Since the days of the First Great Awakening (1730-1740) in what was called the New World and the Second Great Awakening (1790-1820) following the American Revolution, it has generally been assumed by church leaders that people come to faith through church revivals, mass crusades, and chance encounters. The Great Awakenings produced well-known evangelists like John and Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Francis Asbury, and Charles Finney, to name a few. These men often drew crowds numbering in the thousands, and numbers of new believers were added to the church during their time. Over the ensuing years, North America produced other high profile evangelists, such as Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and most recently Bill Graham. During the early growth years in the United States, Baptist, Methodist, Nazarene, Pentecostal, and independent church pastors and lay persons combed the frontier and rural environments, knocking on doors, winning the common folks to Christ, and planting new churches. These activities led to a developed lore that the way to do evangelism was through mass events, church revivals, camp meetings, home visitation, and cold calling.

Of course, there was some underlying truth in the body of traditions that developed around evangelistic activity. However, no one actually knew how people were coming to Christ and his church, since no one took the time to investigate the facts. A missionary in India, Donald A. McGavran, first explored this topic and published his findings in 1955 in The Bridges of God. McGavran wrote his book in the hope that it might “shed light on the process of how peoples become Christian.”[1] He discovered that people in India did not come to faith through revivals, mass crusades, or chance encounters. Rather, they came largely through family relationships and friendships, what he called the Bridges of God. As he might put it today, we are the bridges over which others walk to find salvation in Jesus Christ. Predictively, North American church leaders did not read his book, as it was primarily for missionaries and mission executives.

It was twenty-five years before church growth researcher Win Arn, building on the initial discoveries of Donald McGavran, conducted one of the largest studies of how people come to faith in Christ and to the church in the United States and Canada. Arn’s Institute for American Church Growth surveyed over 17,000 persons in 1980 asking, “What or who was responsible for your coming to Christ and to your church?” Arn published his findings in The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples,[2] and church leaders were astounded. He reported that people gave eight responses as follows.

                        Special Need . . . . . . 1-2%

                        Walk-in . . . . . . . . . . 2-3%

                        Pastor . . . . . . . . . . . . 5-6%

                        Visitation . . . . . . . . . 1-2%

                        Sunday School . . . . 4-5%

                        Crusade . . . . . . . . . . 0.25-0.50%

                        Church Program . .  2-3%

                        Friend/Relative . . .  75-90%

In one report the institute proclaimed, “The great majority of people today trace their ‘spiritual roots’ directly to a friend or a relative as the major reason they are now in Christ and their church.”[3]

Echoes of Arn’s study have reverberated among churches for over three decades. His findings continue to be quoted in lectures, cited in publications, and promoted by church leaders. Nevertheless, in the early 2000s, I started noticing that people’s comments no longer matched Arn’s statistics as closely as they once did. Thus, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, I engaged in a five-year study to discover how people are coming to faith in Christ and into responsible church involvement TODAY! My study eventually involved surveys of over one thousand people in forty-three states. So, what did I find? How are people finding Christ today?

Family and Friends

Family and friends are still the main link for bringing others to faith in Christ, although it is not as high a percentage as it once was. In answer to the question, “What person was it that led you to come to faith in Christ?,” 43.2% names a family member and 15.7% a friend, for a combined total of 58.9%. The total findings are as follows:

                        Family Member: 43.2%

                        Staff Member: 17.3%

                        Friend: 15.7%

                        Other: 10.9%

                        Lay Teacher: 8.3%

                        Neighbor: 2.9%

                        Work Colleague: 1.8%

Obviously, reaching out to one’s own family is the chief relationship that leads to others coming to Christ. It is two and one-half times more impactful than pastoral staff members and three times that of friends. Even in a day and time when the idea of family is undergoing significant change, family relationships remain the number one bridge people traverse on their journey to faith in Christ.

The surprising finding is the increased number of people crediting pastoral staff. The Arn study found that pastors accounted for around 6% of decisions for Christ, but this recent study shows the percentage has risen to 17.3%, which is nearly a 150% increase in the number of people saying a staff pastor brought them to Christ. Pastors have always led people to personal faith, but their influence in this activity has expanded over the past decades.

Lay teachers account for 8.3% of conversions to Christ. This category includes Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, small group leaders, VBS teachers, Awana leaders, missionaries, camp speakers, Child Evangelism Fellowship instructors, Christian school teachers—basically any number of positions that involve some aspect of teaching.

As expected, men and women both selected family, friends, and pastoral staff as the major contributors to their coming to Christ. Men mentioned friends more often than women (19.3% compared to 12.3%), but pastors had more direct influence than friends in the lives of women (16.5% to 12.3%).

Among new converts to Christ, family was noted most often (31.8%), while friends and staff received equal mention (22. 7% each). New converts were defined as persons who received Christ as their Savior within the two years prior to taking the survey and were not attending any church before their current one. Together nearly 77% of those who made a commitment to Christ in the two years prior to completing the survey were won by a family member, a personal friend, or a staff pastor. No new believers indicated a teacher, perhaps because they were not involved in a class or group.

