|Conversion research: the future of church growth research|
|Zending enzo - Kerkplanting in Thailand artikelen|
|Geschreven door Marten Visser|
|maandag 12 april 2010 08:31|
Church growth research has changed into a slightly disreputable branch of missiology. Originally it focused on the growth of God’s church in non-Christian settings. The American incarnation of the discipline quickly shifted its focus to the growth of ‘my church’. Though there certainly is a place for that kind of thinking, three important disadvantages were often connected to this new approach. Firstly, church growth evolved into marketing and biblically sound theology was put on the back-burner if it was perceived as hindering the quick growth of the church. Churches turned their Jesus into a more palatable, less demanding god and in the process lost their voice of calling people to repentance and faith. Secondly,
the emphasis of growing ‘my church’ without much reflection on where the members are coming from, contributed to the ‘recycling of the saints’ without growth of God’s Kingdom. Thirdly, putting up the megachurches as examples for others to aspire to, resulted in a lack of recognition for the strategic value of church multiplication (even though some of the megachurches are also exemplary in planting daughter churches).
As a consequence, church growth research fell out of favour in a large part of the missiological world. Yet there is no reason why this should be so. If it true that Jesus Christ is the hope of this world, and if it true that church membership is an indicator (not a sufficient but yet a necessary indicator) of a connection with him, church growth research remains important. What kind of people become Christians? What kind of churches attract non-believers? The answers to these questions may help inform policy decisions by churches and missionary organizations. To be acceptable to Christian leaders, the above mentioned tendencies need to be addressed. We believe that our conversion research project on the growth of the Thai Protestant church did just that.
Not satisfied with just counting, we wanted to gain deeper insight into the composition and growth of the ethnic Thai church. In a random sample of 94 ethnic Thai churches all worshippers were asked to fill in a one page questionnaire. The next step was very important. Instead of looking at just local church growth, the research focused on conversion church growth. A conversion growth rate for each church was calculated based on the percentage of respondents who had become Christians in that church within the last decade. After analyzing the data from 94 churches and over 3000 respondents from all over Thailand and from all kinds of Protestant traditions, we were able to give clear answers to the questions ‘What kind of people become Christians?’ and ‘What kind of churches attract non-believers?’
What kind of people become Christians?
Other findings were more ambivalent. In Thailand, urbanites and high-educated people are more likely to become Christians than rural people and low-educated people. However, there was no indication that they were more receptive to the gospel. The reason for this pattern in all likelihood is that churches and missionary organizations focus on reaching high-educated urbanites more than low-educated rural people.
Several other interesting findings all point toward the paramount importance of personal relationships in the conversion process. Probably the most staggering statistic from the research project is that a Thai with a Christian relative is 700 times more likely to become a Christian than a Thai without a Christian relative. Of course this has to do with opportunity. Many Thai people who do not have a Christian relative have never had the chance to respond to the Gospel. Yet more than anything else, it shows that the Gospel travels along relational (above all family) lines. The same conclusion can be drawn from the fact that 70% of all converts say that a lay church member, so not a pastor or missionary, was the main influence in their conversion. Because of a popular formalized ‘accepting Jesus’ ceremony normally led by a pastor, the real number is probably even higher than that.
Another finding that stresses the importance of social networks in conversion is that people in a village with a church are 100 times more likely to become Christians than people in a village without a church. The very committed are willing to travel to church. But for the large majority of the population Christianity only becomes an option when there is a church within their community. This gives strong support to the goal of saturation church planting.
A final ‘nugget’ from the data reinforcing the importance of personal relationships was a surprise to the researchers. Limited to one choice, 60% of all converts claimed that printed media had played a role in their conversion, while only 10% mentioned non-printed media (30% said media did not have any influence). The likely explanation for this phenomenon is that radio and television are literally broadcast media, but printed media are used in personal relationships. Even the oft-maligned tracts were mentioned almost twice as often as radio and television combined!
What kind of churches attract non-believers?
Two major factors tell most of what you need to know about the conversion growth potential of a Thai church. The first one is the age of a church. Age predicts about 60% of the conversion growth. Younger churches attract many more converts than older churches. (E.g.: a 5 year old church attracts 6 times more converts than a 75 year old church with for the rest the same characteristics.) The second important factor is traditionalism. Churches with a lot of extra-biblical rules and an emphasis on position instead of spiritual giftedness are growing much slower than non-traditional churches. Traditionalism predicts another 20% of the conversion growth of a church.
Two minor factors add some extra understanding. 8% of conversion growth is predicted by whether or not a church is charismatic (charismatic churches grow faster), and 5% by whether there are women in the church board (churches without women in the board grow faster).
Why this is important
Getting your growth from the membership of other churches is not going to result in a higher conversion growth rate. So the conversion growth rate used in this research project is a better measure of a church’s contribution to the advance of the Christian faith than traditional church growth measures. In most cases the analysis will point to practices that facilitate conversions and practices that build barriers against conversion.
How I can help you
1. A full description of the research process and findings can be found in Marten Visser, Conversion Growth of Protestant Churches in Thailand, published by Boekencentrum.
I hope and expect that conversion research will bring new life to the use of statistics in missiology, and that it will help God’s Church in many countries to understand what is going on, and how the churches may best use the opportunities God gives them.
This article was first published in Evangelical Missions Quarterly, april 2010.
|Zijn niet-christenen beter dan ik? Vaak wel|
Vaak kom ik mensen tegen die aardiger, hulpvaardiger en liefdevoller zijn dan ikzelf. En vaak zijn ze geen christen. Wat doet dat me? Om eerlijk te zijn, meestal niet zoveel. Ik heb nooit zo’n hoge pet opgehad van mijn eigen aardigheid, hulpvaardigheid en liefdevolheid.
Toch is dat antwoord een beetje te gemakkelijk. Want als ik dat erken, wat zegt dat dan over mijn relatie met God? ‘God verandert mensen’, dat geloof ik toch? En toch kunnen mensen beter zijn dan ik zonder die relatie met God? Hoe zit dat dan?