Five Sobering Realities about Evangelism in Our Churches

My wife said she did not understand a word I said to her.


I was attempting to explain our research on 1,000 randomly chosen churches, and she had a blank look on her face. I knew what was taking place. A statistical nerd (me) was trying to share research with a normal person (my wife).

Such is the conundrum where I find myself. This research is incredibly revealing, but I often speak in such statistical terms that I cloud its import.

Allow me, then, to attempt to write with some clarity. Let me know if I have not succeeded. Here are some prefatory comments:

  • In this article, I am addressing the issue of evangelism in our churches. Churches measure conversion growth in different ways. The churches in our study measure conversion growth by baptisms.
  • The best way we know to measure evangelism effectiveness is the number of conversions relative to the size of the church. We often used membership as a measure of the size of the church in the past. That number unfortunately is no longer statistically relevant. Too many churches have inflated membership rolls. Some churches ignore membership altogether.
  • We are now using average worship attendance as our metric for church size. We will look at the number of conversions relative to the average worship attendance of the church. For example, a church with an evangelism ratio of 19:1 is reaching one person a year with the gospel for every 19 persons in attendance. To be clear, lower ratios are better; higher ratios are worse.
  • Do not compare these ratios to any ratios that have used membership as a metric for size! Any such comparisons are “apples and oranges” comparisons.
  • Please read my previous articles on our research to understand its scope.

So, with the statistical nerdy language done, allow me to share five sobering realities on evangelism in our churches.

  1. Growing churches are growing largely by transfer growth. Most of them are not reaching people with the gospel. They are growing at the expense of other churches. The conversion ratio of all 1,000 churches is 19:1. Growing churches are only slightly better at 17:1. Their growth comes largely from other churches.
  2. The number of effective evangelistic churches (EEC) is surprisingly stable. We defined an EEC church as one whose conversion rate is at least 50 percent better than the average. Although very few churches are growing evangelistically, the number of such churches is pretty stable. I did a study of EEC churches in 1996. The percentage of such churches has remained in the narrow range from 6 percent to 7.5 percent. Though we don’t have many evangelistic churches, the numbers have really not declined over two decades.
  3. Churches that are not in the EEC category are doing much worse evangelistically than in previous years. A non-evangelistic church twenty years ago typically did poorly in evangelism. A non-evangelistic church today is typically doing really, really, really poorly today. There is a widening chasm between these two groups of churches.
  4. Evangelism in the EEC churches is a clear priority. I’m stating the obvious here. But many churches are not doing the obvious.
  5. There are clear and discernible patterns of action in EEC churches. It’s fascinating to see the simple consistency in evangelistic churches. We will be sharing these patterns in future articles.

I am praying God will lead our churches to an evangelism renewal. Please join me at where we will be sharing details of our research and much more. You can get a free eBook by me on evangelism renewal when you sign up

May God send an incredible evangelism renewal to our churches.

And may it begin in me.

Posted on July 10, 2017

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • With all due respect to the effort that went forth in gathering/presenting this data – regarding the failure of the church to evangelize – and to all those who have commented, I have a couple of things to say . . .

    1) We fail at evangelism because we do not have a burden for the lost and their ultimate plight should they die in their sins without having recieved Christ, as Lord and Savior.
    However, look at God’s exhortation to all of us – ”Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men . . . ” – 2 Corinthians 5:11

    2) We will go to great lengths to not make sinners feel bad about their sin. However, scripture tells us something quite different: ‘For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation . . . . ” 2 Corinthians 7:10

    3) We use carnal means to reach the lost. And yet scripture clearly instructs us that repentance that leads to salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit. We seek to do God’s will, man’s way. – ”Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ Says the Lord of hosts.”
    Zechariah 4:6

    I could go on and on, but I think we all understand, that no amount of strategizing, planning, etc. is going to win souls for Christ. Only fully committed men and women of God, filled with the Holy Ghost and power, declaring the life giving words of the gospel to lost men, is going to save them from a devils hell that burns with the fierceness of Almighty God’s wrath.

