Thursday, January 31, 2008

Still no facts on megachurch convert composition


The Hartford Institute for Religion Research puts out a free powerpoint presentation on Megachurches. They show the amazing increase in number of megachurches, and they have grown in size also.

Unfortunately, they don't address what I opened this discussion on, namely that 90 to 95% of all megachurch growth is pure transfer growth according to their own people. Look at their slides on evangelism:


Maybe they do, but this question isn't necessarily asking about evangelism. This just says they invite people to come. Are they inviting Christians, or non-Christians? We don't know, but this chart is not revealing on that question. It does not prove what the title says.
This says they are willing to talk about their faith, but not many seek opportunities. Again, I don't see evidence here that people are witnessing, or if they are witnessing, that the church is winning non-Christians. Our studies show they are not. They go on to say megachurches do other things for outreach:
But none of these things has anything to do with evangelism! This could be a good list of ways to attract more Christians to your church.
This study is an intriguing example of how some studies may appear to show evangelism, but might not actually show that when it comes to megachurches. We still have no authoritative, reliable study on composition of megachurches.

9 comments:

AdamK said...

Why do you think they are not asking about evangelism? Is it that they are asking and not publishing the results? Could they not be interested in conversions as long as numbers are rising? Does Barna or some other organization have these numbers? If not, I think it's alarming that no one is looking for these answers.

Dennis said...

From what I can tell, church experts, for the most part, aren't interested in the answer. After searching for the past 6 or 7 years, I can find NOTHING credible on the subject, in spite of the fact that immense amounts of research are done on church growth annually. This is Chadwick's point in Stealing Sheep. The church simply doesn't want to hear the answer to this question.

The one I've talked to that seems to have come closest to the truth is Thom Ranier. But even he bases his studies on comparing number of baptism's per year on growth per year. I pointed out to him that such an approach is not valid, and actually says almost nothing about convert composition in churches. Our studies include a huge church where the leader believed they were 80% convert because they had baptized 14,000 people, which was 80% of their 17,000 attendance. Yet, when you ask people at the services if they met Christ at his church or an earlier one, over 90% say they were already believers before they came to that church. (Some added that they had been baptized at his church, although already born again).

Anonymous said...

Have you ever emailed me to ask about my work or my data on this question? If you had I would have been glad to share with you what I have found. I guess it is easier to pick apart one of my powerpoint slide shows than seek for a real answer to the issue. This powerpoint presentation was not about that issue, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t addressed it.

I have a section about this very issue in a chapter on ELCA megachurches and touch on it extensively in my book that came out this past summer Beyond Megachurch Myths - www.megachurchmyths.com

Additionally Warren Bird of Leadership Network and I are currently surveying the attendees of 14 megachurches around the country with very explicit questions about whether they were attending church prior to coming to the mega, about whether they were saved before or after, about whether they attended in their childhood, etc.

What the data from 400 megachurches surveyed in 2005 shows is that megachurches vary tremendously on this issue. I just spent a week with a megachurch in Washington State that baptized 3500 new Christians in the past four years. But I’ve also looked at megas that are indeed nearly all transfer growth. I have a grid from the 2005 data that I would be happy to send anyone that shows the wide range on this question from about 20% of churches that have had almost none of their new members being new converts to about 20% of the churches saying that 40 to 80% of their new members are new converts.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the lack of an identity - I assumed I could log in with my name. Scott Thumma Hartford Institute for Religion Research. sthumma@hartsem.edu

Brian said...

I just picked up Scott's book. I haven't read Chapter 9, which may address evangelism more, but there is a chart in Chapter 7 that shows basically what he stated in his comment. With 18% of the 406 churches claiming that 40% or more were converts, there should be about 70 churches where people are being converted in large numbers.

And if the 406 truly represent the other 800, as you suggest, Scott, there should be more than 200 churches around the country that are at least 40% converts.

Scott, does that square with what you have found?

Or is it possible, as Dennis suggests, that the methodology of simply asking the church to self-report is less than valid?

Looking forward to digging into your book.

Dennis said...

Scott, my intention was not to put your work down, or suggest it was foolish. Rather, I simply felt you were asking different questions than we were. (Except for that one slide - I still think it doesn't show what the title says).

I would be very interested in seeing your grid, and the results of your study of mega members. And I'm going to check out your book, too. (We'll get a good review up here--will that get us straight?)

On the question at hand, one of the churches we studied in our recent trip has baptized 14000 people in the past 15 years or so. Yet, 91% of those attending stated that they came to the church as believers, and even named the church they were from. In your study, look for a way to study actual attendees. It's possible that these high convert numbers don't translate into converts attending, because only the transfers continue coming. The converts fall away. I'm not sure how else to account for the discrepancy.

Another possibility recently occurred to me: One megachurch leader in Dallas told me that 30% of their people leave the church each year. I was staggered by that figure, and thought to myself, how could you build a church under those conditions? There would be no reason to equip anyone, or to worry about community, because they're all going to be gone in a couple or three years anyway!

What I realized in addition is that this might explain why they can convert so many people, but all their people are transfers--their converts are now transfers in someone else's church, and their people were maybe converts in another megachurch (although this did not seem to be the case for most people interviewed).

Sorry about the appearance of attacking your research. That wasn't my intention. What would you like to see changed?

Dennis said...

One more point:
Scott commented that "20% of churches that have had almost none of their new members being new converts to about 20% of the churches saying that 40 to 80% of their new members are new converts." And Brian posted that "18% of the 406 churches claiming that 40% or more were converts, there should be about 70 churches where people are being converted in large numbers."

Both of these have to be discounted. See my post for Feb. 4 for an explanation of why I cannot believe any self-testimony from churches on this point.

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