Beyond Numerical Growth

This article is from the September/October 2023 issue of Outreach magazine. Subscribe today!

Each year, Outreach lists the largest and fastest-growing churches in the U.S. New churches come on these lists each year, but some churches have appeared many times in the past. 

But when we looked past attendance numbers to the number of people coming to Christ, we wondered what these churches were doing that led to growth rates of salvations not experienced by most churches. Why were some churches so much more successful than others in bringing people to faith? What was the “secret sauce” of growing high-conversion rate (HCR) churches?

To identify the factors related to HCR churches, we interviewed the pastors and key staffers of several churches that were on the 2022 Outreach 100 Fastest-Growing List. Specifically, we wanted to discover answers to four key questions: 

  1. How do HCR churches shape the climate for evangelism in the church?
  2. Who are the receptive people coming to Christ?
  3. How do these churches empower evangelism?
  4. What assimilation strategies are being used? 

Here is what we learned and how it can benefit your church, no matter its size.

What Is an HCR Church?

Churches experience growth from three different sources: biological growth (children born into church families), transfer growth (new attendees) and conversion growth (new believers). 

By far, conversion growth revitalizes the church more than any other source. Unfortunately, only 3–5% of all U.S. churches are growing primarily through conversion. The great majority of churches (70–85%) are plateaued or declining in their growth trajectories, which makes it more urgent to identify and learn from churches that have high rates of salvations.

Effective evangelistic churches have a 20:1 (5%) conversion ratio or better. According to Thom Rainer’s research, it takes 20 regular attendees a year to lead someone to Christ on average. By contrast, the average conversion ratio among U.S. churches is 85:1. Rainer asserts that a 20:1 ratio is the standard for being defined as a healthy evangelistic church. Church consultant Gary McIntosh’s research confirms: “If a church of 100 had five new converts a year, it was doing great, evangelistically speaking.” Regrettably, less than 4% of U.S. churches achieve that standard.

However, rapid growth should not be mistaken for conversion growth. The churches achieving a high conversion ratio are rare. Megachurches tend to grow largely from transfer growth, and being among the fastest-growing churches doesn’t mean that growth is because of high conversion rates. Of course, exceptions certainly exist. In his book The Purpose Driven Church, Rick Warren claims that 4,000 of the 5,000 adult members of Saddleback Church were converted and baptized at Saddleback. That is an astonishing 80% of the congregation.

So, what are some lessons, models and best practices we can learn from churches that are seeing unusually high conversion growth ratios? Our research selected four churches for multiple in-depth interviews to discover what they were doing to reach people for Christ (see sidebar on Page XX). Conversion ratios for each church were calculated based on the average annual in-person weekend attendance per baptism in 2022. Based on our interviews with key staff leaders, we gained insights into what God is doing to lead people to salvation through his church.

The Churches

  1. Lutheran Church of Hope

West Des Moines, Iowa
Senior Pastor: Mike Housholder
Founded: 1841 
2022 Fastest-Growing: 1 

LCOH’s average attendance in 2022 was 9,915, operating in eight locations. The conversion ratio is 7.1% with a recorded 705 baptisms. This large number of baptisms, while great, was lower than normal due to COVID-19. Normally they average about 1,530 baptisms a year, giving them a conversion ratio closer to 15.4%. They serve as an outstanding example of a mainline church with a passion for the lost.

  1. Crossroads Church 

Corona, California 
Senior Pastor: Chuck Booher
Founded: 1892
2022 Fastest-Growing: 7

Crossroads now has an average in-person weekend worship attendance of 4,052 in five locations. Their conversion ratio is 16%, or for every 100 people in attendance they win 16 people to Christ a year. This rapidly expanding church has been on the fastest-growing list three times in the last five years. Between their in-person services and online congregation, they reach close to 9,000 people and are especially effective in reaching families and nominal Christians in their area.

  1. Compass Church

Colleyville, Texas
Lead Pastor: Drew Sherman
Founded: 1966 
2022 Fastest-Growing: 22

Compass’ average in-person worship attendance for 2022 was 3,252 (7,191 combined with online), worshiping in five locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. They have been on the fastest-growing church list for four of the last five years, and their conversion rate in 2022 was 13%.

