3 Clues for Reaching New Believers


Lovett H. Weems Jr. shares metrics for gauging your church’s effectiveness in bringing new people to faith. He also outlines three clues that can help churches of all sizes reach new believers.  

The Religious Workforce Project of the Lewis Center is a multiyear effort to understand the changing religious landscape in the 21st century. Funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the project explores how congregations are adapting, especially in their workforce. This article is part of a series featuring insights from the research.

How common is it for people to make their first-time profession of faith in your congregation?  

Religious movements depend on both retention of current adherents and the addition of new people who commit to the movement’s beliefs and practices. Some churches are adept at guiding people toward their first faith commitments. Among others, most of their membership is composed of long-standing believers or those who joined by transfer, having made their initial faith commitments in another congregation. 

One way to assess how well you reach new adherents is to compare the number to your annual average worship attendance. For any given year, what is your average attendance, and what is the number of new adherents? Keep in mind that denominations use different terms for new adherents such as profession of faith, affirmation of faith, confession of faith, confirmation, conversion, and baptism. Here we use “professions of faith” when referring to all first-time faith commitments.  

Let’s take two examples. Each of two churches last year averaged 100 worshipers per week. Church A had ten professions of faith during the year, while Church B had five professions of faith. One way to compare is to say that Church A had one profession of faith for every ten attendees, and Church B had one profession of faith for every 20 attendees. Clearly Church A with its ten professions of faith per its hundred worshippers is doing better than Church B in that year.  

Just as important as knowing the number of professions of faith in relation to average worship attendance for the past year is examining whether the number has increased or decreased in the previous three to five years. What patterns do you see? Are there clues for how effective your church is in sharing your faith with others? 

Congregational size can matter.

Does the size of a congregation matter when it comes to adding new adherents? The answer seems to be yes, but some patterns have changed in the last 20 years. The Lewis Center reviewed data from a range of denominations for 2000 to 2019, and found that in 2000, it was common for large churches (501 or higher attendance) to do best, with midsize churches (101-500 attendance) somewhat less effective, and small churches (100 or fewer attendance) doing least well. Not all denominations follow this pattern, but most did in 2000. 

By 2019, there were important statistical changes, especially in two characteristics: 

  • First, the number of worshipers needed for each new profession of faith grew significantly for most of the denominations. This means that most churches, across all size ranges, are reaching fewer new adherents. 
  • Second, the most effective churches in reaching new adherents were more likely to be midsize churches rather than larger churches, as was the case in 2000.  

Clues for congregations 

1. Recognize that your size matters but is not determinative.  

Congregations of all sizes reach new believers regularly. It may be true that it is easier for some churches than others based on the size of the congregation, but also significant may be population growth or decline in the surrounding area. The age of the surrounding population can also matter, with a younger population making professions of faith more common. A church’s passion for all to experience God’s love through Christ matters most, regardless of the size of the congregation.  

2. Pretend your church has just begun.  

New churches survive by engaging the community, meeting people, and establishing relationships. Most energy goes outward. Without new people, there is no future for the church. How many new people attend each Sunday? If no new persons attend one Sunday, there is reason for concern. Now, fast forward decades or perhaps more than a century. Attendance patterns and expectations are different. There may be a Sunday with no new persons or perhaps two, three, or more Sundays without a visitor. The church still continues. Pretty soon you barely notice having no guests. Then having a visitor becomes the exception. It may well be time for every congregation to behave like a church just starting that must engage the community and make an impact on as many lives as possible—every week.  

3. Don’t wait for new people to come to you.  

Today, for a majority of new people in congregations, their first exposure to that church was not through a visit. Their first encounter could have been through a community outreach of the church, or an online service, or, most likely, a church’s website. How well are you reaching people in these three ways? How many people active today first engaged your church through those or other ways? It is no longer sufficient to wait for people to come to you. Fewer will do that each year. But pay attention to how the quality and quantity of your ministries can capture the attention of others. 

Related Resources


About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

Be the Welcoming Church cover image of a smiling person warming embracing anotherLewis Center video tool kit resource
Be the Welcoming Church

Learn how your church can make visitors feel truly welcome and comfortable!

The Be the Welcoming Church Video Tool Kit will help you develop a congregation-wide ethos of hospitality and institute best practices for greeting newcomers, making them feel at home, and encouraging them to return. The resource includes engaging videos, a Study and Discussion Guide, and more. Be the Welcoming Church may be used for hospitality training or in adult classes or groups. more. Learn more and watch introductory videos now.