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Evangelistically Fruitful Churches in the PCA

Updated: May 25

David Gentino visited the Tennessee Valley Presbytyery’s Church Planting Network gathering on April 30th to talk about evangelistically fruitful churches in the Presbyterian Church of America. David, the planting pastor of Columbia Presbyterian Church in South Carolina, was curious about how many PCA churches are seeing conversions each year, so he decided to look into the data. In his words, “Let’s see where God is blessing our evangelistic work.”

David ran his idea by the Mission to North America committee, and the members encouraged him to take it and run with it. He began sorting through PCA data to find the number of adult baptisms from each church. Recognizing that baptisms are not a perfect measure of evangelistic growth, David found that it’s the best metric we have when it comes to consistent data.

The results were sobering: Five percent of PCA churches baptized five or more adults in a calendar year. (He calls these the 5% churches.) One percent have baptized five or more adults consistently year after year. However, David sees reason to hope.

As some background, David and Julie served as missionaries in India with Mission to the World before planting in South Carolina. They’ve been married for twenty years and have four kids. David is the co-author of Acts: A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching.

David experienced a radical conversion at 18 years old. His middle school and high school years involved drugs, drinking and violence until the Lord saved him in 2000. The Lord placed people in his life who witnessed to him and articulated the Gospel. “I was blown away by evidence for the scriptures. The Lord used the Bible to make me aware of my sin, and I threw myself on Christ. Much of that experience shapes me and a missionary heart for others like me.”

After their years on the mission field overseas, the Gentinos returned to the states, and Columbia Presbyterian Church’s first worship service was held in 2013. David says, “This background shapes our church to be disciple-making disciples. We’ve planted three daughter churches, one of which did not make it, and we’re planting another.”

When looking into the data from all PCA churches, David found that some churches had high conversion numbers but low baptism numbers, saying, “I began to sense that people were using those words differently.” He decided to omit infant baptisms and baptisms of adults who had previously been baptized.

While data is a helpful metric, there are limitations. For example, people could experience significant spiritual growth while in a PCA church, and praise the Lord for that, but if they had previously been baptized, they wouldn’t count toward new baptisms. Others, however, might choose not to be baptized even if they come to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Naturally, data can’t fully capture what the Lord is up to in each congregation and each heart, but it’s a starting point. David says, “To me, it’s the best standard we have if you’re just looking at stats and data.”

Once he saw that only 5% of churches baptized five or more adults in the previous year, he became curious about consistency over multiple years. The data shows that only 1% have baptized five or more adults for at least three consecutive years.

David Gentino Teaching

David says, “That’s very sobering. We are not leading people to faith and baptizing them. But, this gives us a practical, tangible number. Five adults is something you can get your hands around. It’s a number to strive for, pray for, and seek out.”

He also found that the churches with the most baptisms cannot be predicted by region, income, or any other demographic metrics. While half of the 5% churches are in the southeast, the rest are scattered throughout the country. Rural, urban, and suburban churches were all represented, as well as those with and those without nearby colleges/college ministries. Some churches with nearby Reformed University Fellowship programs weren’t baptizing many people while others were. The baptism metrics can’t be explained by church size or finances.

David says this is encouraging, and it’s also an accountability check. “You don’t get to be a church on the west coast and say, ‘If I was in the southeast, I’d be baptizing more people,’ or ‘They have twice as many people and a much larger budget than us.’ There’s no silver bullet.”

He adds that while we are excited about church planting and it is a great method of reaching the unchurched or de-churched, it is very possible to plant well but not lead people to faith. Church plants could simply reorganize believers in the area or gather new believers moving to the area. He says, “We’ve seen churches planted that are not 5% churches.”

However, wanting to find out if there were any common denominators between the 5% churches, David sent these churches a survey. He said that almost all were shocked to find out that they were above average. From their responses, he established a working list of five common denominators:

  1. The Church Gathered: 5% churches all highlight the means of grace. “These are churches that gather corporately and are serious about prayer and the preaching of the Word,” David says.

  2. The Church Scattered: “These churches are training their people in evangelism, going beyond just a Sunday School class. They typically use hands-on, exercise-based training.”

  3. Top Down Culture of Evangelism: The pastors and elders of evangelistically fruitful churches set the culture. Continuing down the ladder of leadership, David found that these church leaders have stories about evangelism, including failed attempts, and they share these stories with other leaders. “It’s a culture that’s being talked about and shared among the leaders.”

  4. Outside In: The top churches evaluate parachurch partnerships. David explained, “They ask, ‘Do the ministries we support see evangelistic fruit?’ If a church says they’re serious about evangelism but nothing in the budget reflects that, are they really serious?”

  5. Open to New Ideas: David found that the 5% churches explored new ideas for reaching people in their communities. He spoke with one church member who leads prayer walks through his neighborhood, knocking on doors in the same manner as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Others hosted block parties or Bible studies in their workplaces. One 5% church is involved with a ministry called The Back Porch that invites young businessmen to ask questions about faith. David says, “You have the regular rhythms of the church, but every once in a while, you just have to try some new things.”

David has also contemplated best practices for teaching evangelism. As noted above, evangelistically fruitful churches train their flock with more than a Sunday School class session. David says that often, evangelism classes cause discouragement because they seem to focus on one personality type. “We realize we’ll never be that naturally outgoing, engaging person, and we leave thinking evangelism isn’t for us.”

However, David wants all gifts, talents, and personalities to be used for evangelism rather than comparing how God created us to how He created others. After all, the Great Commission applies to all believers, not just the naturally outgoing.

David also recognizes that being a Great Commission church requires financial and time investments. However, “Jesus says to go and make disciples, and He sees it as a seamless, united call. He doesn’t pit discipleship and evangelism against each other.”

Talking together about evangelism and completing training on evangelism is a form of discipleship for believers. Also, we must know what we believe and be able to articulate it to evangelize. Sharing about your faith can often work in your own heart.

David adds that there’s a reason baptism is a means of grace that is done in person before the congregation. “Watching an adult baptism touches everyone. There’s a reason we’re not notified through a newsletter that someone was baptized.” Together, a body of Christ gets to watch God bring new people into the body.

Having already shared this research process and the results with our presbytery, David will be sharing at this year’s General Assembly. He hopes to stir conversation and encourage churches to talk to each other about evangelism. He also hopes to hear about other fruitful methods.

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