  1. Church of Eleven22 

Jacksonville, Florida
Lead Pastor: Joby Martin
Founded: 2012 
2022 Fastest-Growing: 92

COE22’s average annual in-person attendance for 2022 was 12,571 (23,731 with online included), and is now operating in 12 local and regional campuses. With a conversion ratio of 8.6%, this church is not only known for their evangelism emphasis, but also for their success in church planting and multisite growth.

Shaping Church Culture

How do HCR churches create a climate or ethos that favors such a strong evangelistic emphasis? Our interviews revealed several key factors.

* Mission and vision. Each church in our study embedded an evangelistic vision in its mission statement, and made it central in the hiring and training of staff members. The Church of Eleven22 says, “We are a movement for all people to discover and deepen their faith in Jesus Christ.” The motto of Compass Church is “Navigating people back to God.” Crossroads Church says, “We present Jesus without apology, creating epic moments that people hear the gospel.” Lutheran Church of Hope’s mission is to “reach out to the world around us and share the everlasting love of Jesus Christ.” These churches establish clear priorities and are laser-focused on their purpose and vision. 

* Frequent invitations. Each church practiced giving regular and frequent invitations to accept Christ. Crossroads Church includes invitations to accept Christ at every service and in almost every venue or gathering. 

* Modeling by the pastor, staff and lay leaders. The pastor’s own stories from the pulpit about faith sharing and the example lived out by the staff in their own lives provide inspiration and living illustrations of how the faith can be shared.

* Examples of changed lives. Crossroads Church uses three-minute video testimonies to highlight the transformation that takes place when people accept Christ. The Church of Eleven22 encourages members to capture testimonies of changed lives on their smartphones to be shared in worship services or small groups.

* Multisite/Multiservice model. Each church in this study preferred to open more service times, extension campuses and congregations rather than crowd everyone into a few large gatherings on campus. These gatherings at multiple venues correlate with greater evangelistic effectiveness, as they serve as ports of entry for many types of people.

Reaching Receptive People

Churches in this study shifted their strategies to engage with receptive people and audiences to whom God was speaking. Compass Church, for example, recognized that a variation in style was needed between their five campuses. The original church building in the wealthy town of Colleyville is nearly 40 years old; the North Fort Worth campus is located in a neighborhood with all new homes and schools; while the Roanoke campus has a more Western theme with a place to hang cowboy hats to make attendees feel more at home. 

Church of Eleven22, on the other hand, has 12 local campuses in Jacksonville. This city is more like a cluster of communities that range from traditional, Bible Belt families to the beach culture where most of the residents are from New York or California with very little religious background at all. Each of these varied population groups hears the gospel differently, so dedicated efforts are made to connect with them in ways that they hear the gospel as good news.

The churches we spoke with had all discovered different receptive audiences. Crossroads Church experienced significant growth among Latinos (85% in two years), most of whom were previously nominally religious. Crossroads also focused on reaching men, who are often influential in bringing a larger family network together into the church.

Lutheran Church of Hope draws from a Midwestern population of lapsed Lutherans, Catholics and Methodists who are spiritually and mentally tired and emotionally exhausted. All the HCR churches surveyed frequently mentioned the openness to the gospel of grace by people who previously felt constrained by their former religion that may have emphasized salvation by works.

Empowering Evangelism

It should be no surprise that the idea of reaching people is central to the DNA of each of these HCR churches. We learned several things about how they are equipping their people to accomplish the mission of sharing the gospel.

At Compass Church, this culture starts with the lead pastor. He regularly hosts a backyard barbecue, inviting new members into his home. Each staff member is also expected to model this priority. Brandon Beard, executive pastor of campus ministry, says that he pushes his team to have three meetings per week. The first meeting is with a first-time guest. This means staff members are pursuing people they don’t know for coffee or lunch. The second meeting is face-to-face with someone serving in their ministry area, building relational connection and conveying value to people serving in their ministry. The third meeting is with someone they recognize but do not know. 

