One day, as I was engaging in some yard work, I came across a curious display of foliage surrounding a small tree in the back. These growing sprouts were covered with lush leaves around the base of a tree. Plants normally have a difficult time growing around a tree since the larger arboreal structure steals the water from the smaller plants by utilizing its superior root system.
The only way this plant was living is if this tree had died.
To test my hypothesis, I reached out for an apparent sturdy limb and it snapped easily. The tree was dead. With my suspicion confirmed, I realized that something had killed this tree and so the growth surrounding it was based on the tree’s death and not its life.
As I began to clean up the spot, I thought of how this picture describes so much of church growth nowadays:
The only reason some churches are growing is because other churches are dying.
We Aren’t Growing Like We Think We Are
Think about it:
- If you investigate explosive growth numbers in churches, you find that a majority of those people represent transfer growth (people changing church membership) and not actual conversion growth (people receiving the gospel).
- When a new church (or an established church with a new method) develops a buzz in the community, it often sees attendance and membership increase but through people who are transferring from somewhere else. In our record-keeping, it looks as if the Church is growing, but the numbers are often a wash because one church is growing due to another church declining. The majority of church growth doesn’t oftentimes come from new Christians.
- There are a growing number of churches that require baptism through their specific local church and will not accept someone for membership based upon a baptism from another local church.
- When church-specific baptisms are required for membership, the baptism numbers are padded and our evangelical statistics are counting at least 2 (sometimes many more) baptisms per 1 person. It makes the stats look like we are doing better as a whole or certain churches are doing really well, but we are oftentimes just re-baptizing churched folks.
What to Do
We have to get back to doing something that was pivotal for the early Church – evangelism.
We must share the gospel. We must befriend lost people. We must be intentional with those who need Jesus. We must invite non-Christians to church and not just disgruntled members of another church down the road. If we truly want to see the Church grow, we need to reach people who aren’t a part of the Church yet.
The easiest way to grow a congregation is to reach out to frustrated members of other churches.
It is so very simple, and it is such a serious temptation for every pastor and congregation. Any pastor can lead towards transfer growth because the people are ripe for the picking and easy to lure in with comparison tactics. I can fight the church consumerism battle in my flesh but I cannot bring the dead back to life.
Maybe that’s why we focus on transfer growth – it’s something we can do in our own power.
Will I Be a Part of the Solution?
Are you willing to be sent to do the work of the Lord (Isa. 6:8)? This task needs more workers (Matt. 9:37-38). Wisdom is founding the one who is investing in souls (Prov. 11:30).
We have been told to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19) by preaching the good news (Acts 8:12) with the power given by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). The work of evangelism is a serious work of the ministry (1 Tim. 4:5), but Christ has promised that he will bring his sheep into the flock (John 10:16). For a non-Christian to become a Christian, they must first hear the gospel from someone who speaks the gospel (Rom. 10:11-15). Evangelism is even a way that God uses for our own discipleship (Philemon 6).
I can’t change the revolving door of church hoppers in our day, but I can change with whom I am being intentional.
If all of our church growth is actual transfer growth built upon people getting mad about one thing there only to find it over here, we are not growing. I am fearful that much of our apparent growth is nothing more than reshuffling the deck.
There’s an easy way to check how your church is doing: look back over the recent years’ records of baptisms and new members to see how many are transfers and how many are converts. It might be encouraging or it might be alarming. Regardless of how well your church is doing, there is still work to be done! The fields are ripe for harvest (John 4:35).
Let us all evangelize those who don’t have the gospel based upon our great affection for them (1 Thess. 2:8) and see real Church growth take place in our time (Acts 2:47).
Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Distinctive Discipleship. He is married to Amanda and the father of two sons and one daughter. Travis graduated from North Greenville University with a B.A. in Christian Studies and earned his M.Div. and D.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, with his doctoral focus on family discipleship.