Preachers and preaching styles

7eb33edc0158b7a592b746f5277444341587343I 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?

Why people stay in church

7eb33edc0158b7a592b746f5277444341587343Let’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)

More gleanings from Why Churches Grow

7eb33edc0158b7a592b746f5277444341587343Yesterday, 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.

Some gleanings from an older book

7eb33edc0158b7a592b746f5277444341587343Last 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:

  1. Why do some churches grow?
  2. 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.

The Parable of the Elder Brother

42_Lk_15_09_RGI talked about the Prodigal Son yesterday. I reminded people that the most famous part of the story, where the father receives the son who is coming back from a wasteful life, is not the point of the story. It’s important and very similar to the point of the preceding parables. But the parable of the prodigal son is really the parable of the elder brother. If we don’t take a long, hard look at him, we won’t hear what Jesus is trying to tell us.

Look how Luke 15 begins:

“Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable:” (Luke 15:1–3)

And Jesus proceeds to tell three famous parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son. They were told to address the criticism which the Jewish leaders were aiming at Jesus: he fellowships sinners. He welcomes them. He eats with them.

So the heart of the parable about the two sons is here:

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:25–32)

I understand the older son. I do. His brother had disrespected their father. Many of us can handle an insult but become indignant when a family member is attacked. His brother had taken a third of the family property and wasted it (which is what “prodigal” means; you knew that, right?). Now the brother returns and receives a party the likes of which the faithful brother had never had.

I think the irony is intensified by the sentence: “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field.” He was working, faithfully, while his irresponsible brother was receiving a magnificent party! I understand his outrage.

But Jesus is making the point that he mentioned before: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)

It’s not easy to have that heavenly attitude. I reminded our group yesterday that, as we look for new members, we want “elder brothers” in our church. They are dependable. They are hard working. And they still have their money!

Younger brothers have baggage. They don’t have a good track record. And their money is gone.

Yet Jesus says that’s exactly who God hopes to see come and join our community. The lost sheep. The lost coin. The wasteful, recovering younger brother.

Illustration courtesy of Sweet Publishing