  • Terry L. Prichard says on

    “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” – attributed to Alice Walker

    Be reminded that the Holy Spirit of God lives within you; He is there and He is real. He walks, talks, and guides the obedient believer. Do not “overthink” this thing. Just be there, be obedient, and get out of His way. We are not here to gather the harvest; rather, to plant the seeds.

  • R. LeBaube says on

    Evangelism has gotten a bad rap over the years. Evangelism efforts that begin the conversation with the question, “are you saved? or “do you know Jesus as your personal Savior” are seen as in your face evangelism and is an immediate turn-off for many people. Thus putting Christians and the church in a bad light for many people.
    Also, for too long “Reproductive Evangelism”, trusting that our children and grandchildren will perpetuate the Christian faith and church has been the complacent effort of far too many Christians and churches.
    Jesus tells us that we are to love God with our entire being and love our neighbor as we love our self. It is therefore our obligation to be as concerned with our neighbors salvation as we are with our own.
    Finding the most effective way to reach out with the Good News of Jesus Christ must be a top priority for Christians and the church. Discovering and delivering new ways to cause new people to thirst for the living water of faith must be the emphasis of today’s evangelistic efforts.

  • What if it were true that…..

    1) God sends us the people who come?

    2) The people join our churches under our rules and our oversight?

    3) God sees the 30% +/- attendance/membership ratio?

    4) The conclusion is that we are making converts but not making disciples?

    5) God withdraws His blessing on discipleship-less evangelism?

    We have had more evangelism strategies and programs than I can recall, in the last 36 years in an SBC church. I mean, we even copied one from a Presbyterian Church, of all things!

    Evangelism? We’re good at it. Making disciples? Not so much, and that is the Great Commission.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You got it, Bob.

    • 5) God withdraws His blessing on discipleship-less evangelism?

      Well though; even still, we know that no disobedience will stop the Lord, to His praise and glory. So to: “I am praying God will lead our churches to an evangelism renewal.” And to “I’m praying for God to intervene and replace the natural thinking in our churches with the supernatural power of His Spirit.” -we say amen! joining in.

      Acts 2:42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. 44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

  • One passage that has always impacted my view on Evangelism is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. I tell my Christian friends to imagine if they were Lazarus and could look down into hell who would they see? A relative? A friend? The checkout person at the grocery store?

  • Here is one good reason to keep evangelism alive. Ben Franklin had some great insight early in our nations history. This comes from in an article talking about Christianity and Democracy:

    As U.S. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin said, “Man will ultimately be governed by God or by tyrants.” When a culture abuses its democratic power, the result is chaos and ruin. Either a democracy, guided by self-control and morality, keeps itself in check, or it crashes. When the crash happens, control falls to a non-democratic system, either willingly or by force. Cultures that drift from Christianity tend to drift from “true” democracy into other, democracy-flavored political schemes and, eventually, into subjection to tyranny.

  • On March 31st after giving birth, my wife had emergency surgery then later received CPR twice as I watched. That’s the short version of the trauma for me. She has come back to me by the power and grace of God and is living at 200% now!

    My point, this trauma rocked my world. It has changed my life. I’m not longer ok with no caring about the souls around me who are not ready to die. I can’t be ok with the fact that most will spend all eternity in torment (Mt. 7:13-14).
    So, I have become a reckless evangelist as a result of our experience. I share Christ even though I’m really not very good at it. Loving people and not explaining eternity to people is an oxymoron to me now. I know I’m recklessly stumbling through it… but I’m done with that being an excuse.

    My first question is how a pastor can successfully shepherd his people to be evangelistic without them going through such a trauma in their own lives. One of my passions now is to get the flock to think less of their temporary discomfort in sharing the truth of Christ and think more of the discomfort in eternity for their family, friends, and neighbors who are lost.

    I have come to a place where sharing the gospel is more natural (supernatural really). So my second question is there a way to bring people to a natural place of telling others versus a program, or a book, or a cookie cutter process?? Are the EEC churches using processes? Sure God can and does use these. Yet the early church had none of these and was great at telling others even to the point of losing their own life. They had a love for the lost and a love for the gospel message that saves. I want that for the flock I shepherd.

    I’m looking forward to what’s coming from you, Mr. Rainer. I hope it helps me and others on the path to bringing souls into eternity, and not just from another church into our own.

