One Common Factor in Churches That Start Declining

Over fifteen years ago, I led a major research project on the characteristics of the most evangelistic churches in my denomination. My team was able to identify 576 churches that represented the top five percent of all churches in conversion growth.

From that point, we were able to identify nine correlated characteristics of churches that were evangelistic versus those that were not.

Some of the correlated factors were surprising; others were not. There was one factor, however, that was a bit surprising to me: the evangelistic churches were more likely to have a traditional outreach program.

The Nature of These Outreach Programs

Even back in 1995, traditional outreach programs were in decline. There were two types that were more popular than others. In one approach, church members would visit someone who visited the prior Sunday. Typically these visits were “cold calls,” in that the church members showed up in the visitors’ homes unannounced and unexpected.

The second more common approach was a memorized evangelistic visit, sometimes derogatorily called a “canned” evangelism program. Again, the church members would often visit in the home without an invitation. One of the church members would be responsible for delivering a memorized gospel presentation.

Culture Changed and Outreach Programs Declined

For better or worse, our culture has changed. Most people today really do not want someone showing up in their homes unexpectedly. As less families and individuals were willing to receive these unexpected guests, the excitement of the outreach programs declined. They were deemed ineffective, probably rightly so. Eventually most churches abandoned the traditional outreach approach.

For many established churches, that which was considered a vital part of the church’s ministry, an outreach program, no longer existed. And it was in the abandonment of the program that some fascinating trends developed.

That One Factor

As churches abandoned traditional outreach programs, they took one of two paths. A few replaced the traditional approach with a more culturally acceptable approach. They found ways to equip and encourage their members to develop relationships with lost and unchurched persons without invading their space or their homes. These churches tended to continue their patterns of growth.

Unfortunately, most churches abandoned the traditional outreach program and did not replace it with anything. This one factor may explain the beginning of decline in most of our evangelical churches in America. Indeed, just today I delved into the records of a few dozen churches that were growing a decade ago, but have been in decline for the past several years. Almost without exception, the decline started shortly after the traditional outreach program was abandoned, but not replaced with any other intentional outreach ministry.

Understanding Why the Decline Began

Even when the traditional outreach program was not highly effective, its activity sent a message throughout the church. It reminded the members that the church was not all about the self-serving needs of themselves, but it was about reaching beyond the doors of the church. It was about them as well as us.

But when there was nothing to replace the admittedly ineffective approach, the message changed. The emphasis moved from outreach to inward focus. As a result of the inward obsession in many churches, conflict arose among the members as they now competed for how the church can best meet “my” needs.

For many churches, it was that one simple factor. Traditional outreach ministries were not replaced with any other outward focus.

But, in a few of the churches, the outward focus continued unabated. Though they were no longer making unexpected cold calls, they did find ways to connect their members with lost and unchurched persons. Most of these churches continued to grow.

So what did these other churches do to continue growing? There is no single answer or approach. I can, however, share some clear examples about what specific churches did to maintain their outward focus. That will be the subject of my post this coming Saturday. I hope you can join me then.

Posted on December 5, 2012

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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  • This is not new information!

    Central to church health and church growth is lifting up Christ! Jesus is the primary focus! It is not about the size of the church, or its membership. It is about Jesus, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world!

    The problem in the American evangelical church is whether the leadership is faithful to its first call. That call is to obedience! That call is to first to discipleship, appropriating the means of grace, and then making disciples as a way of life.

    That is where the American evangelical church continues to fail. It is quickly going the way of the European church. It does not routinely teach catechism to adults and children and church discipline is woefully lacking.

    The majority of adult church members are found lacking in biblical doctrine. Faith grows by degrees as we study the Holy Scriptures. Church leadership no longer routinely visits its own membership in their homes, let alone the home of a church visitor. Yet, the cults are knocking on neighborhood doors and their churches are growing. Nationwide, only the cults are growing as evidence by their church rolls and the Bureau of Census. Meanwhile, the evangelicals are in hiding!

    The typical American evangelical church member is not trained by their leadership on how to develop their own 2-minute testimony. If asked to stand up and share the gospel with a friend, a neighbor, or a stanger, most church members fumble, are unprepared, and were not trained by their leadership. Oh yes, leadership will have a class next quarter on evangelism, but that is not discipleship! It is not New Testament discipleship, as demonstrated by Christ Jesus.

    Surely, when you plan to visit someone, you winsomely call them to make an appointment to visit. Your personal testimony is not “canned.” It is unique! It is an opportunity to build relationships. It is what God has done for you in your life! The gospel is never canned, it is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe. God and the gospel does not change. Since the “fall of man,” the culture is the same. It is corrupt in every part of its being.

    To say the culture has changed is very misleading. The culture is part of the world, and the world is working very hard to earn the wages it is due. The wages of sin is death. We Christians are in the world, but not of the world. We are to be salt and light and reflect the truth and grace freely given to us.

    It is the evangelical church in America that has changed, not the culture! Wolves in sheep’s clothing have been infiltrating the American evangelical church for over sixty years. The wolves within the church and their liberal agenda are dedicated to social justice and a progressive agenda. They have replaced holiness and righteousness, without which no man shall see God. There is a great falling away as evidence in the 30% decline in evangelical church membership in the last 3 decades. During the last ten years, for every new church that is started in America, four will close. What is wrong with this picture? It is a crisis of disobedience within the evangelical church.

