Thom Rainer is president of Rainer Group Church Consulting as well as founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. As such, we would expect him to have many interesting insights into church growth. He does not disappoint. In Surprising Insights From The Unchurched Rainer presents the results of a fascinating study he performed over two years. He decided that perhaps the best way of learning what principles of church growth work best would be to interview people who had only recently become Christians and begun to attend church on a regular basis. He and his team spent thousands of hours interviewing 353 of these people. And the results, as is obvious from the title of the book, are quite surprising. In the second half of the book, the focus turns to pastors of successful evangelical churches and seeks to understand what they do to bring success to their churches.
The interviews performed by Rainer were focused on members of "effective evangelistic churches." Rainer defines these as churches with at least twenty-six conversions per year and a conversion ratio (membership/annual conversion) of less than 20:1. The average ratio in American churches is approximately 85:1. The two criteria eliminate 96% of churches. This leaves the elite 4% as the focus of the study.
Through about 125 pages, Rainer reveals the results of his study. He begins by shattering myths about the unchurched. For example, his study found that the name of the church had almost no influence on the unchurched as they chose a church to attend. The pastor does not need to be a dynamic and charismatic leader for the church to reach the unchurched, and deep and complex Biblical truths do not turn the unchurched away. These insights seem to fly in the face of many principles associated the church growth movement. The factors that led people to choose a church were primarily the pastor and his preaching followed closely by solid, Biblical doctrine. Those two factors rated far ahead of any others. Once again, those would seem to contradict much of the church growth movement. Doctrine is so important that Rainer devotes an entire chapter to it.
The second part of the book is devoted to insights gleaned from approximately 100 ministers who pastor effective evangelistic churches. The insights gained from these pastors are also fascinating. Perhaps the most interesting element of this section of the book is "Fifteen Lessons from the Leaders Whose Churches Reach the Unchurched." In this section, Rainer outlines fifteen lessons he learned in interviewing these men. He speaks of authenticity, the imperative of person evangelism, the need to retain strong doctrine and many other critical points. He also devotes attention to their leadership skills and preaching style.
If ever I feel I have done injustice to a book in a review of it, this is it. Honestly, there are so many important principles in this book that they simply cannot be narrowed down to a few short paragraphs. This book is a treasure trove of information about the ways the most successful churches reach the unchurched. I unreservedly recommend this above any others regarding church growth.
In this book, Thom Rainer presents findings from research among several hundred "recently unchurched" people across the United States - those who had been unchurched for an extended period (typically their whole lives), and then believed on Christ and became regular church attendees. Rather than ask people who are not churched what they think might make them join (as is often done), the underlying premise of the study is that the Church should consider factors that actually did make these people join her - and what among these factors are common among local churches that are effective at evangelizing the unchurched. This study is not about growth by transfer of members from other churches, though periodically it does compare the motivations between the "recently unchurched" and "transfers".
This is an easily readable book. One very helpful feature is that main points are highlighted, so that one can go back over the text afterwards to quickly review them. The content itself can be read fairly quickly, as a fair amount of the paper is covered with graphs rather than text.
The study itself is limited to a sociological scope, rather than being a theological study (although it is clearly written from a solidly evangelical underlying set of premises). I don't believe I saw a single scripture reference; this is refreshing in that it is honest: too many books of this nature incorporate verses taken out of context with a "spin" to make them purport to say what the author wants. This non-theological nature allows the work to cover denominations ranging from Presbyterian (PCA) to Nazarene and United Methodist without dealing with the doctrines we get distracted by, disagreeing among each other.
Rainer's findings are interesting and compelling. He is focused on finding the "spirit" of what has made some churches successfully evangelistic, rather than a program that can be methodologically be applied. His findings include major points that I am very happy to see: e.g., that clear exposition of the Word and excellence are significant as factors that affect whether a church will effectively evangelize the unchurched, but contemporary music style and location are not. Along the same lines, he focuses on core issues such as these rather than coming up with gimmicky publicity stunts.
To maintain balance, however, we must not conclude that because churches that meet Rainer's selection criteria and their leaders tend share a set of behaviours, therefore everyone should try to display those same behaviours, or even that therefore those behaviours are necessarily good. To illustrate my point, for example, one behaviour that pastors in "effective" churches displayed was to work more hours per week than others did; another is that they spent more time in prayer; and another is that they are task-oriented. This study describes the behaviours found, but does not pass judgment on what is good and what is not. By all means let us focus on the right things, work hard, and spend more time in prayer; but let us not mistake increased results from workaholism and "dirigisme" with God's blessing. Let us look at sociological patterns and trends, but let us always react to them under the direction of scripture and the Holy Spirit, rather than "do church-by-public-opinion-poll". It is reassuring to see that much scriptural behaviour does lead to people joining the church; but that what matters most is that we do what scripture mandates. Otherwise we will start (or, sadly, continue) copying some fast growing cults! Rainer would full-heartedly agree with me in this assessment I am sure, but I fear that some will get carried away with this study and methodologically apply its findings, contrary to Rainer's expressed intention.
The related risk of a study like this on evangelistic technique is that it may be taken outside the context of its limited scope. Rainer clearly has an appreciation for the effectiveness of the preaching of the Word, the sovereignty of God, and the working of the Holy Spirit in salvation; but he doesn't explicitly discuss it because the study is rather about attributes of churches and the people that compose them. I appeal to the reader to always consider our own attributes within the context of being pots whom God can use in his work of salvation in people's lives: by all means let us be useful pots, but under the discretion and at the direction of the Potter to use at his freedom, in his power. To establish that greater context, please also do read J I Packer, "Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God" - likewise a readable work, compellingly calling us to evangelism; this book by Rainer, with its logistical approach, is a nice supplement to the foundation and structure in Packer's book.
Finally, as one might expect from the title, this book is concerned specifically with evangelism. It makes a leap that the pattern of the apostles in Acts 6, of concentrating on prayer and ministry of the word, is THE appropriate role for pastors. I grant it is AN appropriate role, a very important role; but I think not the only acceptable role for a pastor. The book finds that a pastor who focuses more on ministries of compassion is a less prolific evangelist that one who focuses on evangelism, which may not be too surprising when you think about it. I object however to its implication that the one is doing the "wrong thing", and the other the "right thing", however. Let us each fulfill our own calling well; but let us not conclude that whoever else isn't doing that same calling is doing the wrong thing. (For a fuller argument supporting this, see Gene Veith, "God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life").