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Does evangelism still work?

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Archives / 2017 / August

 

 

Does evangelism still work?

Alan Parker

Alan Parker, DTh, is professor in the School of Religion at Southern Adventist University, where he is also director of the Pierson Institute of Evangelism and World Missions and director of the SALT Program, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States

 

The heart of Seventh-day Adventist mission is evangelism. The church “was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world.”But we often do not understand what works and what does not. For an organization that spends tens of millions of dollars on evangelism every year, we know surprisingly little about what might be effective. As a result, we tend to rely on anecdotal stories and gut feelings rather than hard data. Fortunately, new research is helping us find answers.

In this article, I will share one of the largest studies on Adventist personal and public evangelism. We were able to analyze using a software program called Disciples.This program was used by 231 churches and 14 organizations in the United States to track over 60,000 people who were either receiving Bible studies or attending public events.The data is very recent, covering a seven-year period from 2009 through 2016.

Although most of the churches in the study were traditional, English-speaking churches, we gained valuable insights into the evangelistic process. While some of our assumptions about evangelism were confirmed, there were also results that both surprised and challenged us.

Are prophecy seminars still effective?

The first thing we discovered was that public evangelism still thrives in North America! There were 354 prophecy events recorded, drawing 25,314 guests. Nearly half of these events had more than 100 registrations. Church members made up only 40 percent of registrations, perhaps suggesting a declining interest inside the church. Twelve larger multichurch meetings drew an additional 6,000 guests, letting us know there is obviously still a public interest in prophecy.

While the news about public evangelism is generally positive, there are a number of worrying signs. One is the age of the average attendee. We discovered a remarkable demographic shift over the last three decades. For instance, in 1991 the Southern Union conducted research into the previous seven years of evangelistic meetings and found that 54 percent of nonAdventist attendees were under the age of 40. In 1995 and 1996, the NET global satellite evangelistic meetings had an average age of 43. By 2000, it had grown slightly to 44.Our results suggest that age has continued to trend upward.

The recent meetings show that only 34 percent of attendees were under the age of 40 (see figure 1). The longer the meetings ran, the older the crowd became, with approximately 60 percent of the average audience over the age of 50 by night 16.

Clearly, we can no longer rely on traditional meetings to effectively reach the 18–50 age group. An older audience also presents its own challenges. When people are older, they find it more difficult to change denominations or to make lifestyle changes. This means that it is taking longer for people to make decisions and join the church. In fact, our research suggests that most baptisms occur a year or more after the meetings are concluded.5

While meeting attendance remains good, immediate baptisms are fairly small. Most sites reported fewer than eight new-member baptisms at the conclusion of the meetings, with three new-member baptisms being average for a local church meeting. However, effective follow-up can make all the difference. In one church that I worked with, there was only one immediate baptism. Over the course of a year, twelve more made a decision to join the church. Understandably, few people are ready to join the church after just four weeks of exposure to Adventism, particularly if they are older.

Figure 1: Profile of opening night attendance

Age 10-19

292

Age 20-29

299

Age 30-39

376

Age 40-49

427

Age 50-59

705

Age 60-69

948

Age 70+

381

 

 

I have also found that evangelistic meetings serve a useful purpose in discipling new believers. Our research found that recent converts are some of the most consistent attendees. There seems to be good reason to run a second prophecy meeting within a year of the first one, in order to both disciple new believers and reap fruit from the first meeting. Indeed, we are counseled, “After the first efforts have been made in a place by giving a course of lectures, there is really greater necessity for a second course than for the first. The truth is new and startling, and the people need to have the same presented the second time, to get the points distinct and the ideas fixed in the mind.”6

There has also been a shift over the past couple of decades away from a dependence on media advertising. Although we had limited data on advertising, we did have some information from event registration surveys. Figure 2 shows that members were the most important recruiting method (43 percent), followed by direct mail (29 percent), and friends (19 percent). This suggests that the personal invitation is growing in importance and that handbills continue to be a primary means of attracting a crowd to evangelistic events. The role of television, radio, and newspaper was greatly diminished (less than 2 percent). Since Facebook has only recently been used as an advertising tool, we did not have sufficient data on this strategy to draw a conclusion on its effectiveness.

In terms of retention, people were far more likely to continue attending an evangelistic series if they had been invited by a friend or a member. For instance, there was a 38–45 percent drop-off in attendance if they had been brought by a Bible worker or friend, compared to a 60 percent drop-off if they came in through a handbill.

