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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

COMMENTARY | Josh Laxton

Last spring, my wife and I bought a used minivan. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of minivans, nor am I a fan of buying a much-older car. (I didn’t learn auto repair in seminary.) However, I am a big fan of making my wife happy.

Not long after purchasing the van, I was driving with our three small children when, suddenly, after a few mildly intense sputtering episodes, the van died. There I was, with a broken down car, stranded in the middle of the road, with no shoulder to move the vehicle to safety. As I tried to decide what to do, my 4-year-old daughter had her own breakdown. Her piercing cries of, “Daddy, Daddy!” were accompanied by heavy sobbing and huge tears. Ellie broke down because of our van’s condition.

Josh_Laxton_July31For many of us, our churches are like my minivan. Depending on the source, 80-90% of churches are in a state of plateau or decline. They were running fine, but something happened along the way, and now the church is not functioning and operating the way Jesus intended—as a God-glorifying, gospel-centered, mission-oriented, disciple-making, church-planting vehicle. Sure, the flashers, radio, horn, and air still work (worship and programs are still going, committees are still meeting). But there is a breakdown in the primary reason for the church’s existence—it’s literally not moving, not going anywhere.

The question is not whether our churches need a breakout to the next level of growth or ministry. Rather, it’s how we as leaders can get them there. To do so, like Ellie, we need to have a breakdown over the condition of the church.

Nehemiah is an excellent example of a leader who identified the need for breakout, and in doing so, had a breakdown. Although he had never been to Jerusalem, he had great affection and concern for his homeland; therefore, when his brothers came to visit, he asked how his countrymen were faring. The news he received was bad; the people and the city were broken. The Bible says that upon hearing this, Nehemiah “wept and mourned” for days. In addition, he “continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”

What led to Nehemiah’s breakdown? Two key truths stand out:

First, he knew the truth about God and what God had called His people to be and do (Genesis 12:3; Exodus 19:4-6). When Nehemiah learned that the wall was in ruins and the people lived in great trouble and shame, he recognized that they were not where they were supposed to be. That has implications for our ministry today: Do we know with certainty the honest, transparent conditions of our church in relation to God’s intended reality, rather than our own presuppositions, preferences, or traditions?

Second, not only did Nehemiah know the truth about God’s intended reality for his people, he also knew the heart of God. In other words, he not only knew about God and His plan, but he also knew God. Thus, when he heard about the condition of the city and the people, he went immediately to the Father, weeping, morning, fasting, and praying.

He was broken over their condition because God was broken over their condition. As a result, the Bible tells us, Nehemiah “continued” going to the Father.

Nehemiah led in a way that reflected the heart of God and how He viewed the condition of the people. As leaders, are we leading in a way that reflects the heart of God towards the people in our churches?

Breakout in Jerusalem didn’t happen until Nehemiah broke down. The good news is that God still works in our brokenness to lead his people to breakout.

Josh Laxton is lead pastor of Western Oaks Baptist Church in Springfield. His second column on Nehemiah will appear in the August 18 issue of the Illinois Baptist, online at http://ibonline.IBSA.org.