One Common Factor in Declining Churches By Thom Rainer
More than 15 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 5 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 fewer 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 an upcoming post.
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include “Surprising Insights from the Unchurched,” “The Unexpected Journey,” and “Breakout Churches.” Learn more »