Nine Habits Of Churches That Reach And Keep The Unchurched
by Michael Foust
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--What do Sunday school classes, church doctrine, clean restrooms and friendly greeters all have in common?
They're all factors that have helped attract unchurched people to the church -- and kept them there. That's the conclusion of a seven-year study by Thom Rainer and a research team at Southern Seminary. The study, titled "Nine Habits of Churches that Reach and Keep the Unchurched," combines both old and new research, and includes surveys of more than 4,000 churches and interviews with more than 1,000 individuals.
A highlight of the study is new research into what Rainer calls the "formerly unchurched" -- that is, people who had become Christians within the previous 12 months and were active in church. This new research includes interviews with more than 350 formerly unchurched people and examines factors that attracted and kept them in the church.
Rainer said past surveys that simply studied people outside of the church (the unchurched) had weaknesses.
"Something is obviously wrong because the unchurched are telling [researchers] what it would take to reach them, but they are not responding," Rainer said. "So we asked the question: Is there another group that can give us some insight?"
The answer came in the form of interviews with those who recently entered the church (the formerly unchurched).
"Instead of asking the unchurched what it would take to reach them ... why don't we ask those people who have recently accepted Christ, who have come into the church?" Rainer recounted. "Why don't we ask them what God did in their lives and what the church did to bring them into the church?"
By combining all of this research, Rainer's team came up with the nine habits:
1. Habit of Intentionality.
The "habit of intentionality" also can include seemingly trivial matters. Rainer said his research shows that people often picked a church for such reasons as restroom and nursery cleanliness. Some people even drove away from a church because it did not have adequate signage, and they therefore could not find the sanctuary entrance.
Rainer's research also shows that friendly greeters at a church's entrance can have an enormously positive effect.
2. Habit of Cultural Awareness
Rainer said a large element of being culturally aware is understanding the generation born between 1977 and 1994 -- what Rainer called the "bridger generation." Telephone research done by Rainer's team indicated that only 4 percent of this group are Christians. By comparison, the research indicated that 65 percent of the generation born before 1946 are Christians.
"If there is one area where we are culturally unaware, it is in this generation," Rainer said. "This is the most unchurched generation in America."
3. Habit of High Expectations.
"Churches that expect much receive much," he said. "Churches that expect little receive little."
New member classes, Rainer said, are vital to keeping people in the church. Among all churches (effective and ineffective) in America, the average retention rate of new members is 35 percent. If new member classes are offered, that percentage shoots up to 72 percent. If the class is required of new members, the percentage increases even more.
"You bring these new members through some type of new members class, and you will see a significant increase in retention," he said. "The most effective new members classes were those that said, 'We want to put you in a ministry as you leave this class.'"
Personal evangelism classes for new members can be very fruitful.
"One of the most effective ways to get these new Christians involved is to get them sharing their faith with those who are in the world of the unchurched," Rainer said.
4. Habit of Clear Doctrine.
Rainer said this could be in the form of a written document, or through new members classes, Sunday school lessons and sermons.
5. Habit of Risk Taking.
Among the effective churches, 83 percent of senior pastors could tell of a major task their church had undertaken.
"The risk-taking attitude of these churches is obvious by their willingness to lose members," Rainer said. "They do not make decision based upon who might leave as a result of this. They make decisions more on: Who will we reach?"
6. Habit of Dynamic Small Groups.
What is different between Sunday schools of effective churches and those of ineffective churches?
"There tends to be an expectation that you are involved in ministry through that Sunday school class," in effective churches, Rainer said. "Unhealthy Sunday schools are inward focused -- they only care about themselves. Healthy Sunday schools are constantly looking beyond themselves."
7. Habit of Effective Leadership.
Among effective churches, the pastor spent five hours a week involved in personal evangelism. Among ineffective churches, the pastor spent less than 10 minutes a week.
"As the leadership of the church goes, so the rest of the church tends to go," Rainer said. "If the pastor is not doing it, then it is highly unlikely that you'll see a congregation reaching the unchurched."
The senior pastors of the effective churches had an average tenure of 10.3 years. They were also good time managers.
8. Habit of Effective Preaching.
"That means that something has to give [in their schedule]," Rainer said. "What do they become? They became Acts 6 pastors. What do Acts 6 pastors do? They delegate and give away ministry [assignments]."
Expository preaching was the most dominant style in the survey, although no one pastor preached expository sermons exclusively.
9. Habit of Prayer.
Corporate prayer ministries were operational and emphasized in 83 percent of the effective churches.
Nine denominations comprise the basis of the new study: Southern Baptist Convention, Evangelical Free, American Baptist, Presbyterian Church in America, Assemblies of God, Wesleyan Church, Church of the Nazarene, United Methodist and independent Baptists. The churches involved in the study ranged in attendance from 40 to 18,000.
Interviews with the formerly unchurched were limited to those who are members of what Rainer calls "effective evangelistic churches," those that met certain requirements regarding the number of annual conversions in relation to their membership. Only 4 percent of the churches in his research met such requirements.
by Michael Foust - writer at