Figure 2: Advertising effectiveness by opening night attendance

Member

5,207

Mail

3,490

Friend

2,269

 

 

However, people who came in through handbills were surprisingly receptive to making decisions for Christ or the Sabbath, yet they were far less likely than other groups to make baptism decisions or to join the church. This raises the question of whether we are trying to take people too rapidly through the doctrines if they have been recruited purely through a handbill. We may need a slower approach to this group, particularly when they are older.

One-week reaping meetings

In contrast to the traditional prophecy series were the one-week reaping meetings led by Roger Hernandez of the Southern Union. He utilized a shorter series that was not dependent on prophecy. In our database we had several multichurch meetings held for either English-speaking (6 events) or Spanish-speaking districts (7 events). Unlike the prophecy meetings, they did not use mailed flyers. The meetings were promoted to members for a year in advance, and Bible workers were brought in two to three months before the event began. Most of the guests therefore came through members or Bible workers. The results were encouraging because the 13 events managed to draw crowds of about 1,500 English-speaking guests and nearly 5,000 Spanish-speaking guests.

Unlike the prophecy meetings, there were more members than guests (about 60 percent members in attendance), a younger age-group was present (although we did not have conclusive data for this), and there seemed to be a strong interest in the meetings from the members. Baptism results were impressive and significantly higher than in the prophecy meetings. Doctrines were introduced in terms of how they related to practical Christianity, and a baptism appeal was made every night.

It seems that the more relational approach, the down-to-earth preaching, and the consistent appeals made it easier for people to make decisions for baptism. Unfortunately, we do not yet have access to retention rates. However, this approach indicates that there is more than one way to engage in public evangelism.

Health events

We had 88 health events in the database with an average of 60 registrations per event. Health events, therefore, appear to be smaller than prophecy meetings but will likely reach a different audience. One example of this is the low transfer rate between health events and evangelistic meetings. However, those churches that had consistent health events (such as monthly dinner clubs) were more likely to see transfers and eventual baptisms.

Health events require patience to see results. Our preliminary data indicates that it takes two to five years before people become Adventists as a result of our health outreach programs. A number of supper clubs (or Dinner With the Doctor events) have seen 12 baptisms or more over a five-year period—but only when evangelistic meetings were also held in the same time period. Thus, the synergistic approach to holding multiple bridge and reaping events, with significant relationship building in between, appears to be effective.

We did not have enough data here to draw a solid conclusion on age, but it appeared that the majority of participants were older than 50. We believe that young adults and families have an interest in health, but the interest is likely not compelling enough to have them come out to a health meeting. My hypothesis is that members of this age group find their health information online.

There was a remarkable gender gap when it comes to health. Sixty-nine percent of the attendees were female compared to only 31 percent male attendance. For cooking schools, the number of females attending rose to 78 percent. Men appear to be less concerned with health education,7 unless they are having a health crisis. From a broader perspective, the gender difference was consistent for nearly all of our events (with the exception of children’s meetings), suggesting that churches are struggling to find a way to reach men.

Bible studies

Women appeared more interested in Bible studies than men. Sixty-one percent of women signed up for Bible studies compared to 39 percent men. By the seventh Bible study visit, men accounted for only 31 percent of studies. However, we found that men were more likely to agree to an in-home Bible study, whereas women seemed to prefer a drop-off study. We suspect that this is because women are cautious of strangers entering their home.

One factor that may have influenced this gender gap is that a significant number of our 12,000 Bible study interests were generated by evangelism training schools. Since these schools do a lot of door-to-door work, and since more women than men are at home, this may have skewed the results. Our database showed a significant number of Bible studies were the result of door surveys.

The results of this door-to-door outreach were encouraging. In the database, more than 60 percent of all the Bible study interests were generated through surveys and literature evangelists (see figure 3). It may not be easy to encourage our members to knock on doors, but the study shows that we can still generate new spiritual interests that way.

Further good news is that about two-thirds of those who express an interest in Bible studies as the result of a survey can be converted into a Bible study on a follow-up visit.

Figure 3: Source of Bible Study Interests

Surveys

45 percent

Colporteurs

15 percent

Friends/Family

14 percent

Prophecy

11 percent

Health

3 percent

Church

6 percent

Media

6 percent

However, there is also a downside to this approach. If we rely too much on “stranger evangelism,” as many organizations and churches in this study did,8 we also reduce our effectiveness. Survey interests tend to fall away fairly quickly and are more likely to want studies dropped off at their doors.9

In contrast, studies generated by a friend or family member were much more likely to agree to in-home Bible studies. These relationally generated studies had a retention rate nearly double that of survey interests. Additionally, if the study came through a friend or family member, the person was also much more likely to decide to keep the Sabbath and be baptized.10

Another example of stranger evangelism was blanketing a ZIP code with cards inviting people to receive Bible lessons. There was generally a response rate of 5 to 8 returns per thousand cards mailed. A Bible worker or church member would then follow up on the interest card. However, it seems that people were surprised to have someone knock on their door, rather than receive something in the mail. As a result, we noticed that these interests were three times more likely to accept a drop-off study than an in-home study. Perhaps our follow-up needs to focus more on dropping off studies or mailing them in and converting them to in-home studies later on. The good news is that once you are able to get into the home, these interests have an excellent retention rate.

