The X Factor in Declining Churches


What characteristic do growing churches have in common? The answer might surprise you.

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.

Don’t Miss

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.

Thom Rainer Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources ( Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. 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.

More from Thom Rainer or visit Thom at

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