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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  • Steve Smallwood says on

    If church leader could catch the vision for the church scattered Monday through Saturday out into the real world in their vocations, outreach would happen as people head off to work, lovingly serve there families, and volunteer in their communities. We’ve been so preoccupied about attendance at the weekend events that we think this is where the kingdom is advanced. In reality it advances as people take the kingdom of God to their communities as they love and serve their neighbors. Teachers loving and serving students; Doctors loving and serving their patients; Bankers and lawyers loving and serving their clients, etc. We “evangelize” by allowing people to experience the kingdom of God through our lives. If this is not happening, no canned or artificial approach will ever work. The church is not the weekend services–it’s the people who love and serve all week long!

  • Thanks Dr. Rainer! Look forward to Saturday!

  • Shannon Suttles says on

    Hi! We are seeing an exciting new trend in outreach called Treasure Hunts. This is a term used where a group of individuals go out with the soul purpose of ministering words of knowledge, prophecy, and healings to people in the streets, restaurants, and wherever God leads in the lost and dying world. They prepare by meeting together and seeking God out and praying. God begins to show them certain individuals or clues of who to minister to. GOD supernaturally speaks to His people telling them whos lives He wants to touch that day. Sometimes He just gives clues and then requires you to walk the rest out in faith for the rest of the revelation as you minister to the individuals needs that He brings across your path through the exciting revelations from His spirit. This is fun and exciting for the young minister and you do not have to be super spiritual to pull it off. It changes and transforms the individuals lives being ministered to because they know that God knows them personally through the information God is feeding the minister that no one else could know but God.
    The face of the church is changing, like it or not. She will move in the power and grace she was always designed to move in tranforming peoples lives bringing them into fellowship with the One true Creator God. Traditional man made methods will cease to remain. People are hungry for real experiences and God is meeting that hunger. For those who hunger shall be filled.

  • David Hunter says on

    Great blog Dr. Rainer. This trend seems to be “spot on” for our area. The question becomes, “What do we do now to reach the unchurched?” since we no longer do canned programs and cold calling. That’s where we are struggling. I look forward to checking back with you after Saturday.

  • Rob spurlock says on

    I can’t wait for Saturday. We are working now to begin a new intentional outreach ministry here at our church. We are seeking God for our direction and asking him what outreach looks like in light of our mission here. We have already discovered some interesting things about ourselves and what God is calling us to do. We do know that our outreach must be Simple, measurable and effective.

  • As a pastor for two decades in the local church in Oregon, I watched my church which was declining find new life that began to stem the tide when our pastor suggested we launch the Alpha course as a way to engage those outside the church with a culturally relevant means of sharing the gospel and discussing it in small groups. The past several years I’ve been privileged to help numerous churches in our “unchurched” region find a relational, effective way to reach out to the community. I fully agree with your assessment that sadly too many dropped their traditional approaches and replaced them with no other strategy to reach the community with the gospel. I look forward to hearing other ways you see churches mobilizing believers for the Great Commission.

  • I’m trying to help solve this problem with technology. One thing we’ve all learned in the recent years is that people tend to communicate a lot more frequently through technologies such as social media, text messaging, email, etc. If churches used Audiebox’s technology as a tool to reach out to lost souls, I wonder how many non-confrontational people would be willing to seek more information about Christ through the comfort of text messaging?

  • Our church has started a new outreach ministry. After our Call To Worship we have team(s) come forward. We read scripture & pray for them and our community and send them out during the remainder of our worship service. They return and share prayer requests received and needs that were identified and they lead our church in prayer for the homes visited and our community. This has been very well received by our church and community.

    P.S. it’s kind of hard for them to say they are in regular attendance in a local church if they’re at home at 11:00 on Sunday morning 🙂

    • Our teams ask two main questions:
      1- what is the main need/issue we can pray for/with your family concerning
      2- what is the main need/issue of the community they believe the church should address (yeah we borrowed that one from FAITH)

      By approaching the homes in our community concerning their needs ( not the needs of the church ie: higher attendance which equals higher offerings) our community has seen a genuine care, concern, and love for them. The testimonies of the returning teams at the end of our service have been the only needed promotion for this ministry! Our people are seeing they can truly minister to others and it is catching on and growing through our church.

      Please pray as we continue to seek God’s guidance for His church at Adonai even if its through some not-so-conventional methods. Thanks!

  • LaVern Plett says on

    Thom, I am now retired but 30 years ago was part of an outstanding outreach program such as you described above. It resulted in great evangelistic results. Am I wrong is thinking that “cold calls” of church visitors will still work if we work it?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      LaVern –

      So much of outreach is contextual, so I am hesitant to give a blanket response. I can say, however, in most communities that church visitors are not receptive to a cold call home visit. At least from an anecdotal view, the evidence is overwhelming.

      • Don Elliott says on

        I attend a church of 950 in a community of 250 in SE Kansas. I’ve been calling with the Senior Minister and most of his calls are cold calls. He believes in calling and all the staff call at least one night a week. Once a month, we do an all church calling night and all of those are cold calls. Appointment calls are set up for Bible studies. Most people have been receptive when we come to the door. Very traditional calling program, but it seems to work in our area.

  • How can I insure that I can get my hands on this on Saturday. I stumbled onto this through twitter and really want to read what you have to say. We just talked about this at church a couple of weeks ago. For us it is right on time. Thanks for your ministry.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Richard –

      You can simply return to this site ( at 7:00 am or after on Saturday. If you would like to be directly notified you can sign up for either the RSS feed or the email update on the home page. Thank you for your interest.

  • This is a blessing looking forward to Saturday

  • Looking forward to reading about the outward focus. It’s easy in our comfortable USA world to focus on ourselves, whereas the Gospel calls us to go out and utilize all of our resources to share the same life changing message someone shared with us.

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