The X Factor in Declining Churches

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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.

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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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  • allenh

    I am looking forward to your future posts. I am fairley new to worship leading / preaching but I can see the problems you have outlined above taking their toll on my church,it is getting more insular as each year passes. Growth is never even talked about and I feel that unless some form of evangelism is re-introduced our church is definitately on the death list. I would love to be able to introduce new ideas. We have 28 members the average age of which is 65 – the church elders think this is something to be proud of in this day and age and take great pride in the fact that the church has existed over a 100 years and is still going.
    To say I am looking forward in anticipation to your future articles, is an understatment!

  • EarlW

    I have been a part of three different dynamic church growth experiences, and have witnessed two of them collapse from the inward focus of leaders. The Three-Dimensional Leader: Negotiating Your Mission, Resources and Context says, “Once people congregate, they can get distracted from the mission and begin focusing on each other. … when we should be supporting one another to accomplish the mission by coordinating to pull in unison on the same rope. There are many phenomena that can distract us and undermine the mission. Leaders must be proactive to keep teams focused and productive.” As a church consultant, I believe I have identified three phenomenon that replaces “cold calling evangelism.” The first is what I call “sanctuary synergy,” which provides three dynamics that feed the flock, and adequately prepares them to invite people to church. Once that second activity is successful, churches then need to ensure that “their people and teams are mission-focused and acting from the same perspective to pull on their rope together,” as opposed to “everyman doing what is right in their own eyes, which undermined organizational synergy in the book of Judges.

    • dudz

      Thanks bro Rainer, that is a challenging info & I look forward for the next post…

  • Gerald

    Our church doesn’t do “cold call” visitations any more. We do have a number of Ministries that are designed to bring people to us. We have an ESL Ministry (English as a Second Language) where we use the Bible to teach English. We also have a Martial Arts Ministry that uses Scripture to teach the moral guidelines and code of ethics. Even the movements are based on Scripture.

  • Larry Caylor

    Thank you Bro. Rainer for this article. I believe this requires conversation within the Christian community. I agree that developing personal relationships is a necessary way to reach the lost and unchurched. However, hurting people still “cold call” the local church, just show up one Sunday morning. These people need us now, not after a time of friendship. Children are saved in VBS, people are saved in revival or during special outreach events. The process of making them a disciple begins with a personal conversation. They have come to us, we must now go to them. We must not abandon gospel presentation training. A “canned” evangelism program is the best way to prepare our members to share the gospel, even if you never do so with the canned version. Memorized Scripture or a method of following the gospel through the Bible gives confidence to share the gospel. Do we only share the gospel with people who want to hear, should we not “plant seeds”? My point is, we must do both, develop relationships and go to them, even if we invade their space. They are lost!

  • Ryan

    I’m one of many people who dumped cable and dish television for internet only and got a subscription to Netflix so I can watch what I want when ever I want. Churches are still like old fashon TV who thinks people should be satisfied with showing what they want you to see when they decide to put it on in that 9am to noon time slot on Sundays.

    The clue here is in moving forward to the upcoming generation, a 24/7 ministry via web may be something to look at. I have some off the top of my head ideas of forums for interaction. I’d like the idea of being able to post comments on sermons posted online. Getting to know people through forums before visiting a church. I already listen to sermons online to determin whether I would consider a church or not. Making short and to the point informative videos online to watch. Please keep the words “donate” and “give” off your sites. That is an absolute turn-off. If your church is doing fine with internal giving, any donate or give on the site should go 100% to charity. That will be the only way the words donate and give will look good to the world. Get into the community. Friend people on facebook, twitter. Post when you’ll be at fun events and show pictures. Take a picture from the pulpit and say anyone who doen’t want to see your face on facebook hold your bible up in front of your face. Get your members on facebook friending people. Don’t be pushy with getting others to go to church. Just encourage, encourage, encourage. The whole idea here is to open lines of communication.
    This web site is an example of a 24/7 ministry, where I come and read and post often, anytime. I wish a local church could have something like this. If I could start interacting with a local church online, I may already be going. I chickened out going to visit a church for the first time in just about 3 years a couple weeks ago. It’s the stranger thing.
    I thought I’d throw my ideas out.

  • Ade-Nigeria

    Thank you sir for these info. Please kindly forward to me your Mission school curriculum/calendar for 2013 if i will be able to attend when i visit US.


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