I want to bring out one more point from Flavil Yeakley’s Why Churches Grow. This one is especially for preachers.
In his studies, Yeakley looked at the preaching style of the preacher. The preachers were asked to self-report on the style that they favored. One style was deemed positive, seeking to provide encouragement, inspiration, and instruction to the audience, with a focus on believers. The other style was deemed negative (with “corrective” being the term favored by most preachers), seeking to convert non-believers and point out the errors of other religious groups.
It’s interesting to note that the preachers who self-identified as “positive” almost exclusively used the more effective open dialogue style of evangelism. And their churches grew. Those that self-identified as “corrective” favored the more directive evangelistic styles we saw the other day. Only 2 out of 27 in this group were in churches that were experiencing significant growth.
That’s one point that I could definitely see as changing with time and culture. If you were to guess at what we might see today, or in the place where you live, what would you expect the results to be?
Let’s continue to talk about ideas that Flavil Yeakley presents in his book Why Churches Grow. Though the book is several decades old, many of the ideas presented fit today’s churches as well.
The last couple of days we’ve looked at evangelism. Yeakley’s focus is broader than that; he’s also interested in retention. Not surprisingly, just as it showed when looking at evangelism, Yeakley’s research points to relationships being the key to retention.
Succintly, Yeakley states:
These data suggest that when subjects formed personal relationships with members of the congregation, they were likely to remain faithful. When they did not form such personal relationships, they were likely to drop out of the church.
In his study of 100 people, those who formed six or more new friendships after their conversion stayed in the church; those who formed three or less, dropped out. Half of those who dropped out had found two or fewer new relationships. None of those who dropped out had formed more than six. None of those who stayed had formed fewer than three new relationships.
Again, my experience shows much of the same. It’s not about worship style nor church politics. It’s about people. Relationships. Friends.
The one most important thing that a church can do to grow is to be a welcoming church. That needs to go beyond giving a smile and handing someone a bulletin. People want to be a part. They want to find a loving fellowship.
Maybe that’s why Jesus said this: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
Yesterday, I started talking about some things I had gleaned from re-reading Flavil Yeakley’s Why Churches Grow. Though the research is dated, I think many of the findings would hold true today.
I talked about the evangelist’s view of outreach, how those who saw it as best accomplished through an open dialogue had the most success. Yeakley also looked at things from the recipient’s point of view, asking them to characterize how they saw the person that had reached out to them. He took those results and grouped them into three broad categories: Teacher, Salesman, and Friend.
His findings largely lined up with what he saw when looking at the evangelist’s point of view. Those who saw the evangelist in a teacher role rarely became Christians; only 5 out of 249 that described their interaction in terms of teacher-student had converted. Those who saw the evangelist as a salesman were most likely to respond, then drop out. This held true for 203 of the 290 who chose that descriptor. Finally, of those who saw the evangelist as a friend, 170 out of 181 became Christians.
All of this points back to the same thing: it’s not about the method. It’s about the relationship. You may have a technique to “get people in the water,” but if you can’t form a relationship dominated by friendship, you’re unlikely to help them become a lasting convert.
Last week, I was preparing to do some seminars on outreach. I pulled out Flavil Yeakley’s Why Churches Grow, a book that was published in 1979.
Yeakley conducted a nationwide survey of growth patterns among Churches of Christ. He looked at attendance numbers from the 1960s and 1970s, then conducted surveys seeking to answer two questions:
- Why do some churches grow?
- Why are some people receptive to the gospel?
I found a lot of what he had to say to be surprisingly relevant. Well, I say surprisingly. Actually I’m not surprised. The basic truths about how to reach out to others haven’t changed all that much.
You see, Yeakley found that the most significant factor in someone coming to be a member of a church had little to do with church programs or church staff. The most significant factor was relationships. Other research says that 75-90% of converts report that the main influence, or one of the main influences, was a friend or relative. Yeakley’s work backed that up.
In his book, Yeakley looked at differing views of evangelism among those reaching out. Some saw evangelism as a transmission of information. Others used a manipulative monologue, steering their listeners through a set presentation. Others approached the process as an open dialogue. What Yeakley found was startling in how clear-cut the results were.
- Those who saw evangelism as a transmission of information were highly unsuccessful. In Yeakley’s study, evangelists using this style had converted only 35 people out of 240 studies. An additional 25 had dropped out soon after joining the church. The rest did not respond positively to the evangelist.
- When the worker used a type of manipulative monologue, they had 36 converts out of 303 studies. With this group, the dropout rate was extremely high: 209 out of 303. These were people who were initially convinced, then fell away. The rest did not accept the message at all.
- With the third group, those using a style of open dialogue, Yeakley found 169 conversions out of 177 studies. An additional 5 people were in the “dropout” category, and only 2 completely rejected the message.
I don’t think that’s changed, from what I’ve seen here and in Latin America. Relationships are key. It’s not about methods. It’s not about programs. It’s not even about worship styles. It’s about people sharing God’s message with other people.
I made an oft-hand comment on the blog yesterday: “All of that should be obvious, but what’s obvious to one person isn’t always obvious to another.”
I was remembering something that happened when we first moved back to the States after living in Argentina. We were living in a church-owned home next to the church building. One day our air conditioner stopped working. When the repairman came, he pulled a completely clogged filter out of the system. He was amazed to discover that I didn’t know that central air units have a filter that needs to be changed regularly!
I’d never changed the filter at home growing up, nor seen anyone do it. For the next 20+ years, I lived either in housing managed by others or homes that had no central air. I’d never even seen an air filter before then! The repairman had no way of knowing that a man over 40 wouldn’t know about air filters.
In a similar way, I remember preaching once on the promises made to Abraham out of Genesis 12. I had a man, who had been a Christian for over 20 years, come to me and say, “I’d never heard that before.” I never would have guessed that any Christian adult would be unfamiliar with the promises that are so central to our faith.
We hesitate to teach basic things because they seem too obvious. Yet we often need to hear just that.
photo courtesy of MorgueFile.com