"Confessions of a Church Conference Junkie"

This was an article I wrote for "Grace and Peace" Magazine.  They published it as the cover story of their innagural issue. 

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I have a confession to make – I’m a church conference junkie. In the last ten years, I have been to dozens of church conferences looking to find the magic bullet that will propel my ministry to superstar status. I’ve been to the leadership conferences of five of the ten largest churches in America and even visited two churches in Korea that were so large they made the American churches feel like living room bible studies by comparison.

Of course, I’m not the only person at these conferences. I am one pastor in a sea of desperate pastors who very aware of the downward trend of churches in America. Some of the alarming statistics include:

 According to the Barna Research Group, Evangelical churches have failed to gain an additional two percent of the American population during the second half of the Twentieth Century. In other words, we are not even reaching our own children.
 According to H. B. London, in the past 15 years the church in America has spent 500 billion dollars on domestic ministry and for it has shown no appreciable growth.
 According to Charles Arn, no county in America has a greater percentage of churched persons today than a decade ago.

More than just declining attendance, the root of the problem seems to be our inability to reach lost people with the good news of Jesus.

The doubly depressing fact is this -- after all this time and money spent, I discovered what people who are smarter than myself have known for a long time – there is no magic bullet. While models, systems, and process all have their place in effective evangelism, they are not what drives evangelistic effectiveness.

So, as part of my doctoral studies, I spent three years studying churches that were very effective at evangelism. Instead of looking at their evangelism methods, I looked below the surface and discovered that the power of a church that is effective at evangelism is not found simply in great ideas or great people. The real power is found in a much more subtle place: inside the collective soul of the individuals in a church.

In secular leadership writings, the corporate world is coming to appreciate that the culture of an organization has more to do with an organization’s effectiveness than methodologies and leadership. In the church world, I discovered that a person caring deeply about evangelism for the right reasons is probably the most effective “method” of evangelism.

After visiting and interviewing dozens of people at America’s most evangelistic churches, I found some common threads in the way that they intentionally shaped their church cultures:

1. Informal mentoring. At one church I visited, after weekend services, leaders would linger to look for people whom they think might be interested in a spiritual conversation. Through these conversations most people who have come to faith at began their spiritual journey.
Leaders at the church worked to include others in their spiritual conversations. These conversations enable them to model how to have a spiritual conversation and how to pray with someone to receive Christ. Often when leaders recognize that someone is ready to receive Christ, they will do what they call a “handoff” to a mentor. The leader will tell the person, “My friend here will pray with you” and allow the mentor to pray with the person to receive Christ. Their pastor described it “like an assist in basketball.”

Last year over 1,600 people at this church made decisions to follow Christ. The leaders seemed to understand that what we as leaders train and model becomes part of the church’s culture over time.

2. Clarity of purpose. When I interviewed people at these churches, I was amazed at how easily and clearly they were able to articulate why their churches existed and what their churches valued. They exist for people who are far from God. As a result, they have little room for Christian consumer church shoppers who are looking to have their needs met. One person told me, “We’re not real concerned about getting churched people to come. If we were, we would probably do things a lot different.”

A woman at another church put it this way, “Without our mission we would not continue on. We would not be a church just to be a church. We are a church with a mission.” This clarity of purpose seemed to repel people who had other agendas for their church and attract others who had a heart for their mission.

3. Celebration rituals. All of America’s most effective evangelistic churches had specific ways that they celebrated a person coming to faith. At one church, the baptism ritual was a great time of celebration in which the person who was most instrumental in bringing the person to faith baptizes the baptismal candidate.

At another church, the ritual is a little more fluid, but celebration usually focuses around a personal declaration of faith in Christ. They believed that it is important that they tell their story as soon as possible.

They all did it a little different but they all recognized that what we celebrate shapes our culture. So they all make a very big deal when people come to faith in Christ.

4. Accountability. One of the striking observations that surprised me about these
churches was the informal accountability for carrying the burden of evangelism among its leadership. At one church, part of the weekly discipleship process for leaders was to be asked every week who they were leading to Christ or who they were in spiritual conversation with. These conversations were not in the form of formal accountability reports but simply a weekly reminder of who they were and why they existed.

Additionally, I was amazed at how quickly all the pastors could tell me how many people came to faith in the last month or in the last year. They all had systems to measure their effectiveness. I think they understood that what we measure gets our attention and therefore shapes the culture.

5. Tying everything back to mission. All the churches that I studied communicated the importance of evangelism by showing the connection between everything they did and their mission. At one church, they had just finished a $25 million capital campaign for new and expanded children and youth facilities. The theme that they chose for the campaign was, “The Ripple Effect.”

Every week leading up to pledge Sunday, the church did a video interview with people who had come to faith at their church. They then tied that person’s coming to faith with the relational connection of who brought them to their church. After several weeks, the picture of the their family tree was clear−when a person brings someone to their church, a “ripple effect” occurs as others come to faith as well.

The campaign was built not on the needs of youth or children or facilities but how the new facilities would provide more of a “ripple effect” for generations to come through children and youth coming to faith in Christ.

Even the most mundane of activities is done with the mission in mind. These
churches did not recruit “nursery workers.” They recruited people who could provide safe environments to parents of infants and toddlers so that the parents will be able to hear about the love of Christ without distraction.

What I discovered is that America’s most evangelistic churches, they don’t talk much about evangelism programming. A surprising 60 percent of the dozens of people I interviewed indicated that their church had not given them any formal training in evangelism methodologies; however, when pressed further many admitted that they had received informal training through observation, mentoring, or anecdotal stories. In short, the culture of evangelism seemed to be nurtured through the shaping of the corporate culture of the churches.

The culture of any organization does not change quickly. Usually it takes between two and four years of intentional culture shaping, depending on the size of the organization. And frankly, most of us are not that patient. That is why we run quickly to church conferences looking for the magic bullet. But if we are serious about reaching people for Christ, we should think less about quick fixes and more about how to change the culture of our churches to care about the things that Jesus cares about.

Dana Hicks