Marketplace drives church outreach activities


PHOENIX, Ariz. — Marketing messages have at least some impact on what outreach activities in which churches choose to engage, a new survey suggests.

According to the Ellison Research survey released in January, Vacation Bible School is the most common outreach program, used by 70 percent of all churches. It is also the outreach that is most lucrative for publishers and most actively marketed to churches.

VBS did not exist in the United States until the last decade of the 19th century, but it did not become a common part of church life until the 1950s, when curriculum providers began offering "turn-key" teaching materials. Today, some VBS training packages include videos and other sophisticated teaching tools—and can cost churches thousands of dollars.

The second most commonly used outreach activity was the distribution of religious literature—an activity also heavily promoted by Christian publishers. About 59 percent of churches distribute tracts or magazines. 

Activities that require more time than money tended to rank lower on the list of outreach activities. Nursing home or retirement center visits were done by less than half (49 percent) of churches. Other activities included "invite-a-friend-to-church" days (42 percent), revivals or crusades (40 percent), evangelism training classes or groups (38 percent), door-to-door visitation within the community (37 percent), community service such as cleanup days (31 percent) and booths at community events such as the county fair (20 percent). 

Ninety-seven percent of all churches report doing something specifically for the purposes of evangelism over the past year.

In general, evangelical churches use a greater variety of evangelistic tools than do mainline Protestant churches. Evangelical churches are considerably more likely to attempt evangelism through literature, revivals or crusades, evangelism training classes or groups, door-to-door visitation, and audio/visual products, while mainline churches have only a greater propensity for doing community service as a form of evangelism.

Other types of community outreach offered by much smaller proportions of churches in the past year include prison ministry (25 percent), homeless outreach (24 percent), Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts (20 percent), blood drives (17 percent), after-school programs for kids (14 percent), sports programs (11 percent) and outreach to specific ethnic groups (11 percent).

Pastoral interest
Fewer than one out of 10 Protestant churches offer any kind of free or low-cost day care services, abortion or pregnancy counseling, domestic violence programs, English language classes, job skills or job training, or adult literacy or reading classes.

About 39 percent of pastors surveyed said they were not interested in increasing their outreach activities. 

Ron Sellers, president of Phoenix-based Ellison Research, found it ironic that so many churches and pastors put a low priority on doing more to reach out to their community. 

"In an environment where communities and people have so many needs, and in which church growth is such a hot topic and a stated goal for so many pastors, it seems odd that so many churches really don't wish to do more," Sellers said. 

"This lack of priority takes many forms—the congregation isn't interested, the community doesn't want our help, we want to focus on our own people—yet if churches are not consistently reaching outside their own walls, how are they to grow? It was particularly surprising to see about four out of 10 mainline pastors, who tend to place so much emphasis on the social gospel, essentially saying that increasing community outreach isn't a high priority for their church."

The survey results appeared in the January/February edition of Facts & Trends magazine, which is published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Ellison used a representative sample of 811 Protestant church ministers nationwide.

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