People come to Christ and into the church and stay primarily through relationships.
The Center for Creative Ministry conducted a study with Adventist churches in the western United States that have a strong track record with winning new generations of younger adults. Members of these churches were asked, “What have you observed to be the most effective method for bringing new members into your local church?”
Nearly 80 percent of the respondents said friends, relatives, acquaintances, and people talking to people are what we observe to be the way most people come into our congregation. Around two-thirds reported it to be small-group ministries. This is also a relational approach. The third most reported way to bring people into the church is through community service and recreational activities. The way these things bring people into the church is through opportunities for them to rub shoulders with each other, talk informally, and form friendships.
Way down the list, maybe one-third of the people named some of the traditional evangelistic programs such as Revelation Seminars, a pastor’s Bible class, or public meetings. Bible lessons are at the end of the list.
You might think this study was conducted only in an elite, avant-garde set of churches. Not so. The same question was asked in a larger sample of all churches—urban, rural, small, and large. The numbers are lower because some of these churches are not growing, and members don’t observe many new people coming in as compared to those in the first study. But friendship evangelism is the highest category, and some of the more traditional approaches are way down the list.
Another piece of research outside Adventist churches confirms the critical role of friendship evangelism in retaining members. The Church of Christ denomination is headquartered in Texas and has about 300,000 members. After a yearlong emphasis on evangelism in all its churches in the southwestern United States, its seminary did in-depth research on how people come to Christ and come into the church. More than 1,200 in-depth, face-to-face interviews were conducted during this year of evangelism. There were three categories, with about 400 in each.
The first included about 400 converts still active in the church more than a year after they joined. The next category involved converts who dropped out that first year. Finally, there were about 400 people who did not join the church, despite being contacted and attending small groups, seminars, and evangelistic meetings. In these 1,200 interviews, the question was asked, “Who was the person who contacted you about becoming a Christian and joining the church?” The follow-up question was “What relationship do you have with that person?” Although the primary reason for conducting the survey was to assess certain evangelistic programs, these questions resulted in the most important finding.
A high correlation of responses was discovered among each of these three groups. Among those who didn’t become converts, most said, “That person was a religious teacher.” Among those who joined the church but dropped out within the first year, people said, “This person was a kind of religious salesperson.”
But among those who accepted Christ, joined the church, and were still active members a year later, many replied, “This person was a friend of mine.” In many cases they meant this was someone they knew before the evangelism emphasis came along. In a high percentage of cases among the “dropouts” and “unconverted,” the person who contacted them was a stranger, someone who came to their door. The bottom line is that people come to Christ and into the church and stay primarily through relationships.*