HCR churches consistently encourage their people to invite others to church and to leverage their relational equity in order to make Jesus known. They also give clear steps on what it looks like to invite someone to church. Chuck Booher, pastor of Crossroads Church, says, “You are only on earth for one reason and that is to reach the lost, because that’s the one thing you can’t do in heaven.” 

The Church of Eleven22 asks, “Who is your one more?” and constantly challenges people to keep their eyes out for those beyond the walls of the church. 

Each of the churches surveyed also is actively teaching and training people to share openly and honestly about their journeys with God. They use programs like Alpha or Rooted as a means of teaching basic theology and leading people through the crafting of their personal story. “Who were you before Jesus, and who are you now after [you met] Jesus?” “Who were you before church and who are you after [attending] church?”

In addition, these churches employ a “come and see” method. They create spaces where people can be part of the church while they process and explore who Jesus is. 

Empowering people to reach their circle seems to be another common thread through each of the churches surveyed. Thriving evangelistic churches simplify what it looks like to live on mission. Adam Flynt from The Church of Eleven22 says, “It’s a highly relational thing. God has you where he has you on purpose so that you can live on mission every day. As you build genuine, authentic friendships and relationships, God gives you the opportunity to share the gospel personally.” 

Assimilation Into the Church 

What does it look like for church leaders to receive a person into the church and guide them deeper into discipleship and community? Churches reporting the highest conversion ratios excel in their assimilation strategies. We noticed several key distinctives in HCR churches that are leveraging high-touch, high-relationship and high-purpose initiatives. 

To start with, every church, no matter the size, needs to make a good first impression. Recent research shows that within the first seven seconds of a meeting, people will have a solid impression of who you are. These are the front lines of whether people assimilate into your church. 

Next, all churches need to have a well-curated plan on what it looks like to lead people to the next step. That step naturally looks different depending on where the person is in their journey of faith and with the church. The next step could be going to a Sunday morning service, getting baptized, joining a life group or volunteering. 

Next steps need to be intentional in order to keep people from either slipping through the cracks or becoming stagnant on their journey within the life of the church. Part of this approach needs to be a customized follow-up. Follow-up looks different for a single mom with three kids than it does for a couple that has been watching online for the past month then drops in for an in-person service. Follow-up needs to “fit” the person, feel genuine and be relational and motivated by sincere love and concern. 

Another way to bring people into the life of the church is to call them into high purpose. Each of the HCR churches surveyed clearly invite their people to participate in God’s grand narrative of redeeming the world. 

“There are 60,000 people in the stands watching while there are 11 on the field,” says Lutheran Church of Hope Executive Pastor Jeremy Johnson. “We are simply inviting people from the bleachers into the game.” 

One way his church brings people into church life is through meals offered on-site during the week. Chris Gunnare, lead pastor of operations at Hope, explains that they serve 3,500 meals weekly, which meets a felt for families on-the-go families and removes a barrier for them to join programming throughout the week. Currently the church has a full-time chef, two part-time employees and an army of volunteers committed to this ministry. It gives people a place to be involved, to plug into service and grow in community.

The churches we spoke with also had more high touch and high relationship. More and more research confirms that Americans are lonelier, more depressed and busier than ever before. We found that churches with high conversion ratios were intentionally stepping in to meet these felt needs. They are finding creative ways to make the large church a place where people can be known, feel seen and blossom in relationships.

Putting It All Together

All these characteristics come together to paint a unique, innovative, multilayered and multicolored picture of churches on mission to bring salvation and blessing to the lost. The reality is this: people are hungry to make a difference. They have dreams of leaving their mark on the world. These churches are finding ways to cast a large vision and to invite people to play a role in making Jesus known. 

These HCR churches are gripped by a conviction that the gospel is good news for everyone. This conviction drives their mission and decision-making. The Great Commission is central. They are leveraging all they can for this purpose, and empowering their people to share their lives and share their journey with Jesus with “their one more,” wherever that happens to be. 

Alan McMahan teaches in doctoral programs at Biola University and Talbot Seminary on how to grow and multiply churches around the world.

Billy McMahan is campus pastor at Harbor Church in Arvada, Colorado, and vice president of the Great Commission Research Network.