the shape of leadership

The Conversion Community

Best practices of churches growing through evangelism

Rick Richardson on February 5, 2020

Kevin leads a small church that feels like an extended family. People often get together for events and meals. Small groups sometimes meet, but most gatherings are for the whole congregation.

Though Kevin has a heart for outreach, few people in the church share his vision. Members love the family atmosphere and don’t really want to become larger. They see seeker-oriented churches as shallow and modern evangelism as superficial and intrusive. They would never say so because who’s going to speak publicly against reaching people who don’t know Jesus? But that’s the reality. Kevin is not sure what to do.

Bill faces a different situation. He leads a large church with many programs for many types of people in many different stages of life. The church has a men’s ministry and women’s ministry, Sunday School for retired people, Sunday School for people who especially support missions, and Sunday School for young families. Leadership does a great job with premarital counseling, and they have a highly developed small-group system.

Yet Bill does not feel like his church is helping many people come to Christ. The church has tried outreach programs and events. Congregants may have seen a win or two, a season of some conversions, but they always seem to fall back into default mode. Most people in the church are focused on the programs of the church that are designed for Christians.

Bill wants things to change, but he has no idea how to make it happen — and it’s not that he hasn’t tried. He preaches an evangelism series every year and encourages people to invite friends. Hardly anybody does.

A few years back, Bill tried to transition the church to a more seeker-oriented approach. He stopped trying when worship wars broke out over the relative mix of hymns and contemporary songs. A number of his leaders voiced concern that discipleship would suffer if the church adopted a more evangelistic focus.

Can you relate to any of these struggles? Do you ever feel stuck or stymied in your outreach efforts?

Church leaders want to obey Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). But are we getting it done? And how can we do better? As director of the Billy Graham Research Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois, I’ve spent a lot of time pursuing answers to those questions.

The institute partnered with LifeWay research to conduct an online survey of 2,000 unchurched people across the U.S., representing diverse regions, ethnicities, and communities. We also conducted a phone survey of 4,500 Protestant churches. Finally, we followed up with interviews of 60 pastors and 60 previously unchurched people from the top 10% of congregations who are growing through evangelism. This research gave us tremendous data and insight.

Our research revealed that 90% of the churches in America are either plateaued, declining, or growing primarily at the expense of other churches through transfers. The vast majority of churches in America are basically playing a zero-sum game. Most pastors have sought a way to improve their witness and win souls for Christ rather than just moving people around between churches, but the needle isn’t moving for them.

There’s no panacea, but perhaps we can learn something from the 10% of churches in America that are growing primarily by making disciples who make disciples. We call them conversion communities. People coming to Christ and experiencing life change are regular occurrences in these churches. And 10% of their regular attenders have come to Christ in the last year.

The really good news is we found these conversion communities in large and small churches, in urban, suburban, and rural areas, and among diverse ethnicities and racial backgrounds. My conclusion, based on broad research and broad experience on the ground applying the research, is this: Whatever your context and size, you too can become a conversion community.

What are these churches doing that you could do? We found 10 predictive factors that characterized conversion communities.* Consider which of the factors are in place in your church. Where is your church strongest? What do you need to strengthen or put in place?

These are predictive characteristics. When you find predictive factors in research, you have found pure gold because of their high level of reliability. We discovered these through regression analysis, an approach that involves controlling for every variable but one to see the impact it has. That said, there are three important findings.

First, conversion community leaders intentionally reach out and share their faith, even blocking out time on the calendar to do so. These leaders model the intentionality they hope their people will imitate. And the people catch it. They don’t just sit back and cheer their leaders on. They imitate their leaders and reach out to share their faith.

Second, these churches engage their communities — not only sharing the gospel but also meeting needs. They proclaim and demonstrate the good news and its results. If they only do just one or the other, they are not nearly as effective in reaching people.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, churches that are reaching people today are deeply hospitable to the unchurched. Those who visit know they are expected, wanted, included, and able to contribute something to the life of the community.

We distilled all this down to a simple equation: Missional Leaders + Missional Congregation = Conversion Community.

Congregations who follow this model are growing, changing lives, making disciples, and influencing their communities.

Missional leaders model personal outreach. They build friendships, initiate spiritual conversations, share their faith when they have opportunity, and invite people into Christian community when the time is right. They also integrate an evangelistic concern into the ministries they lead. These leaders encourage staff members to engage in outreach, and they practice hospitality to nonbelievers.

But conversion communities don’t just have missional leaders. They also have missional practices that characterize the congregation as a whole. Together they create a culture of engaging people outside the church, bringing people into the church, and extending spectacular hospitality to visitors. Such congregations have a DNA of extension, invitation and hospitality. From the weekly worship services to youth events, children’s ministries, and compassion outreaches, this engaged, invitational and hospitable culture marks everything the congregation does.

Based on our research that has identified best practices and then applied them through pastor cohorts in hundreds of churches, I believe every church can become a conversion community.

So how do we develop missional leaders and missional congregations? It begins with a renewed focus on the Great Commission.

