This past week I attended an event in Calgary in which the Flourishing Congregations Institute released some preliminary findings of a church survey that they are conducting. If you haven’t seen their website https://www.flourishingcongregations.org/ you should pay it a visit.
In this entry I want to focus on one finding in particular. It confirms something that I have long believed and should challenge every church regardless of size.
Churches in Canada are doing evangelism very badly.
The Institute divides their findings into three categories of churches. They look at growing churches, staying the same churches, and declining churches. They then asked people what was their background before coming to the church which they are attending. In all three groups of churches at least two thirds of those responding to the survey came through transfer growth.
On the other hand, only about 4% came from a background in which they had never attended any church at all. This varied little whether the church was growing, staying the same or declining. In other words church size made very little difference when it came to evangelism.
The bottom line is that there are very few churches in Canada that are growing because they are bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ. They are growing because they are attracting people that were already attending another church.
I was already convinced that most large churches do not grow because they do evangelism well. They grow because they excel at the things that attract other Christians. This study confirms that belief.
The Institute has used the word “flourishing” to define what a church should be. Other words have been used (healthy, growing, impacting) and we could spend a lot of time trying to define what we mean when we use these words. Whatever the word that we use, we all have a somewhat fuzzy picture in our minds of what a church should be like.
Whatever the ideal church might look like, I can’t help but think that more effective evangelism needs to be part of the picture. These results make me wonder if there are any truly “flourishing” churches in Canada. If effective evangelism needs to be part of a flourishing church, then according to the survey, there are not many such churches in Canada today.
The old debate
In July 1974 2700 delegates from 150 countries met in Lausanne, Switzerland at the first international congress on world evangelism. One of the issues debated at that historic conference was the relationship between evangelism and social action. Those attending agreed that while both were important evangelism should have the priority.
The second congress was held fifteen years later in Manila and there the delegates modified their position slightly by saying that they were both indispensable elements of the Christian faith. They continued to state though that evangelism should have the priority place.
In 2010 the third congress was held in South Africa. In the statement that emerged from those meetings evangelism and social action were given equal importance. One can not look at the ministry of Jesus and not be struck by this balance.
One of the most significant changes in evangelical churches since that first Lausanne meeting has been the move from a focus only on evangelism to a point at which many churches measure their responsibility to their communities in terms of social involvement. The result of this shift has been that with all of the churches measured in this study only about 4% of the people are coming into the church because of evangelistic efforts on the part of the church. In too many cases evangelism has been relegated to second place.
The message for small churches
There is both a positive and a negative message in this study for small churches.
The positive is that the small church is not failing in evangelism any more than the large church is. For too many people there is a sub-conscious belief that if a church is large it must be reaching people for Christ. Reality is that most of the people attending a large church are there because they transferred from another church. They are Christians who moved to another community or Christians who became dissatisfied with their own church and transferred to the large church down the road. They are not brand new Christians who just came to faith.
The negative news is that while the small church isn’t doing any worse than the large church, it isn’t doing any better. The large churches are failing at evangelism. The medium sized churches are failing at evangelism. The small churches aren’t doing any worse but they are failing too.
My closing thought for the small church is that it needs to stop looking with envy at the large church and seriously consider how it can reach people with the gospel in the community in which God has placed it to be his witness.
The really serious concern needs to be that churches of all sizes are resting contentedly in a church in which very few people are coming to Christ.
When I was in my early twenties I attended a church in Cali, Colombia. They held a mid-week prayer meeting which I usually attended. I remember at one of those meetings the people sharing their concern that they had gone several weeks without anyone becoming a Christian. Hearing that someone had put their faith in Christ had been almost a weekly event up until then. There had been no new conversions for two or three weeks and they were concerned that maybe they weren’t praying with enough conviction.
Sadly in many of our churches there have been no conversions in two or three years. The issue isn’t whether the church is praying with enough conviction. The issue is whether the church is praying at all.