and then just let that strategy play out.

“We have an end-game in mind financially and in our careers,” Housman said. “We need to focus on the end-game with our kids and the good news is that we’re not alone. We are partnering with the Savior to raise them to be like Christ.”

Without the end game in the forefront, parents default to wanting to change feelings and even unintentionally guilt their kids into better behavior.

“We’ve become geniuses at sin management and masters at behavior modifications,” Housman said. “Christian parents, particularly those in the ministry, are more concerned about the appearance of things and what might make us look bad. We make it about us when we want to change the feeling or their behavior. We need to seek to change their heart.”

“The best approach to moral failure in our kids is the same as God’s approach to us,” he said. “God never shames his children. He loves first, forgives, acknowledges the wrongdoing, but understands what we’re going through. God chooses to be with
us as we walk out of it.”

Say it, don’t Snap it
Communication is key. This generation is bombarded with messages coming at them from every one of their devices. However, when it comes to hearing the messages that matter, Fix said face-to-face interaction is still the best way.

“Don’t over complicate things,” she said. “Generation Z is striving for authenticity. Many studies have shown that they actually prefer face-to-face communication over the multitude of other options. Yes, they talk through Snapchat and Instagram and even through their video games, but the people they consider themselves closest to are those they see every day at home, church, and school.”

But never wait for the perfect moment to have an in-depth conversation, because that moment will never come for these success-driven kids. Instead, Fix suggests utilizing the margins of time between practices and appointments, dinner prep, or yard work.

“There is no longer the space or grace to wait,” she said.

“Remember sky, cow, Jesus, Dorito. Sometimes God will lay an encouraging word or thought on my heart and I text it to my kids right away, because they need to know God loves them and I love them all the time. We need to become really good at communicating in the moments we have.”

-Kayla Rinker is a freelance writer living in Park Hills, Mo. 

Rites of summer: VBS

ib2newseditor —  July 17, 2017
VBS-Rockford

Living Stones Community Church, Rockford

A woman pulling dandelions along the sidewalk in front of her house seems willing, even eager to take a break.

“Well,” she says, “the church is over there about a block,” pointing westward along one of the community’s few streets. “But the marker you’re asking about is right over there, waving a hand holding weeds southward.

“That’s where it really started, so that’s where they put the marker.”

It’s clear that Hopedale, Illinois is still proud of its place in history as the one-horse, no stop-light town that birthed an international movement: Vacation Bible School.

In the late spring of 1894, Mattie Pritchard Miles, wife of Hopedale’s Methodist minister, had a bold idea: take advantage of the summer break to teach otherwise idle children about the Bible. She planned a day of Bible teaching and activities “for all children of whatever church—or no church at all.” From the beginning, VBS has been about outreach. Perhaps that’s why its first organizer took the school outside the walls of her church and denomination.

The meeting place was on the grounds outside the elementary school, where the historical marker stands today, with the park next door.

Some 37 children showed up.

What’s even more remarkable is that Mrs. Miles didn’t hold a one-week VBS, or even two-weeks as some older people may remember. Her Vacation Bible School lasted 26 days over five weeks.

The 1894 school quickly became a model for churches and denominations everywhere. The big stone marker includes a time capsule that is to be opened in 2094, on the 200th anniversary of VBS.

In the meantime, proponents of the summertime discipleship ministry, and Southern Baptists in particular, still see its value for evangelism as well as discipling children (and adults). LifeWay reports that 25% of all baptisms in SBC churches come through VBS.

Consider these other 2015 statistics from LifeWay, which produces VBS curriculum especially for SBC churches.

• Every one person trained in VBS in SBC churches results in 1.1 salvation decisions.
• 10% of people enrolled in SBC VBS are unchurched.
• 2.7 million people enroll in VBS each year.
• 72,925 people each year accept Christ as Lord and Savior.
• 2,666 people commit their lives to church-related vocations through VBS.
• 56,386 people enroll in Sunday School/small group Bible study as a result of attending VBS.

Mrs. Miles lived 55 years after her first month-long experiment. By 1949, VBS was a well-established tradition that continues to reach children and families and to change lives today.

-Eric Reed

Very bold prayer

ib2newseditor —  July 13, 2017
John Knox

John Knox

“Give me Scotland, or I die!”

It’s a bold prayer for a man whose ministry is founded on the sovereignty of God, and it might seem contradictory to some. How can a theologian count on God to do as he alone wills, yet plead for the Sovereign to be so moved for the salvation of souls and the upheaval of his nation. But that’s how John Knox believed firmly—and how he prayed fervently.

What Martin Luther was to Germany, and Knox was to Scotland. And what John Calvin was to reformed theology overall, Knox was to Presbyterian doctrine in particular. Brave, he kept his head when others were losing theirs to Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots.

John Knox House in Edinburgh

John Knox house in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Born in 1514, three years before Luther nailed his 95 accusations to the church house door in Wittenberg, Knox grew up in the foment of political revolution and spiritual reformation. He was described as violent in the streets and fiery in the pulpit. Knox was forced to flee Scotland, at one point enslaved 19 months in galley ships. Later, he met Calvin in France. He was so impressed with Calvin’s school in Geneva, according to a Christian History account, that he called it “the most perfect school of Christ that was ever on the earth since the days of the apostles.”

Returning to Scotland, Knox led the Scottish Reformation, a movement that birthed the Presbyterian Church and ultimately ended the reign of the Catholic queen. “He lived in the 16th century, and much of modern Scotland is really the fruit of his labors,” said Jeff Tippner, a minister in St. Fergus and organizer of a post-Brexit evangelistic campaign with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

When Graham’s grandson Will preached at that series of crusade meetings in Scotland last year, he invoked the prayer of Knox, as his famous grandfather had in 1955. The elder Graham explained the sometime dichotomy of reformation theology and crusade evangelism this way: “I believe in a sovereign God who still performs miracles.”

– Eric Reed