The Keys to Church Growth
By Chip Arn
Between you and your father, Win, you’ve studied church growth and helped churches to accomplish it for 35 years. Our culture has changed a lot in that time. Are there some things that used to be true of church growth that we now need to unlearn?
It’s important to understand that there’s a difference between church growth principles and church growth methods. The methods change, but the principles are really timeless. One of the most important of them is as true today as it was in the New Testament: the social networking principle. In the hundreds of times I’ve surveyed congregations—a total of at least 50,000 people or more—and asked why each person became a Christian, there’s a list of eight things that are always mentioned.
1. A special need arose in my life, such as a death or catastrophe. That’s 1 percent to 2 percent.
2. A spontaneous walk-in—I just decided to go to church one Sunday. That’s 2 percent to 3 percent.
3. I had a relationship with a pastor or someone else on church staff. That varies from 1 percent to 6 percent.
4. I was visited; somebody just knocked on my door. That’s 1 percent to 2 percent and continually dropping.
5. I participated in Sunday school or some other Christian education. That’s 4 percent to 5 percent.
6. Participation in evangelistic crusades, television, and radio ministries is less than 1 percent.
7. Church programs, such as special events or other advertised activities, drew 2 percent to 3 percent of those surveyed. If you’ve been following the numbers, the percentages are still very low and there’s only one item left to list.
8. A friend or relative talked to me about Jesus. Of all the tens of thousands of people we surveyed, 75 to 90 percent of them said they’re Christians because a friend or relative talked to them about Christ. That’s not just a U.S. thing, that holds true from my visits to Korea and India as well.
The word that comes up often in the New Testament is oikos, frequently translated as household or house. In the first century that really meant a lot of people, such as extended family, servants, and servants’ families. There’s some indication that it might even have included work associates. So the timeless principle is that we need to be intentional about identifying and utilizing existing social networks.
It’s amazing that the percentage is that high. How do you effectively utilize social networks?
That question really leads to another timeless principle: the principle of receptivity. When Jesus sent his disciples out, he told them to go to the towns and villages that will listen to you and shake the dust off your feet in the places that won’t. Paul stayed much longer in places like Ephesus that were receptive, and less time in places like Athens that were resistant. So good church growth strategy says within your community there are different groupings of people, some of whom will be more receptive than others. And some people will be receptive to one church and not another, so you can’t expect everyone to respond to your style. Look for receptive people and work there.
Another principle is to make evangelism a priority. It’s a fascinating dynamic to observe the life cycle of churches. The general observation is that the longer a church exists, the more the people in leadership become concerned with self-preservation and self-service, and less concerned with their original goal of reaching people. Growing churches continue to focus on outreach.
Presumably the final principle is related to our conversation on assimilation, so that once those friends do come to church they keep coming.
Exactly. Welcoming new believers into the fold and building community with them is a universal principle. It’s not a natural thing for outsiders to be automatically welcomed into a new group. Effective growing churches will intentionally develop systems and strategies to build a consciousness in the congregation to welcome newcomers.
Chip Arn is president and CEO of Church Growth Incorporated.
This article “The Key To Church Growth” By Chip Arn is excerpted from the Church Growth Inc. Newsletter. September 2008.