NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When it comes to evangelistic outreach, the most common methods Southern Baptist churches use these days are Vacation Bible School, feeding ministries, visitor follow-up and prayer for people who have not made a decision to receive Christ.
Most pastors, however, struggle to lead by example in personal evangelism, and churches don’t make the most effective use of available media to communicate with people who are unchurched, meaning those not associated with any church.
These were the key insights drawn from an online study, conducted by LifeWay Research, that asked Southern Baptist pastors more than 30 questions about their personal evangelism efforts, evangelism in their preaching, their church’s evangelism methods and advertising outreach methods used to reach their communities.
Events and ongoing activities
By far the most common outreach event conducted by Southern Baptist congregations is Vacation Bible School. Eighty-five percent of pastors say their churches held VBS in the past 12 months. The next most common event, registered by 58 percent of pastors, is a prayer emphasis focused specifically on outreach or unbelievers.
The next most-often mentioned events are servant evangelism projects (46 percent), revival services (45 percent) and door-to-door canvassing (44 percent).
Pastors also were asked about ongoing evangelistic activities. The most common ongoing evangelistic activity, as cited by 86 percent of pastors, is conducting weekly follow-up with people who visited a church service.
Concerning their personal beliefs about evangelism, 43 percent of pastors strongly agree that evangelism is often overshadowed by other priorities. Only about one-third of pastors cite evangelism training as an ongoing activity, though 96 percent strongly agree that every Christian has a responsibility to share the gospel with non-Christians.
The second most-often mentioned ongoing activity, at 77 percent, is offering food to people who are in need in the community.
“Government stats show that use of food stamps is up, and our research shows that requests to churches for financial assistance are up,” said Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research. “Three out of four Southern Baptist churches were prepared to give food to those in their community who had needs as the economic difficulties escalated across the country. Churches have the responsibility to help believers be prepared to share the reason for the hope they have in Jesus Christ, and this is a tangible way of being prepared, as Scripture calls us to be.”
Other questions about dimensions of pastoral evangelism revealed that pastors set good examples even though many feel evangelism is difficult.
The survey found the traditional “invitation” is still alive and well in Southern Baptist churches, with 82 percent of pastors strongly agreeing that they invite people to come forward to make spiritual decisions. Another 8 percent somewhat agree.
Additionally, 81 percent of pastors strongly agree, and 18 percent somewhat agree, that they feel responsible to lead their churches by example in the area of evangelism. A total of 86 percent agree, either strongly or somewhat, that they pray daily for people they know who are not professing Christians. But 39 percent say personal evangelism does not come easily for them; only 25 percent strongly agree they find it easy to share the gospel one-on-one.
In spite of the challenge, however, the vast majority of pastors — 96 percent — say they have shared the gospel with at least one person outside of church in the past six months. Sixty-six percent say their frequency of witnessing falls between one and 15 times. Nineteen percent report that they shared the gospel 16-40 times, and 10 percent claim more than 40 times; 4 percent acknowledge they have not witnessed to anyone in the past six months.
Ninety-nine percent of pastors also say they have invited at least one unchurched person to attend a church service or some other church program in the past six months. Twenty-nine percent estimate they have invited more than 40 people, and 1 percent say they haven’t invited anyone.
“Many pastors are setting good evangelistic examples,” said McConnell, “but their congregations may benefit just as much from hearing a pastor honestly share that it isn’t always easy for him. The typical believer can relate to that. Even the apostle Paul asked the Ephesians to pray that he would have boldness to share the gospel.”
The research also determined that Southern Baptist churches don’t make frequent use of available media to communicate with Americans. An early 2009 study conducted by LifeWay Research, in support of the North American Mission Board’s “GPS” national evangelism initiative, revealed resistance to advertising media among Americans. Still, the percentage of churches using advertising media is much smaller than the percentage of Americans who are willing to receive information through communications media.
Building upon that early 2009 study, this new research found the most common medium used by Southern Baptist churches to communicate with their communities is newspaper advertising. Two-thirds of pastors say their churches advertised in a newspaper in the last 12 months. The previous study showed that 48 percent of Americans are very or somewhat willing to receive information about a church through an informative ad in the newspaper.
The older study also showed that 46 percent of Americans are very or somewhat willing to receive information about a local church through billboard advertising. In contrast to Southern Baptist churches’ strong use of newspaper advertising, only 11 percent of Southern Baptist churches advertised on a billboard in the last 12 months, the new study revealed.
The second most common communications medium used by Southern Baptist churches is invitation cards distributed by church members. Sixty percent of pastors say they have distributed such cards in the previous 12 months, and 44 percent report they noticed some response from the effort.
“Understanding your community’s openness to various kinds of communication is one way to understand your church’s context,” McConnell said. “Research indicates that efforts like the invite cards that encourage personal conversations with a congregation’s friends and family are most effective. However, the right advertising has the potential to touch people that a local church may not be able to reach otherwise.”
The entire report, “Southern Baptist Evangelism Today,” including details on the methods that churches and pastors use for evangelism and which advertising media generate responses, is available at www.lifewayresearch.com.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Research for the “Southern Baptist Evangelism Today” study is based on an online survey LifeWay Research conducted among 801 Southern Baptist pastors. The sample size provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed ±3.4 percent for the total sample. Responses were weighted based on church size to minimize response bias.)