Study: What Standout, Growing Churches Have in Common

Amid critical reports of churches becoming less effective in evangelism, LifeWay Research measured some of the top Southern Baptist churches that meet the evangelism criteria.
( [email protected] ) Jan 31, 2007 03:51 PM EST

Amid critical reports of churches becoming less effective in evangelism, LifeWay Research measured some of the top Southern Baptist churches that meet the evangelism criteria.

The new study found only 22 out of 43,000 SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) churches met the criteria of baptizing at least 26 people per year, overall attendance growth and a membership-to-baptism ratio of no more than 20 to 1 over the last 10 years.

Most common among the standout churches is the role of the senior pastor. While a study earlier this month by Ellison Research found that 39 percent of American pastors are not highly interested in expanding outreach programs, researchers at LifeWay found the churches that are growing have pastors who prioritize evangelism as the most important. And the pastor strongly sets the tone of the church.

"These pastors do more than stress the importance of evangelism, they lead by example as they are personally passionate about and involved in sharing Christ both from the pulpit and through personal interaction with the unchurched and lost,” said Brad Waggoner, director of LifeWay Research, in the report.

The pastors of the top churches were described as "highly relational," "personable," "caring," "passionate," "humble," “strong leader,” “a shepherd,” and “very authentic.” according to the study.

Also, nearly all churches are pastor- or staff-led and are characterized by a strong sense of teamwork, those interviewed said. "Shared leadership" with staff and even lay people is also common and key to the church. Overall, the church has a high level of trust in their pastors.

The study further noted that the average tenure of the pastors is 15 years.

Another common element is the overall atmosphere of the church. These churches were described as "exciting," “dynamic,” “energetic,” “upbeat,” “friendly,” “welcoming,” “warm,” and “positive.”

"Clearly these churches possess an environment conducive to reaching people for Christ,” Waggoner said. “The members of these churches are enthusiastic about their church and thus are quick to invite their unchurched friends to visit."

Across the 22 churches, pastors also stress the importance of preaching the gospel and providing opportunities for lost people to respond. More than two-thirds say they make an altar call at the end of every service while others have people fill out a decision card.

Pastors are generally intentional in outreach. Most of the churches have frequent visitation or follow-up strategy. And pastors and staff fill up the church calendar with events designed, at least in part, to reach people for Christ, the study highlighted.

Still, the growing churches have their differences. One-third of the pastors indicate they preach topically and almost half use expositional or textual preaching.

While the style of preaching varies, Waggoner noted that all of the pastors "possess an evangelistic fervor and provide some sort of evangelistic appeal" during most of their sermons.

Most pastors say their worship style is "contemporary," "informal," and "casual." Others say theirs is blended in terms of music and only one pastor described his church's worship as "traditional."

In more detail, four of the churches consider their worship services to be “seeker- driven” or “seeker-targeted." One pastor of the four said his church is a "Willow Creek type church" and another indicated his church is a "Saddleback model church."

When it comes to evangelism training, half the churches use formal training programs such as FAITH. The other half has occasional classes and uses the pulpit to train believers.

Small group strategies also differ among the churches. Eleven use on-campus Sunday school as their primary fellowship groups, while six meet in off-campus small groups, and two have a mix of on and off-campus groups, the study found.

"When looking at both the similarities and differences of these long-term evangelistic churches, what can clearly be celebrated is that the churches in this study can be a great source of encouragement to any pastor, staff member or lay leader who dreams and prays to be part of a church that is effective in reaching the lost," according to the research report. "As we can see in the leaders of these evangelistically effective churches, passion, commitment, focus, and intentionality can lead to celebrating the regeneration of many souls.”

Of the 22 churches that met LifeWay's criteria for the study, 19 agreed to have staff members and lay leaders participate in interviews. Some of the churches that participated in the study include: Cedar Creek Church, Aiken, S.C.; Fellowship of the Rockies, Pueblo, Colo.; Highlands Fellowship, Abingdon, Va.; Mandarin Baptist Church of Los Angeles, Calif.; NorthPointe Community Church Fresno, Calif.; Seoul Baptist Church of Houston, Texas; and Northside Baptist Church, Wilmington, N.C.