By Joel Southerland
“A church cannot develop an excellent evangelism strategy without planning far in advance.” –Nathan Lorick in Dying to Grow
The evangelism decline among Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches has been well documented. When you look at the numbers as a whole you see a disturbing trend. In 2013 Southern Baptists baptized approximately 310,000 people, which represents the lowest number since 1948. It takes about 50 Southern Baptists to reach one person for Christ and see them through the baptistery.
The median baptisms for a SBC church is three. That’s down from five in 2005.
In 2013 about 26 percent of our SBC churches were growing and the rest were plateaued or declining. That gives us a good picture of the situation. We are headed in the wrong direction in almost every metric possible. However, not all of our churches are dying. Twenty-six percent are growing. If you take a statistical snapshot of the most evangelistic churches in every state and in 3 size categories (1-249, 250-499, 500+), you see a different picture.
Notice the difference between these and the normative church with three baptisms:
Average Baptisms among Top Evangelistic Churches in the South 114
Average Baptisms among Top Evangelistic Churches in the Northeast 31
Average Baptisms among Top Evangelistic Churches in the Midwest 37
Average Baptisms among Top Evangelistic Churches in the West 52
That is a big difference. There is an enormous gap between the normative church and the top evangelistic churches.
What’s In The Gap? What Makes The Difference?
I’m interested in what’s in the gap. What is the difference? And to what degree is the difference tied to leadership?
Here’s why I go to the leadership factor. How is it that one church struggles to grow under a particular pastor and then, when he resigns, another pastor comes to lead the church to sudden and rapid growth?
What does one pastor do differently from another? Is it even something the pastor does? Did the church actually change?
These are questions worth asking. If we can discover what’s in the gap we can then train other pastors in principles that grow their church and help them reach people for Christ.
Some Background On The Study
In 2014 we decided to take a snapshot of the top evangelistic churches in the nation and see if we could identify what takes them out of the realm of normative into the realm of highly effective evangelism. I did not just want to study the mega-church (though there is much to learn from them). I wanted to study every size church to put more handles on the practical insights we would glean. After all, a church of 100 in worship can more readily grasp insight from a church running 300 than they will from a church running 3,000.
We used two metrics and three size categories to find the top 20 evangelistic churches in every state. For evangelism metrics, we consider raw baptism numbers and baptisms per person in worship. By doing that, we made sure the church running 50 in worship and baptizing 10 would make the list. We looked at three different size categories (see paragraph two). Then we sent a survey to approximately 1,100 churches in the U.S. Every state had approximately 20 surveys sent to their top evangelistic churches from 2013. We also included the fastest growing churches and the top evangelistic churches from the past five years.
Responses and Evergreen Principles
About 500 churches responded to the survey–enough to give a good snapshot. What we were looking for were evergreen principles. An evergreen principle is a practical principle that is true regardless of technology, time, culture or context. It differs slightly from a best practice in that a best practice has some context associated with it.
The results are, so far, a mixture of evergreen principles and best practices. As we continue to process data over time, the hope is to refine the findings. The amount of data is enormous but after spending a year with the data I can confidently describe a top evangelistic church. (See the graph below.)
Here’s a quick summary of what makes a Top Evangelistic Church. We find in each case …
- A Pastor that Leads on Mission
Without a doubt, the number one factor to a church reaching people is the leadership of the pastor. Top evangelistic pastors lead their church to be evangelistic. They own this responsibility. The responsibility isn’t given to a staff member or key leader.
We found some specific things pastors do to lead on mission:
They have a Vibrant Vision – Evangelistic pastors have an exciting vision they continually keep in front of the congregation. You’ll find in printed in all their documents, plastered on the walls, set in stone and talked about from the pulpit. It’s not something written in an obscure document no one sees.
They have a Simple Strategy – You won’t find complexity in an evangelistic church but you will find strategy. They know how they are moving people from point A to point B. They know what they are doing to reach people for Christ and move them into a discipling relationship. And again … it is simple.
They create a Contagious Culture – Honestly, in most of these churches, you can feel it when you walk through the door. There’s something different. They aren’t striving to “create a culture,” rather, they are striving to “be the culture”
- A Church that Gathers on Mission
Top evangelistic churches aren’t just checking Sundays off the list. They aren’t gathering because Sunday happens to roll around on the calendar again. They gather with purpose and intent. They gather around the gospel and to engage people with the gospel. When they gather, whether it’s on Sunday or not, they expect to see people come to faith in Christ.
Here are some observations about their gathering:
They are Engaging when they gather. The music leans toward the contemporary style and it is always lively. There is an atmosphere in the service that engages members and guests and draws them in. In most cases, the music and the message finds a way to get the listener involved.
They are Expectant when they gather. We found an emphasis on God and guests. (You could say, spiritual awakening and customer service.) Evangelistic churches know they may have one opportunity to introduce a non-Christian to Christ and they don’t want to miss that opportunity. They maximize the opportunity to deliver an experience that connects guests with God.
They are Evangelistic when they gather. You always hear the gospel in these churches. It doesn’t matter the sermon topic, you’ll hear the gospel in the message. And it will be a clear presentation of the gospel. In the majority evangelistic churches there will be an invitation to receive the gospel.
- Members that Live on Mission
Relax. It’s not just about what happens on Sundays. It is also about what the members are doing during the week. Evangelistic churches find ways to mobilize and leverage volunteers to do the work of the ministry.
We often find that their members are:
Seeking. Not just seeking out lost people, but seeking opportunities to leverage their relationships, businesses, communities, passions and gifts to expand their influence for the gospel. They aren’t tied to some solitary weeknight outreach. They are living as missionaries where God has placed them. They see themselves as “sent.
Sharing. Evangelistic members share their faith. They don’t necessarily use a canned presentation but they talk to those around them about their faith. They have gospel conversations. Evangelistic churches train their members with gospel sharing tools and encourage them to incorporate their own story into the narrative.
Serving. Evangelistic churches encourage and allow members to serve around their passions and callings. They don’t force them into spaces they aren’t called or comfortable. Members are aware of their gifts and aware of the channels in which to employ those gifts. As a result, their service is personally exciting, engaging and feels like a natural outflow of their life purpose.
That’s what an evangelistic church looks like. How does yours compare?
Stay tuned to this blog as we go deeper and simplify the observations. We will interview evangelistic pastors so that we can give you handles on adopting them for your church and becoming a church on mission.
Joel Southerland is executive director for evangelism at the North American Mission Board.