    The apostle Paul coached and encouraged Timothy, “Be a Jew to the Jew, and be a Greek to the Greek.” This is accomplished one person at-a-time. I had the privilege to share the gospel of Jesus in Jamaica, Japan, Russia, England, and the United States of America. Men, women and children have all responded to the leading of the Holy Spirit and prayed to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord. It was not because the culture was or was not receptive. It was because God chose them before the foundation of the world, human methods notwithstanding.

    To learn more, and to change from passivity to obedience, go to Amazon…
    key in Disciple Maker, author Williams.

  • It’s posts like this that make sunrfig so much pleasure

  • I am very pleased to interact with men of God on the issue of church growth.Ours is an old church.Hardly do we get people giving their life to Jesus ! the result is obvious,who is the greatest?why was I not informed about abc.
    This has retarded growth.
    I am now set to study these suggestions and work to get the church revived and outward looking.
    I am a pastor in a church in Uganda.

  • There is likely a cultural, regional component to this. In other parts of the country, where I pastored, there was a lot of in home fellowship, and “cold call” visitation was more accepted. But in Iowa, (or perhaps it is a cultural change everywhere – I’ve been here 22 years), people are less likely to welcome you into their home if you knock on their door. We go out to eat together, but have much less in-home fellowship. General busyness probably has something to do with that. Lot’s of cultural reasons.

    But our church has not been as effective as it should have been in replacing that with other more relevant outreach opportunities.

    It is actually more difficult to come up with relevant, effective and specific programs than to just use the standardized programs.

  • Dr. Rainer, thanks for your insights in you blog. We have meet a couple of times and I taught Youth Evanglism at Southern one summer. I worked at NAMB for 18 years in the evangelism section.

    I agree that personal evangelism must be an element in chuch growth. I did an extensive research project on the leading Southern Baptist youth baptism churches and found they did five things:

    1. Had a prayer for awakening strategy
    2. Had a personal evangelism element, even if this was done by individuals in the context of gathered crowds (See Billy Sunday personal workers)
    3. Had a mass evangelism outreach, major events
    4. Used relationships to reach new people (evangelistic birthday parites)
    5. Delievered the gospel in the language of the hearer, I call this environmental evanglism. (Jesus and woman at the well.)

    Also, I found in my survey that Evangelism churches may or may not have evangelistic youth ministries, but evangelistic youth ministries always were part of a leading baptising church.

    Dean Finley

  • Thom,
    Very insightful article! I fully agree… even though we continue to do traditional outreach through our Sunday School ministry here in Plant City, Fl. we are also finding ways to communicate the Gospel through ‘Love Loud’ demonstrations of the Gospel. The key is having a ‘Gospel Centered ministry’ where members are challenged to share the Gospel by investing and inviting friends to Christ. Blessings! Michael Lewis, pastor FBC Plant City, Fl

  • Great rationalization you have got here. Filled with immense intellectualism. As if you and others went to church in an ivory tower. Are you an isolated scholar, or one of the disinterested? You surely cannot be one of the steadfast fringe. In other words, individuals reject Christ, The Church and scripture. So much in fact that the institutional, or organized church rejects itself. This nonsense about reaching the unreached is bogus. Where are you reaching to, Timbuktu?

  • Mike Bower says on

    Hello! I have been doing evangelism since 1985 and I recognize the cultural challenges that exist today. There are two things that I’d like to point out. The first is the only challenge that exists in reaching people is in the middle to upperclass neighborhoods. I spend most if not all of my time in the housing projects and lower income areas and there are no obstacles to connecting with people in these communities (Luke 14:21).

    The second is that we need to preach the Gospel. If we are truly going to see people saved then we have to plant the seed of the Gospel in the hearts of people so God can draw them to Himself (Mark 4). This is our part of the partnership we have with God to reach the lost! We can’t just LIVE out the Gospel in front of people although that’s just as necessary. It’s vital that we communicate the plan of salvation using words (1 Corinthians 1:21). This is where the cultural changes have effected the church. We’ve drawn back from preaching the Gospel and opted for “living it out” instead and this will prove to be tragic.

  • Dr. Rainer,
    Thank you so much for this helpful post. I believe this is precisely what has happened in the church where I’m serving as a youth and CE pastor.
    Although, it is interesting to note that there are some churches which still move forward with the traditional “cold call” evangelistic methodology. Dallas First Baptist immediately comes to mind. I will never forget two of their deacons swinging by my apartment on a Tuesday evening in order to present the ministries of DFB, as well as a quick walk-through from Evangelism Explosion. They both smiled when I told them I was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary and had come to saving faith in Christ at a young age, but they remarked that they were required to present EE’s gospel plan to everyone they visited. It was a bit awkward but a pleasant surprise too. I will also never forget the afternoon I received a random call from their Sr. Pastor, Robert Jeffress. They were very serious about cold-call traditional outreach and probably still are…. and are also still growing.

  • Clint Pressley says on

    Thanks Dr. Rainer, your post was convicting for me and I look forward to what you have to say on Saturday. I appreciate your leadership.

  • Hey Dr. Rainer – thanks for saying out loud what a lot of people have been thinking! Whew…I have been part of many of the “canned” approaches and they always felt artificial to me. Can’t wait to hear how other churches are approaching outreach!

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