Louisville, Ky.--These are folks who, a year or two ago, would have spent Sunday mornings mowing the lawn, reading the paper, sleeping in. Now they're going to church--and a researcher from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wants to know why, and why they picked the church they did.

Thom Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at the seminary in Louisville, has interviewed new members at growing churches to find out why they chose that church over others and what that church is doing that works. Among the answers:

  • It's not because of the church's name. In this crowd, denominationalism doesn't cut it; the denomination often played no role at all in the person's decision to choose a particular church.
  • These new Christians want to know what a church believes in; they want it to stand for something clear. The way Rainer sees it, churches need to "be clear in conviction about biblical matters."
  • Many of those who joined a church had had some previous contact with organized religion; had, in the past, come to church now and then; and were not ignorant about religion.
  • And two main factors in deciding to return were the pastor and the preaching. One woman, unhappy with what she described as "pop psychology" preaching, told the researcher that "what really frustrated me was that I had a deep desire to understand the Bible, to hear in-depth preaching and teaching. But most of the preaching was so watered-down that it was insulting to my intelligence."

    Many of those who started coming to church did so because someone they knew invited them or started talking to them about God. Sometimes that invitation came at a particularly fertile time--perhaps when the person was struggling to cope with a job change or divorce or death of someone close to them, had young children, or had encountered some kind of shift in life that had them thinking about spiritual matters.

    But others came with no invitation and often for reasons they couldn't fully explain, Rainer said. They just felt drawn to faith.

    The research, which is being released in a new book, "Surprising Insights From the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them" (Zondervan), is the latest in a series of books Rainer has worked on involving church growth and evangelism.

    In this effort, a research team from Southern seminary asked "effective evangelistic churches"--those in which at least 26 people had become new Christians in the last year, and which had produced at least one new convert for every 20 members of the church--to provide the names and phone numbers of some of the new members.

    The researchers interviewed 353 "formerly unchurched" people from seven denominations, most of them conservative--Assembly of God, Evangelical Free Church of America, Nazarene Church, Presbyterian Church of America, Southern Baptist Convention, United Methodist Church, Wesleyan Church--and also from independent and nondenominational congregations. These were people who hadn't attended church, except sporadically,for at least 10 years, but had recently become active in a congregation.

    And the researchers also talked to more than 100 pastors from growing churches and 350 people who had been Christians for a longer period, but who had moved to a different church, often because they'd moved to a new community. They are hoping the insights gleaned from these conversations can help congregations that want to draw in new Christians and not just bring in people who are church-hopping by understanding what some people new in the faith seem to want.

    In this book, Rainer points out that much research already has been done on how to reach the unchurched. He also acknowledges that some of those people, even after they've listed what they want from a church, won't come even to churches that provide exactly those things. Why is this? "I have no idea," Rainer said in an interview. "We have been surprised to find how few" will start attending church "even when they readily admit this church has everything they want."

    But the new Christians interviewed in this study--those who did become active in a church--offered some specific suggestions about what worked for them. Based on their answers, Rainer encourages churches to emphasize:

  • Personal evangelism. More than half of the new Christians said that someone from the church they joined talked with them personally about Jesus--and often that someone was not the minister. Many said that someone from the church came to see them within a month of their first visit to the church.
  • Friendliness. People notice, the study concludes, when a congregation is friendly such as when there are signs telling them where to park, when someone's there to show them how to get to the sanctuary or the nursery, and when people make an effort to greet them. "Most church members believe they are friendly," the study reports, "when in reality they are friendly only to those whom they already know."
  • Excellence. Visitors notice and appreciate when a church is clean and efficient and are turned off by restrooms that are dirty, nurseries with old and broken toys, church services that seem disorganized or boring or don't start on time. "Many unchurched people measure the quality of a church by the quality of child care," the study reports, and they especially want nurseries and preschool programs that seem safe, secure and clean.
  • High expectations. "Sometimes the conventional wisdom to reach the unchurched has been to lower expectations, to tell guests that we really do not expect anything of them," Rainer says in the book. "Such seeker friendliness may be effective for a short while, but it seems to be a sure formula for a wide open back door."
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