Church Growth: Evangelism, Part 1

churchgrowthl-thumb.jpgAs we said in the preceding post, the Christian Chronicle has listed three key strategies for church growth: adaptability, moderation, and evangelism. We discussed adaptability and moderation in the last two posts. This post is about evangelism.

I’m thankful that the Chronicle has offered some examples of churches that have grown through evangelism. After all, many churches grow through transfers or just being in a good location that lots of people are moving to.

I recently asked our staff for the names of congregations that were growing from actual evangelism. As we went through the list of growing churches we were familiar with, not all, but most were growing by virtue of their location or out-competing the other churches in town for people already saved. Not that many are growing from evangelism.

And this is shown by the figures. As a denomination, the Churches of Christ are growing at about 0.7% per year, which is lower than the rate at which we’re bearing children! We are an evangelistic disaster.

Fortunately, there are some that are effective at seeking the lost. Here are some examples that we can learn from —

The East Baltimore Church of Christ

Here’s a great 2006 story from the Chronicle about this congregation. Its preacher is a converted Pentecostal preacher who evidently doesn’t know that Churches of Christ aren’t supposed to grow! (I don’t know why the Chronicle’s archives lump the story all into one paragraph. It’s annoying, but the story is well worth slogging through the text.)

This month’s issue also has a brief story on this church —

BALTIMORE — In 1995, Keven Bethea and a group of 35 church members planted the East Baltimore congregation. In the dozen years that followed, the church grew to more than 375. In addition, the urban congregation has planted two other churches in the Baltimore area — with a third planned for October, Bethea said.

The church preaches “everybody bring somebody” evangelism, Bethea said. The congregation has a special class for new converts and focuses the first six months after baptism on relationship building. Bethea estimated that about 75 percent of new converts stay in the church. “Saving Souls and Keeping Souls Saved” is the congregation’s motto.

The church developed an urban evangelism plan that has resulted in more than 100 baptisms, Bethea said. The plan “has the potential to be the right answer to the question, ‘Are we growing?’” he said.

Saturn Road Church of Christ

The Chronicle reports,

GARLAND, Texas. — For the third consecutive year, the church in this Dallas suburb surpassed 150 baptisms in 2007, senior minister John Scott said. Since 1992, the church’s membership has grown from 950 to more than 2,300.

“Our area is a transitional community — an aging Caucasian population with huge influx of Hispanics and African-Americans,” Scott said. “The challenge is … building a new multiethnic congregation where a once all-white congregation stood.”

The church has taken steps to make its ministerial staff look like its community. Mike Crosby, who is black, recently became the church’s evangelism minister. Crosby, Scott and Joe Hernandez, the church’s Hispanic minister, take a team approach toward evangelism, Scott said.

Strong ministries for children and teens have drawn families to Saturn Road, Scott said. The church sponsors a ministry to children in its neighborhood that runs daily for seven weeks each summer and is involved in outreach to a local drug rehabilitation program for women.

“Our leadership has committed itself to be a church of mirrors, reflecting who lives in our area now,” Scott said. “We talk about and celebrate outreach.”

Churches in transitional neighborhoods are supposed to fail — or move. Churches of over 2,000 members are supposed to be white and upper middle class. Saturn Road proves that the rules aren’t really rules.

Christ’s Church at Remmel

I’ve mentioned this one before, but it bears repeating. This rural Arkansas church of 170 has had 85 baptisms! And it did it through caring about its community.

Here’s how they tell their story on their website —

Although flourishing through most of the 20th century, this rural church of Christ found itself near collapse as the century wound to a close. Loss of local population and loss of interest had left the church with few kids and only a handful of adults. Should it go the way of so many other rural churches that had been allowed to slip peacefully into non-existence, or should it and could it be salvaged? We chose the latter, and God rescued us.

We had known for some time that some of what we were doing came more from tradition than from God. God had never said a word, for instance, about making the children sit still and be absolutely quiet while the preacher went on and on about something they couldn’t possibly understand. It was we, not God, who had come up with wearing our “Sunday Best” to church services, even though that placed a burden on some. It was our idea to sing “Amazing Grace” as if we’d just learned we had cancer, even though, God had always insisted we rejoice and be glad. The list goes on.

It’s different now that we’ve finally mustered the courage to try it more like we think God wants it. Kids are back in droves. Teenagers often led the way in turning control of our church back over to God. Additional seating had to be added in the auditorium and in classrooms. There are always visitors, even though the building is difficult to find. Children’s church is a popular choice for younger kids during preaching. Prayer has taken on an enormously greater role. Neckties are not only not required, they are rare.

Here are a few other comments from their FAQ section. They give a good feel for the personality of the congregation (most websites aren’t nearly as revealing).

What is the attitude of the Remmel Church toward other Protestant groups?

That may depend somewhat on which member you ask, but our general attitude is one of deep gratitude for the extraordinary reform efforts that produced these groups. We also truly regret the many harsh, hateful comments by members of churches of Christ in times past that caused hard feelings to exist to this day. We accept into membership of the Remmel Church, anyone who believes and has been baptized by immersion to obey God, regardless of their previous religious affiliation or who performed that baptism.

