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Study asks: What do leading churches have in common?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In recent years, leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention and the broader evangelical world have sounded the alarm that churches are becoming less and less effective in evangelism. Baptisms among Southern Baptist churches have numbered less than 400,000 each of the last five years, and 2005 saw the lowest total since 1993.

With that in mind, LifeWay Research made it a priority to investigate Southern Baptist churches that are effective in reaching people for Christ.

With input from LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom S. Rainer, LifeWay Research determined to look at churches that met the following criteria: baptized at least 26 people per year for 10 consecutive years; had overall worship attendance growth during the same 10 years; and had a membership-to-baptism ratio of no more than 20-to-1.

Out of more than 43,000 churches in the SBC, 22 met the criteria based on data they reported annually. Of these, 19 agreed to have several staff members and lay leaders participate in a process of one-on-one interviews.

So what exactly do these 19 standout churches have in common?


The most common element is the essential role of the senior pastor. Results indicate the pastor sets the tone for the church and regards evangelism with utmost importance.

“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.

Those interviewed describe the pastors with terms such as, “highly relational,” “personable,” “caring,” “passionate,” “humble,” “strong leader,” “a shepherd,” and “authentic.”

“This is strikingly similar to the findings in the popular book ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins, as he looked into the leadership of great companies,” Waggoner said. “Collins concluded that great leaders are both driven and humble. The pastors of the churches studied appear to be similar. They love God, love their flock and are compassionate for the lost. They are resolutely committed to reaching the lost and yet they lead with a spirit of humility, authenticity and relational warmth.”

Nearly all of the churches describe their polity as pastor- or staff-led. Interviewees indicate the pastor provides significant leadership, and both church staff and lay leaders find it easy to follow their pastor.

Staff members interviewed indicate the pastor with whom they serve is effective in creating an empowering environment in which the staff has input and is treated as important to the team. A common term used to describe the leadership style of the pastors is “shared leadership.” Even the lay persons interviewed view themselves as part of the overall church leadership team.

Interestingly, the average tenure of the pastors included in the study is 15 years. As noted in Rainer’s book, “Surprising Insights From the Unchurched,” pastoral tenure is strongly correlated to church health and effectiveness. Those interviewed repeatedly attribute the sustained evangelistic effectiveness of their church to consistent, strong pastoral leadership.


The qualifying churches are consistently described as “exciting,” “dynamic,” “energetic,” “upbeat,” “friendly,” “welcoming,” “warm” and “positive.”

The positive environment in these churches may be directly related to the first commonality: The church body has embraced the vision and values of the senior pastor and is living it by reaching out to others.

The interviews affirm that the worship services are key to reaching people and that the members are highly motivated to invite others to attend.

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


The presence of a consistent evangelistic appeal is another common factor. Pastors indicate they seek to include the Gospel in most, if not all, of their sermons. They stress the importance of preaching the Gospel and providing opportunities for lost people to respond. More than two-thirds of the pastors offer a public invitation at the end of worship services. The others invite inquirers to fill out a decision card.

“In these long-term evangelistically effective churches, it would be rare for an unsaved person to visit without being exposed to an appeal to consider the offer of salvation,” Waggoner said.


The pastors of these standout churches are focused on reaching people for Christ. Whether it’s through analyzing the content of sermons, planning the worship services, or simply the nature of church programming, it is clear everything is designed with outreach in mind.

Evidence of this intentionality is seen in the frequency of a visitation or follow-up strategy employed by almost all of the churches. All but four are committed to a regular, organized visitation program. While the exact nature and formats vary, they are intentionally organized for weekly follow-up of visitors or church prospects.

This spirit of intentionality also goes beyond visitation. Many of the churches in this study plan and conduct a variety of church events and programs with an evangelistic motive. The pastors and staff leaders are careful not to fill up the church calendar with random events unless they are designed, at least in part, to reach people for Christ.


While these long-term evangelistic churches share many common elements, it’s important to note they have their differences as well.

When it comes to preaching, one-third of the pastors indicate they preach topically. Almost half are committed to expositional or textual preaching. Four of the churches use other terms to describe their preaching style.

Another area of notable difference is the aspect of formal evangelism training. Half of the churches use formal, ongoing training programs such as FAITH, while the other half is split between occasional classes and using the pulpit to train believers in evangelism.

Lastly, the small-group strategy of the churches varies. 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.

“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,” Waggoner said. “Scripture promises that the Gospel is powerful to save. We are called to be ambassadors of Christ. We are commanded to preach the message of reconciliation. 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.”

    About the Author

  • Libby Lovelace