    • Jesse, I’m not a pastor, but for a simple answer as to how best motivate members to evangelize I would recommend encouraging every member to go on a 10 day to two week, out of this country missions trip. Whether it be medically related or helping to build a church, or helping a community after a storm.
      I thought I was a pretty good Christian till I took my first missions trip to help build a church in Mexico City. Getting out of my comfort zone helped me to see what a self-centered man I really was. It was a wake-up call to myself.
      If I were a pastor, a prerequisite to membership or leadership in the church would be having faithfully taken part in at least one short term missions trip.

      • Charles, great thought!
        So, you are saying your mission trip has led you to evangelize the lost around you then? I see the benefit and believe in short-term mission trips, yet my heart longs for the mission field that is right outside the doors of our church members. I’d love to do short term mission trips into the community in addition to another country.

    • As a pastor and former youth pastor, I believe that the only way to reach that moment that you are talking about is intentional submission to the Holy Spirit. Let me explain. I tell our church members constantly that until you clearly see written on the foreheads of those around you, “I am going to hell, what are you going to do about it?” then evangelism will not be a priority for you. We talk, almost weekly, as a church about who, specifically, you shared Christ with this week. True gospel conversations, not just God conversation. We ask for names of the unsaved and put them up on our screens with a fiery background to remind us that we are dealing with eternity. We pray, we preach, we proclaim. We take people with us to their own sphere of influence to talk Jesus with others. We prayer walk the neighborhoods of our members, asking God to give us these lost souls. Not everyone is on board. Not everyone “gets it”. That is not our job, that is a Jesus matter. Fear is not of God. We simply try to live out the gospel through our actions, speech, and thoughts. Does it work? I believe that Acts shows us that it does. Have we arrived? No, there is much work to do. But I am persuaded that living on mission is our mandate and the rest is up to God.

      • Joshua, now that’s intentional!
        I love the concept of praying over names in a home group, or between members who are mentoring, or at elder meetings… that’s more like the accountability Rainer talks about.

        Intentional submission is awesome, with the right motivation. I’ve seen to much guilt motivated evangelism in my days. Love is what motivates, and love resounds with the lost soul too.

        I agree with you, it’s got to be our mission, our passion, our vision. That’s what Rainer is saying in these evangelism posts and he is spot on.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I love your story, Jesse, and all the other comments here. We are learning about day by day about these EEC churches. I’m looking forward to sharing with all of you about them in the near future.

    • AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • I often wonder if seminaries are spending more time training students in the art of sheep stealing and fleecing rather than evangelism. I have had some very interesting conversations with new pastors in the area. It was clear that they didn’t know much about the Scriptures, but they were well trained to sniff out those in the community who had money–especially if they were already serving at another church.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Tim –

      To be fair, I don’t see that type of training coming from seminaries. I have worked at and with a number of seminaries, and none of them advocate sheep stealing. The seminaries are very consistent advocating the students to reach the unchurched with the gospel.

    • While I understand your frustration, could it simply be that churches losing members aren’t able to or are willing to change to meet the needs of their members nor the non-Christians in their area, while other churches are seeking to meet the needs of the community.
      It sounds like you’ve had members leave from your church; have you ever spoken to people who have changed churches to see what brought about that change or what it would take to have them come back?

  • Allen James says on

    Sorry for the ignorance. Can you explain what you mean by ‘conversion rate’ (19:1)?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      No ignorance at all, Allen. Check the third bullet point above for the description of conversion rate. To calculate it, divide average worship attendance by total annual conversions.

  • Good day, Tom. In your preparatory statements you specifically speak to the issue of inflated membership numbers in most churches. Is it possible then that many church “members” haven’t been genuinely changed by the gospel? If so, then it’s likely that churches that are reaching the de-churched aren’t guilty of proselytizing nor are they ineffective in evangelism. They are, rather, actually connecting lost church members to the gospel. Just an observation.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You are correct, Tony. We have posted a lot at this site and on the podcast on unregenerate church membership.