What would I be expected to do as a member of the Remmel Church?

Each of us has a responsibility to be of encouragement to others in the church, and to build up the church in any way we can. After all, the church is the “bride of Christ”, and He would certainly want her treated with the greatest respect and honor. A simple smile or friendly, “Hello”, can work wonders. A kind word or listening ear for someone with trouble always helps. You may learn to pray with someone who is struggling. You may be able to tell someone of Jesus and, in that way, participate in their salvation. But you will never be pressed to do what you are altogether uncomfortable doing. We are a family of God, and each one of us needs to have a part. It could be turning out the lights in the church building, or picking up trash outside. We are in constant need of teachers in children’s classes. The elders will help find a job that’s right for you. Being a part of a growing church is exciting, but it takes a lot of work. Jesus explained a great mystery when He showed us that greatness comes through serving others. You will be allowed to join in that blessing. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as the result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10).

What is the official name of the church in the Remmel community? Is it Remmel Church of Christ, as some road signs say, Christ’s Church at Remmel as the bulletin says, or Remmel Church as many members say?

This church, like congregations in the Bible, has no official name. Since there are no other religious groups in the community from which to distinguish ourselves, and because we prefer not to align with any denomination, we seem to be moving toward Remmel Church, but any of the designations mentioned in the question are fine.

Read the story about them in the Chronicle. It’s a great one.

Conclusion

Good old fashioned evangelism still works, but it works best in churches not caught up in legalism and pointless, stifling traditions. It works even better in churches on a mission.

Some churches grow by virtue of being in a place lots of people are moving to. Some churches grow through great marketing. Some grow through great programs. But the Kingdom grows when churches try to live like Jesus — serving others from the heart, having compassion for those in need, heartbroken because the lost are heading for hell,  and not being afraid of what others might say.

Epiloque

I have to add this. Several of the churches that the Chronicle highlights (not mentioned in this post) are very conservative — even legalistic. At least one is notorious for its legalism. It would be easy to conclude that we can be that way and grow. And growth, we might figure, justifies our theology. It doesn’t.

The research shows that, although the Churches of Christ are growing very poorly, those with more progressive teaching are growing reasonably well, on the whole, while those with more traditional teaching are not, on the whole. For every conservative church that’s growing, there’s another conservative church that’s declining more rapidly, and the net is negative.

I am deeply concerned that the Chronicle‘s reporting may give the impression that continuing do things the way that was standard in the 20th Century would be acceptable to God and a path to growth. It’s not.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Church Growth: Evangelism, Part 1

  1. Alan says:

    From where I sit, it seems that evangelism that focuses on doctrine first is unattractive. Evangelism that focuses on meeting the person's "real and felt needs" is much more attractive and more effective… and more like Jesus. The familiar old saying is true: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

    We have to demonstrate the relevance of the gospel to what they are dealing with. That means it cannot be a canned message. We have to listen first, and then connect with where they are.

  2. Bobby Ross says:

    Hi Jay,

    I came across your blog because of the reference to the Christian Chronicle. We've just relaunched our redesigned Web site, and it messed up the formatting of the archived stories, so we're having to manually fix them. I just fixed the Kevin Bethea interview so it should be easier to read when folks click on it. Thanks for the kind words about the Chronicle.

    Sincerely,
    Bobby Ross

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    I agree with you. But you raise an issue I'm wrestling with. Yes, we have to start with where people are. A 12-step program, for example, is an entirely proper and often very effective way to convert people — by reaching out to people in real need.

    But they aren't really and truly converted when they conclude: this is a place that meets my needs. They're not converted until they conclude: this is a place where I can meet the needs of others just as Jesus has helped meet my needs.

    Hopefully, the 12-step program is designed to move people into lives of caring for others in active service, rather than simply helping them overcome their addiction.

    Tragically, many church leaders (myself included) have tried to grow the church by serving others without telling the converts that they're joining a service organization. Join to serve — not to be served. As a result, many of our churches have created a generation of consumers rather than a generation of servants.

    I read somewhere a long time ago that growing churches have to have at least 40% of their members actively involved in service. If it's only 20% or so, the church will be stagnant or in decline. 60%, I was taught, is the theoretical max. You just can't get more than 60% to serve.

    Well, we actually calculated that number at my church a few years ago, and we're well over 60%. So the experts don't know that much. But they do know that most churches have more consumers of services than providers of services.

    I'm thinking we should be aiming for about 85 to 90% — with the 15 to 10% missing being ill or involved in a temporary life crisis.

    (Rom 7:6) But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

    (Rom 12:6-8) We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is … serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

    (Gal 5:13) You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.

    And so, my struggle is how to avoid a bait-and-switch approach to evangelism? (And to turn around all these consumers we created thinking we were teaching the pure gospel when we mixed it with a dose of self-indulgence.) I mean, yes, we start with where they are and their felt needs. But how do we turn them into servants?

