S. Joseph Kidder

R esearch offers insight into who is the most effective evangelist to take the gospel to your friends and relatives. The answer might surprise you.

It’s you. 

A 2004 survey of Seventh-day Adventists in North America showed that most people who joined the church did so because of a friend or relative.

So if relationships are the most effective form of evangelism and ministry, our denomination, then, should focus on developing disciples and teaching relationship-based ministry. This doesn’t cost much money, just an open heart. It’s about authentic relationships, not programs.

I travel around the world training people in evangelism and church growth. I usually begin my seminars by asking the question, “Who is the most effective evangelist?” I always get the same predictable answers – names of TV evangelists: Doug Batchelor, Walter Pearson, Mark Finley, Alejandro Bullòn, Dwight Nelson, etc.

But then when I ask how people come to the Lord and the church, I get wildly different answers. Most seminar participants agree that 90 percent of the people in the church are there because of felt needs. Others insist that visitation brings in another 60 percent. Still others say that the pastor brings in at least 40 percent to 60 percent. Many more believe that public evangelism brings in 50 percent to 90 percent.

That’s why the survey results nearby are such a surprise to many people. Nearly 60 percent of people joined the church because of a friend or relative.

The survey was sent to a sample of Adventist congregations in North America to be given to attending members on a certain Sabbath. Those surveyed were asked how they were brought into the church. Results are in the nearby chart (respondents could pick more than one, so the percentages total more than 100).

It is clear from this survey that the most effective means of evangelism is relationship-based. This study is consistent with all similar studies done in this area.

Christian researchers Win Arn and Thom S. Rainer both agree that friendship is God’s preferred means of reaching people (see their respective books “The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples” and “Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them”).

The implications are universal in its scope. Remarkably, the results are the same whether I’m traveling in Asia, Africa, North America, Central America or South America, Europe or Australia: Most people come to the Lord through the influence of a web of relationships and friendship.

When people in my seminars see this research that is when people get the “Aha!” moment. They start saying “Well, yes; my mom had the most influence on my religious experience,” or “My neighbor took me to Sabbath school when I was a little girl.” Another person might say, “My grandmother was an Adventist and she prayed for me for years. Finally, I decided to take God seriously.” Someone else remembers that it was a co-worker that invited him to church so many years ago.

The figure I usually hear for the influence of moms, dads, friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers is usually between 70 percent and 95 percent.

It is obvious from both the formal research and the informal data collected in these groups that the most effective evangelist in the world is the one who takes personal interest in us and shares Jesus in a holistic and attractive way.

The absolutely most effective way of reaching people for the Gospel is through personal influence. So what does God do? He takes full-time ministers and disguises them as teachers, police officers, construction workers and nurses. He gives them the necessary gifts, passions, credentials, and then He assigns them to schools, police departments, construction sites and clinics everywhere. Like salt from a saltshaker, God scatters His fulltime ministers everywhere to suit His flavor.

We are all ambassadors of the Gospel. We are all full-time ministers.

—Dr. S. Joseph Kidder is a professor Christian ministry at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States. This Commentary is an adapted excerpt from his recent book “The Big Four: Secrets to a Thriving Church Family” (Review and Herald, 2011).