  • Churches are preaching from the pulpit to evangelize, yet congregation members feel ill-equipped. More must be done to give church members better strategizes and tools in how to most effectively evangelize in this post modern world.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Sandi. Some of the simplest and yet most profound anecdotal information we have is related to how church members share the gospel consistently: they pray for opportunities to do so. It seems as if the Holy Spirit gives us the words and the responses when we are simply obedient.

    • Well said, Sandi. In the South African context (where I minister) most people who attend church services are already evangelised so if were doing our evangelism there then we’re largely preaching to the converted.

      Os Guinness has an amazing book called “Fools Talk” which looks at evangelism in the post-modern world which is well worth reading.

      Thom, your reply to Sandi refers to praying for opportunities for evangelism … which reminds me of the amazing book by John Wimber “Power Evangelism” which promoted exactly that (and which is being ‘reawakened’ again with huge results). Bruce Wilkinson, in his video series on The Prayer of Jabez also showed the effectiveness of this sort of ‘prayer nd power evangelism’.

      I think most ‘growing’ Churches in South Africa today are growing by ‘shuffling members’. I’m waiting with huge interest, Thom, to see some of your conclusions.


    • I think most church members, those are truly saved, can share the Gospel very easily by just telling what God did for them. That’s being a testimonial experience about their own salvation. If we wait until we’re an accomplished teacher or disciple, we’ll never get anywhere. God hasn’t told us to be a college graduate. Only a “cop out” is all I can see with this reasoning. Church’s are packed with this type Christian.

      • jonathon says on

        >those are truly saved, can share the Gospel very easily by just telling what God did for them.

        That is what happens when one is practicing evangelism by lifestyle. When, for whatever reason, you’ve been granted the privilege of sharing the Gospel with another person.

        Evangelism is not “My God is the One True God and you are worshiping a False God”. Nor is it an emotional bomb detonated upon the individual. The former makes for people that are even more resolute in their beliefs, and hostile towards one, whilst the latter makes for people that grow no closer to Christ, than Mao Zedong.

        Which is not to say that Christian Apologetics is not needed.
        The questions and issues raised by the Four Horsemen (Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) dominate the Zeitgeist. Unfortunately, there is very little material from a Christian POV, that addresses those issues, without quoting the Bible. The issue here is that when the Bible is rejected a-priori, as false, quoting from it simply endorses the position held by the other side.
        (How many people realize that the Celtic Kings traced their lineage back to Noah and the flood?
        How many people are aware that King David is mentioned in official documents of other kingdoms. Granted, they mention him as a minor king of an insignificant tribe of worthless people and even more worthless land.))

        An interesting thought experiment is how to convert Richard Dawkins to Christ:
        * What would work on the intellectual level?
        * What would work on the social level?
        * What would work on the emotional level?
        Perhaps more important, is how many preachers are both willing and able to teach their flock how to reach the unreachable, and persuade the unpersuadable, without quoting the Bible?

        Note: I’m not saying that the Bible is unnecessary. It is critical, and needs to be studied daily. For those that reject Christ, the Bible is of no import, and citing it weakens the case for Christ.
        The Bible starts sounding far more plausible, when one reads the complaint by the general that his troops won’t fight, because they are scared of the talking animals used by the enemy. Obviously that story grew in the retelling of it, but what appears to be the root story is in the Bible.

      • Christopher Harold says on

        Hey Jonathan, I definitely understand what you are saying and have felt the same way but what you are failing to understand is EVANGELISM is about preaching the gospel to the lost , in other words, planting/watering seeds (breaking up fallow ground) and let God give the increase and do the saving.

        The mistake you will make by trying to stay in the intellect is your words won’t be as effective as God’s word. His Word never comes back void and we have an ally with the conscience (Rom 1:18) and you should always use that to your advantage and get to the morals by using the Moral Law first and then share the Gospel.

        Staying in the intellect only leads to debate after debate and all atheists know God exists, they just choose to deny it. Use God’s Word along with logic (science, knowledge) and let God cause the increase.

  • I am geeky enough to finally understand how a batter who hits the ball and makes it to 3rd base is only credited with a single. I understand what you are saying. However, if you are having trouble evangelizing (keeping) the children who grew up in a church (I don’t mean they left because they physically moved, but remained in the faith) how can you convert someone?

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