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.