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Everyone,

    The Chronicle is a must-read subscription for anyone in the Churches of Christ. And $20 (cheap) buys a lifetime subscription!
    https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_xclick

  5. Alan says:

    Jay,

    I think that meeting "felt needs" is the way to initiate a relationship, but the relationship needs to expand beyond that. I think the notion of "bait and switch" implies that you would abandon the felt needs when you start talking about Jesus… but that's not what ought to happen. There has to be sincerity and perseverance in meeting their felt needs. Jesus healed people and then addressed spiritual needs, all in the same encounter. But it wasn't bait and switch. Both were driven by his compassion.

    I agree that the message has to include the call to serve. People need to be constantly reminded to keep serving Jesus as the priority in their lives (Jesus is Lord). Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Jesus will save it. Self denial and service to Jesus are the daily practice of Christians. That has to be taught from the beginning… and modeled by the teacher.

  6. I appreciate the spirit of the "felt needs" language, but I personally don't like the phrase.

    In my view, Jesus does not call us to doctrine, in fact, it seems to me he pretty soundly criticized the Pharisees for being so doctrinaire. Rather, it seems to me he calls us to "love one another, the way (he) loved us."

    I do not think we, as a group, have come to grips with how radical it is to love the way Jesus loved. If we could, I think the discussion about the form of evangelism — and many other discussion topics — would fade into oblivion.

    From one viewpoint, it seems simplistic, but the more I contemplate it, the more difficult it is to love the way Jesus loved. All I can do is try.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    David,

    I can't really disagree. It's just finding that balance between a call to service and a call to abundant living.

    My interpretation would be that a life of service is the abundant life. For many, serving others may not be a felt need, but it's a need — that when finally met is richly rewarding.

    The hard part, at least to me, is how to lead a church in this direction without being overbearing — allowing it to be a joy for your members rather than a burden.

  8. In my experience, a life of service is a burden to two types of people: [1] people who do it solely out of obligation, and [2] people who have never tried it.

    That's why I think "encouragement" is so important. Encouraging people to try it!

    As they said to Mikey, "Try it, you'll like it". And he did.

    Ever since my wife and I figured this out, our lives have been unbelievably blessed and full of joy. It is truly amazing. Just an example of the true of what Jesus taught.

  9. Pingback: Leading a Small Church, Part 3 « One In Jesus.info

  10. JMF says:

    Hello David,

    I am doing some research on this topic, as I am trying to assist at my church with some growth/service ideas.

    Would you mind sharing what it is that you do/have done as part of your "service?" Ideas for ministries are fine, but I'd also be interested in just those little things that you and your wife do that nobody knows about. I'm really just trying to brainstorm ideas.

  11. JMF
    I'm happy to help, as I can.

    For my wife and I, we take kind of a three-level approach. We try to participate in or have a role in organized congregational things. I sing on the Praise Team. Teach. Facilitate Dynamic Marriage classes. We participate in various short-term activities, such as backpack drives, food drives, etc which are sponsored by the congregation.

    In addition, we're involved in activities outside the congregation. We've been actively involved with the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity since 1990. My wife has been a committee chair. I've served on the board of directors. We both have been family partners with HFH for many, many years.

    But by far the most rewarding part is just being available to people.

    Have you ever noticed how you feel when someone asks you to help them with something but it's inconvenient to help. Maybe they ask you to help them move. Or to share a meal with them. Or if you can spend some time with you. Maybe they're sick and throw out one of those generic invitations to come by and visit.

    My wife and I have simply stopped saying the reflexive, No, and now try to say Yes.

    We try to put other people ahead of ourselves. It often means we are out later than we'd like. Drive farther than we'd like.

    Often, we can't do one thing because we're already doing another. We have to choose, but the choice is not between doing for ourselves v doing for others. It must more often a choice of doing for which other.

    When we facilitate our Dynamic Marriage class, we always get a little anxious about whether people will sign up for class. And then once class starts, we are anxious about how the class will go. And while class is going on we're often exhausted from the emotional concentration that's required. But when the class ends, we wish it could go on.

    We're at a point now, where we have so many people in our lives that we feel remiss when we cannot stay as connected to them as we would like to.

    The most significant obstacle to a life is service, in my view, is our selfishness. It's making our own convenience, our own schedule, our own needs ahead of others.

    A life of service can be as simple as saying, "How can I help you?" and then simply not saying No. Sometimes you have to say no, but we've tried to get out of the habit.

    Personally, I have a list of younger men (and my wife has a list of younger women) whom I call and visit with regularly, just over coffee. Conversations cover so many topics, it's impossible to list them all. And it's becoming more and more difficult to keep up with all these guys.

    In the past couple of years, I've begun officiating at weddings as a way to be both helpful and encouraging. This seems like a natural outgrowth of our marriage ministry.

    I've come to believe that if you put other people ahead of yourself, you will soon find much more to do than you can handle.

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