A Quick Question
Does evangelism nurture church growth?
The quick answer: Indeed it does. If you ask them, they will come
The longer answer: “Evangelize them, and they will come.” For years, members of the church growth movement have asserted that higher levels of evangelistic activity will yield membership growth for church congregations. Although a reasonable assumption, little research actually existed supporting that claim. To help fill the gap, C. Kirk Hadaway of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries has written a study: Is Evangelistic Activity Related to Church Growth?
“Evangelism may be the single most important thing church leaders can do if they want their church to grow,” Hadaway concluded in the study. Hadaway’s analysis suggested that the relationship between growth and evangelism is stronger than previously estimated.
Earlier studies showed that evangelism boosted church growth, but not much, and not as much as other predictors, such as population growth in the larger community. The first direct test of this theory, conducted in 1976 by the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., showed a “positive but weak” correlation between recruitment activity and church growth.
To probe more deeply into the relationship between evangelism and church growth, Hadaway studied the results of a survey of 990 metropolitan Southern Baptist churches. The lengthy questionnaire asked pastors to rate their churches on “evangelism indicators” such as whether the church offered regular evangelism training, an evangelism campaign or a Sunday School outreach program, or whether the church involved of members in recruitment and visitation. This questionnaire was distributed to roughly equal sets of growing, plateaued and declining churches. Eliminating churches without pastors, and those surveys that were incomplete or incorrect, resulted in 543 responses in the final analysis.
These ratings of “evangelistic activity” were then compared for each of the growth-related categories (growing, plateaued or declining). This approach was used instead of a random sampling of churches, to avoid the errors that typically occur when comparing membership data supplied by churches.
Nine key “evangelism indicators” exhibited a significant relationship to growth. For example, one question asked whether the church had a “regular program for evangelism training.” Among growing churches, 58% responded with a “yes,” among plateaued churches the percentages of “yes” responses was 34.9%; and finally, only 25.6% of declining churches responded positively. Similarly, over 75% of growing churches had weekly (or more frequent) visitation programs; only 50.8% of plateaued churches and 43.7% of declining churches did so.
Interestingly, Hadaway noted that, while growing churches scored much higher on the evangelism/outreach scale, there wasn’t much difference between the scores of plateaued and declining churches. “Apparently, evangelism explains growth, but is of little value in explaining decline,” he concluded.
Next, the study probed further by asking, “Does this strong relationship hold even when controlling other variables? Those other variables included the churches’ “social context” (population growth in the community, the proximity of other Southern Baptist churches, the buying power of the community, and the age and condition of housing in the area), congregational characteristics (such as the age distribution of members) and “programmatic variables” (such as members’ preferences toward innovation or tradition).
Many of these variables did prove to be important factors in the “growth” picture of congregations. The age structure of the congregation, for example, was almost as important as evangelistic activity in predicting growth. Churches with a large number of elderly members, for example, are less likely to grow than churches with a high number of young families. Similar, churches tend to grow in areas where new housing is going up.
However, Hadaway concluded, “The evangelism scale is the most important predictor of church growth.”
Many of the factors that cause churches to grow – or to decline – aren’t within the realm of a congregation’s control. A church would find it difficult, for example, to change the age structure of its congregation, or to affect the population growth rate of its larger communities. But churches do have a choice about evangelism, and it does make a difference.
Hadaway concluded: “Evangelism appears to be the only programmatic activity that retains a meaningful relationship with church growth when statistical controls are in effect.” In other words, if a church wants to grow, evangelism is the most important thing that church leaders can do.
For articles and links to research projects, visit the Church Growth and Decline section of this web site.
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