In contrast to new converts, friends and pastoral staff influenced church transfers less, but the number of teachers who led them to faith was mentioned 9.7% of the time. Church transfers differ from new converts, due to the fact that they accepted Christ more than two years ago, and previously attended a church before the one in which they took the survey.

The survey asked people to self-identify as a Builder (born before 1945), a Boomer (born between 1946-1964), GenXer (born between 1965-1983), or a Millennial (born after 1984). Builders give more credit to teachers (11.7%) than any other age group, which may be related to the important evangelistic role that Sunday school teachers played in prior years. Friends were more crucial to Boomers (17.4%) and GenXers (16.8%) than either Builders (8.9%) or Millennial (14.3%). There appears to be a declining impact of pastoral staff and teachers on the younger generations, but an increased importance (except for Boomers) of family.

Six categories of community were analyzed: Rural (population less than 10,000), Small town (10,000-25,000), Small city (25,000-100,000), Medium city (100,000-500,00), Large city (500,000-1 million), and Metropolis (over 1 million).

While there are a couple of exceptions, the smaller the community, the more important the pastor’s role is in leading people to faith. This is likely due to the more relational nature of ministry in smaller communities. Pastors in settings with less population typically spend more time in direct pastoral care, which builds deep relationships, often leading to faith decisions. In contrast, pastors serving in communities with a larger population base commonly focus on organizational details, while leaving pastoral care to others. The role of friends takes on greater importance for people living in larger cities and metropolitan areas.

Those saying other noted a diverse number of people who brought them to faith. A sampling of people mentioned included evangelists and television preachers like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Charles Stanley, a member of the Gideons, and college/high school campus leaders. None, however, were mentioned enough times to be significant to this study. Several responders could not identify any person as a direct influence on their becoming a Christian. They pointed to an inner conviction from God, the Holy Sprit, reading the Bible, or personal experience whereby they accepted Christ in a private manner.

Down-to-Earth Ideas

The insight that most people come to faith in Christ through family and friends is not new, of course. There are plenty of illustrations in the Bible of people coming to faith over relational bridges. For example, the apostle John told the story of Andrew. He was listening to John the Baptist, his teacher, who introduced him to Jesus. After spending some time with Jesus, Andrew then “found first his own brother Simon” and “brought him to Jesus” (John 1:41-42). The following day, Jesus encountered Philip in what at first appeared to be a chance encounter, but Philip was from “Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter” (1:44), so there may have been a friendship connection. Philip then found his friend Nathanael and introduced him to Jesus (1:45-51). The family and friendship connections are unmistakable.

Likewise, the apostle Peter was instrumental in sharing the gospel of salvation with the family and social network of Cornelius. At first, Peter was quite reluctant to speak to Gentiles, but following a divine message given to him through a vision, he changed his thinking. When he arrived at Cornelius’ home, he found all of “his relatives and close friends” gathered to hear the Gospel (Acts 10:24). Peter then witnessed to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (10:39-40), and everyone in Cornelius’ network of family and friends believed (10:44-48).

Paul’s ministry of evangelism and church planting was also empowered through the family and friends of those to whom he preached. Lydia’s whole household believed and was baptized (Acts 16:14-15), as well as the Philippian jailer’s network (16:31-33).

Putting the insights found in this short article to use will dramatically increase a church’s evangelism effectiveness. The following includes some ideas to start putting into action right away.

  1. Encourage people in your church to focus on reaching members of their own family for Christ.
  2. Empower the friendship networks of your people for evangelism.
  3. Include evangelism as a major ingredient of pastoral care.
  4. Inspire teachers in all church-related ministries to share the Gospel of salvation and call for decisions.
  5. Help your people write out their own testimonies. You may wish to use Acts 26 as a model. When individuals are prepared to share their own story, it is amazing to see how God opens doors for them to do so.
  6. Have one or two individuals each month share their testimonies during a worship service. This will encourage both the ones who share as well as those who hear.
  7. Equip your people to share the Gospel through Becoming a Contagious Christian (Bill Hybels), or by some other means, (e.g., involve your people in a small group, in home, evangelistic Bible study). Home Bible studies are an effective way to reach people with the Gospel. One such study is Discovering the Lord Bible study by Gordon Penfold.[4]

What person led you to faith in Christ? How about others in your network of friends and family? Why not explore this question with others this week, and see what you discover?

[1] Donald Anderson McGavran. The Bridges of God (London: World Dominion Press, 1955), 4. Distributed in the United states by Friendship Press, New York.

[2] Win Arn and Charles Arn. The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples (Pasadena, CA: Church Growth Press, 1982, 1998).

[3] Unpublished report, “Background of the Master’s Plan.” c. 1982.

[4] Dr. Gordon Penfold is director of FreshStart and can be reached at