Churches also follow up on names from media ministries. Although the transfer to Bible studies was lower than we would like (30 percent), the positive side is that a media interest is more likely to accept an in-home Bible study, not just a dropped-off one.

The bottom line is that we need to encourage more relational or network evangelism in our churches, as these strategies are ultimately more effective. However, we need to do this without neglecting stranger evangelism, which still has some success in generating Bible studies.

We were curious to see the age of those agreeing to Bible studies. We suspected that there would be an older group interested in Bible studies. In figure 4, we see the overall age range 11 of the Bible study interests. Surprisingly, it is fairly evenly spread across the age groups. However, in figure 5, we can see how this demographic shifts as you continue Bible studies. By the seventh visit the millennial age group has largely dropped away. We are not sure of the reasons for the lack of consistency in this age group.

Figure 4: All Bible study interests by age range

Age 0-9

74

Age 10-19

428

Age 20-29

963

Age 30-39

979

Age 40-49

930

Age 50-59

1,026

Age 60-69

753

Age 70+

 

 

 

Figure 5: All Bible study interests by seventh visit

Age 0-9

29

Age 10-19

90

Age 20-29

160

Age 30-39

201

Age 40-49

220

Age 50-59

253

Age 60-69

174

Age 70+

 

 

 

When our team analyzed the data from these 12,000 Bible study interests, we concluded that there were a number of factors that led to retention and decisions for baptism: (a) the Bible study interest was generated through family or friends; (b) the Bible study was converted into an in-home Bible study; (c) the person receiving the study was female; and (d) older than 40. Although less effective for retention, door-to-door surveys, mailin cards, and media interests were a significant source of Bible study interests and should not be neglected.

Conclusion

Our research into seven years worth of data from hundreds of churches, several media organizations, and three evangelism training schools has given us valuable insights into evangelism. We have found that public evangelism is still successful, even in the United States. However, we also realized that we need to introduce new strategies if we are to reach younger age groups, while taking a longer-term approach to older attendees. We saw that women showed a much greater interest in health and spirituality, but we obviously need to find ways to reach a broader demographic.

We discovered that the process by which people become Seventh-day Adventists takes much longer than we originally anticipated, especially for health interests. However, the most important finding was the need to build relationships with evangelistic interests. We saw that while door-to-door work and “stranger evangelism” is effective in generating Bible study interests, friendship evangelism is far more effective in gaining decisions and retaining them. Where we can meaningfully invest in the process, build relationships, and call for decisions, we are much more likely to see success. Perhaps this is why Ellen White so poignantly wrote, “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people.”12

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1 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 9.

2 Disciples is an Adventist evangelism tracking program available for free at http://www.getdisciples.com.

3 We restricted our dataset to the United States and Canada. At least 44 states and provinces were represented, but the highest number of event registrations were in Michigan (22 percent), California (12 percent), Georgia (10 percent), and Florida (9 percent).

4 See Monte Sahlin’s presentation to the North American Division in 2008. “Adventist Church Growth and Evangelism Research: Briefing for Presidents Council of the Pacific Union Conference” (live presentation, Westlake Village, CA, 2008).

5 Using a sample size, we tracked baptisms from the meetings over four years and found that only 27 percent of all baptisms occurred at the end of the meetings. The majority of those who got baptized did so within six months to two years following the meeting.

6 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 334.

7 A Pew Research study published on December 10, 2015, corroborates this gender difference. Pew Research Center, “Women Especially Interested in Health and Medicine; More Men Interested in Science and Technology, http://www.pewinternet .org/2015/12/11/public-interest-in-science-and -health-linked-to-gender-age-and-personality /pi_2015-12-11_science-and-health_1-04/.

8 Only 8 percent of Bible study interests were generated by friends, family, or church members. If one takes only the known list of lead sources, this rises to 20 percent, suggesting that stranger evangelism accounts the vast majority of all Bible studies generated in the database.

9 Only 24 percent of survey interests wanted an in-home Bible study, compared to 43 percent who would accept a drop-off study.

10 Survey interests are, however, fairly likely to make a decision to accept Christ. 

11 Only about half of the Bible study interest ages were recorded.

12 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), 143.

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