Why they come

Martha Grace Reese’s book Unbinding the Gospel reports on her work with the Mainline Evangelism Project to study successful evangelism efforts by predominantly white, mainline Protestant churches outside the South. In the research summary that is found on her web site, Reese reports she and her colleagues struggled to find churches to study.

They gathered data on 30,000 mainline churches. The United Methodist Church was not included in the study because we do not keep data on adult baptisms as distinct from infant baptism. Of those 30,000 churches the researchers looked for churches that had baptized at least 15 adults over a three year period. They further narrowed the list by saying the number of baptisms had to represent at least 1% of worship attendance. This means that a church baptizing five people a year would have to have an average worship attendance of 500 or fewer to be included in the study. After setting these parameters, the researchers found fewer than 150 churches out of the 30,000 from which the data came. (Sorry this paragraph is so convoluted.)

Some of the findings of the study are interesting, although the method of collecting the data calls into question whether it can be generalized. The people who filled out surveys were not a random sample but were selected by the church staff, so we should be cautious in our interpretation of the data.

That understood, one finding that struck me as interesting was the report by new members of what about being a Christian was of great significance to them. The survey listed 12 statements and asked people to rate how significant they were. For those who had not been attending church or shopping for a church before joining the one they joined, the top answers in terms of how many marked them of great significance were:

“It gives me a relationship with Jesus” – 87%

“My sins are forgiven” – 85%

“It gives meaning to my life” – 80%

“I have eternal life” – 80%

“My life is empowered by the Holy Spirit” – 74%

Given how little we talk about sins in the mainline, I was surprised by that issue coming in second. But again these are not typical mainline churches.

One other interesting nugget in the same data is a distinction between new members with a church background — they’d attended other churches before joining the high evangelism church — and those who had not been attending any church before joining. Sixty-nine percent of those with a church background said the fact their worldview was different than non-Christians was of great significance to them. Only 37% of those who had not been attending church before joining said this.

I interpret this as meaning the an awareness of having different values and a different worldview than non-Christians is something that emerges or grows with church exposure. Being a part of church raises the significance of this aspect of Christianity over time.

To me this is interesting because I am quite taken with the whole Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon line of emphasis that says the church is different from the world and that this is an important part of its proclamation. That may be so, but it may not be something that outsiders find significant in their move to become insiders. At least, it is not nearly as significant to them as it is to insiders. (If the data can be trusted.)

As so often happens with me, I am not really certain what to make of any of this information. I need to let it stew longer. But I did find it interesting and thought you might as well.