Hill Country Bible Church in Austin, Texas, is a great example of developing the missional leader part of the equation. The multisite church has planted dozens of other churches. Leaders have also helped churches across the city organize to reach people in Austin. Despite all this, Lead Pastor Tim Hawks was dissatisfied with the church’s impact in evangelism.

The church was not a conversion community, though it had tried many ways of moving in that direction. Church leaders knew they needed to mobilize and release their people, but they weren’t sure how. Hawks and his outreach influence leader, Chuck Barber, joined a pastor cohort and over the last couple of years have seen incredible progress.

What did they do? First, Hawks began to model personal evangelism other people could imitate in more intentional and focused ways. Pastors have a lot of ways they interact with people that are unique to their profession — such as ministering at funerals, performing baptisms, officiating at weddings, and preaching on Sundays. None of their people can imitate those ways of reaching out.

So if pastors want people to imitate them, which is the only way evangelism ever gets caught, they need to reach out in their neighborhoods and communities in ways their people can reproduce.

It is amazing to see how much more vibrant in personal outreach senior pastors become with just a little encouragement from their friends — in our case, other pastors in the cohort. No matter how much pastors value personal evangelism and witness, it is easy for that value to get lost in the midst of a busy and demanding leadership life and the huge task of running a church.

Hawks felt like mission drift had set in for him. So he made a fresh commitment to build relational bridges in his neighborhood and pay more attention to how God might be at work among the unchurched people around him.

At our encouragement, Hawks then recruited Barber to help him take an evangelistic lifestyle to the whole congregation. Barber was in charge of small groups at the time, but he also had a huge heart for outreach and really wanted to see every congregant become engaged in reaching and blessing non-Christians in all their spheres of influence.

Hawks and Barber shared this vision with the church’s leadership team and started taking intentional steps toward making it a reality. Every 30 days, the team met to talk about their life of witness. They asked leaders to rate their passion for reaching unchurched people on a scale from 1 to 10. They also asked them to share stories of spiritual conversations they were having with nonbelievers.

You might think this kind of accountability for personal witness would be uncomfortable, and perhaps it was a little awkward at first. But it has now become the highlight of their leadership meetings. And without this kind of inspiring, loving, direct accountability, people don’t change.

By providing inspiration, accountability, and instruction on how to have spiritual conversations, and planning ways to make outreach more intentional, Hawks and Barber are seeing results. Their whole leadership culture is shifting. In the last year, 17 of their key leaders personally led 51 people to Christ.

This change represents radical forward progress. This church had the heart and desire, but members didn’t have the path. They are now walking a path of evangelism and outreach, and God is blessing it.

On the missional community side of the equation, I think of Constance Evangelical Free Church just north of Minneapolis. Lead Pastor Randy Discher and outreach influence leader Sean McDowell partnered to make five key missional practices part of the whole congregation. We call them the BLESS practices, rooted in God’s promise to Abraham that God would fulfill His mission by blessing Abraham and then by blessing all the nations of the earth through Abraham. The five missional practices are:

  1. Begin with prayer: Pray for and with unchurched people.
  2. Listen: Take time to hear from people and learn their spiritual stories.
  3. Eat: Develop the relationship through sharing food.
  4. Serve: Meet the needs of others, and let them meet yours.
  5. Story: Share your faith story and the story of Jesus.

Anyone can do these things wherever they live, work, study or play. These simple steps make evangelism doable and motivating for the everyday people in our churches.

Constance has wholeheartedly pursued these practices, motivating and equipping all its people and reaching out as a whole church into the community. When the leaders started on this path, it was a huge prayer of faith for them to trust God to lead 50 people to Christ through their congregation.

Since shifting their whole church culture, the congregation has seen 272 people come to Christ in the last year. Most of these converts are still attending and are growing in Christ and with the congregation. With 1,500 in weekly attendance, the church is now a conversion community. It has committed to pursuing this path for the long haul.

I could tell you many more stories. I think of a Hispanic Assemblies of God congregation in Boston who has become a conversion community over these last few years, and of a small Methodist church in Portland, Oregon, that has engaged its community and seen conversion growth in powerful ways. The list goes on.

We have seen this kind of change in every size church, of every ethnicity, in every context — urban, suburban and rural. Based on our research that has identified best practices and then applied them through pastor cohorts in hundreds of churches, I believe every church can become a conversion community.

As you trust and seek God, reach out to those who don’t know Christ, and pursue the conversion community equation by developing missional leaders and missional congregational practices, you, too, can see your church transform.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula. But there is a path and a process for changing the DNA of your congregation. Do you want to become a conversion community? I believe you can.

*Top 10 Predictive Characteristics for Conversion Communities

  1. Members invite, include and involve the unchurched.
  2. Leaders regularly teach a next-steps class.
  3. Leaders regularly attend evangelism training (e.g., missional pastor cohorts).
  4. Leaders regularly and personally invite people to Christ.
  5. The church financially invests in missions and outreach.
  6. People (not just the pastors or professionals) are reaching out and sharing their faith.
  7. Leaders translate the regular message to unchurched people and their lives.
  8. Church ministry engages the community.
  9. The church culture attracts transfers as well as unchurched people.
  10. Leaders block out time for personally engaging in evangelism outside the church.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 edition of Influence magazine.

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