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Survey: 68 percent of churches took part in VBS in 2006

PHOENIX (BP)–Nearly all churches were involved in some way in evangelism during the past year, though many churches place a low priority on increasing their community outreach, according to research released by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Research released in the January/February edition of LifeWay’s Facts & Trends magazine examines the level of involvement of U.S. Protestant churches in evangelism and community outreach, as well as what obstacles hold them back from being even more involved.

The study, conducted for Facts & Trends by Ellison Research of Phoenix, is a representative sample of 811 Protestant senior pastors nationwide.

Senior ministers were asked about the activities their church held in the past year specifically for the purpose of evangelism, as well as what types of community outreach the church offered.

Ninety-seven percent of all churches report doing something specifically for the purposes of evangelism over the last year, but the methods churches use for evangelism are quite varied. The most common is Vacation Bible School, utilized for evangelism by 68 percent of the churches in the last year.

At least half of the churches surveyed used literature such as tracts or magazines (59 percent), events such as block parties or a fall festival (56 percent), musical events or concerts (51 percent), mailings or fliers (50 percent), and nursing home or retirement center visits (49 percent) specifically for the purposes of evangelism.

Other relatively popular evangelistic efforts include “invite a friend to church” days (42 percent), revivals or crusades (40 percent), evangelism training classes or groups (38 percent), door-to-door visitation within the community (37 percent), community service such as cleanup days (31 percent), online efforts such as blogs or websites (27 percent), audio or visual products such as tapes or DVDs (26 percent), and booths at community events such as the county fair (20 percent).

What churches are doing to evangelize their communities differs quite a bit by denominational group. Southern Baptist churches are particularly big on using revivals or crusades, literature, evangelism training classes or groups, and door-to-door visitation, but are less likely than average to use any sort of online evangelism. Other Baptist groups (National, Progressive, General, etc.) are fairly close to average, but are a bit more likely than others to use literature and door-to-door visitation.

Methodist churches are more likely than average to use events but less likely to use literature, door-to-door visitation and revivals or crusades. Lutherans are particularly likely to rely on VBS, online methods and mailings or fliers, and less likely to use revivals or crusades, musical events or concerts, or audio/visual methods. Pentecostal churches are particularly likely to employ musical events or concerts, revivals or crusades, “invite a friend to church” days and audio/visual products but less likely than average to use VBS for evangelism. Presbyterians are especially unlikely to use literature, revivals or crusades, door-to-door visitation or audio/visual products.

In general, evangelical churches use a greater variety of evangelistic tools than do mainline Protestant churches. Evangelical churches are considerably more likely to attempt evangelism through literature, revivals or crusades, evangelism training classes or groups, door-to-door visitation and audio/visual products, while mainline churches have only a greater propensity for doing community service as a form of evangelism.

The survey also explored the kinds of community outreach offered by churches, and pastors were allowed to define their church’s involvement. For instance, a large, well-funded, daily day care center and having the youth group volunteer to baby-sit for single mothers within the congregation once a month could both qualify as “free or low-cost day care.”

Only three types of outreach are offered by a majority of U.S. Protestant churches in a typical year: food pantry, food collection or other food-oriented donations (73 percent), VBS (68 percent), and holiday food programs such as Christmas or Thanksgiving baskets for poor families (65 percent).

Other types of community outreach offered by much smaller proportions of churches in the last year include prison ministry (25 percent), homeless outreach (24 percent), Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts (20 percent), blood drives (17 percent), after-school programs for kids (14 percent), sports programs (11 percent), and outreach to specific ethnic groups (11 percent).

Fewer than one out of 10 Protestant churches offer any kind of free or low-cost day care services, abortion or pregnancy counseling, domestic violence programs, English language classes, job skills or job training, or adult literacy or reading classes.

Just like with evangelism efforts, there are denominational differences in offering community outreach programs. For instance, 46 percent of Methodist churches have some sort of homeless outreach, compared to 10 percent of Southern Baptists. However, with community outreach efforts there is also a larger pattern of commonality among evangelical churches and among mainline churches than exists with evangelism efforts.

While evangelical churches offer a greater variety of evangelism programs and efforts, mainline churches are offering a wider variety of community programs that aren’t necessarily involving evangelism. Mainline churches as a group are more likely than evangelical churches to have food donations, holiday food programs, VBS, homeless outreach, blood drives, Scouting, and domestic violence programs. Evangelical churches are more likely to offer abortion or pregnancy counseling and sports programs, although still relatively few do either of those.

The study also delved into pastors’ reasons for their churches not being more involved in community outreach (regardless of how involved they are). Problems common to at least half of all churches include lacking sufficient volunteers (58 percent), staff (56 percent), lay leaders (52 percent) and funds (50 percent).

Other significant obstacles explained by ministers are that there is just not enough time to do everything (41 percent), lack of sufficient facilities (31 percent), that the congregation is mostly older people (26 percent), and that the church is located in a small town or rural area (25 percent).

In addition, 39 percent — a figure consistent across all major denominational groups — essentially are not highly interested in offering more programs for the community, saying:

— they would rather focus on spiritual needs than on physical needs

— community programs are not a major priority for their church

— their community has no major needs

— other organizations do these things better than they do

— their congregation or community really isn’t interested in community outreach.

Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, found it ironic that so many churches and pastors put a low priority on doing more to reach out to their community.

“In an environment where communities and people have so many needs, and in which church growth is such a hot topic and a stated goal for so many pastors, it seems odd that so many churches really don’t wish to do more,” Sellers said. “This lack of priority takes many forms — the congregation isn’t interested, the community doesn’t want our help, we want to focus on our own people — yet if churches are not consistently reaching outside their own walls, how are they to grow?”

Sellers added that it was particularly surprising to see roughly four out of 10 mainline pastors who tend to place so much emphasis on the social gospel essentially saying that increasing community outreach isn’t a high priority for their church.

Sellers also noted that while churches frequently cite a lack of staff, facilities, people and/or money as reasons for not being more involved in the community, increasing those things doesn’t necessarily lead to greater involvement.

“In smaller churches, you often hear about limitations, and how things can be ‘once we grow,’” Sellers said. “But pastors in larger churches — which usually have more staff, more funds, larger facilities and obviously more potential volunteers and lay leaders — still commonly name the lack of these resources as obstacles to being more involved in the community.

“Plus, they are much more likely to add to the mix a lack of time to accomplish everything,” he said. “Having more resources at your disposal apparently doesn’t mean these obstacles are significantly reduced or removed.”

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