Only 10% of our current church plants in Louisiana have broken the 125 Growth Barrier. Actually, 82% of all evangelical churches in Louisiana are under 125 in attendance. Here’s a great podcast on how to break through at NewChurches.com.
- “Getting past the 125 barrier requires a systems mindset.”
- “To break the 125 barrier, you need 5-10 leaders, and 4-5 leaders of leaders.”
- “Protect your time with the leaders and the lost.”
- “What are the things that only you can uniquely do?”
- “Why do must churches stay small? Largely because most pastors don’t know how to build systems, structures, and processes that are not contingent upon them. Most pastors can care for people, but don’t build systems of care. Most pastors can develop leaders individually, but lack the skill to implement a process of leadership development. When a pastor can’t build systems and structures that support ministry, the only people who are cared for or empowered to lead are those who are “near” the pastor or those very close to the pastor. This limits the size of the church to the size of the pastor.” – Darrin Patrick
A lot has been said & will be said about the recent Pew Report on Religion in America, but it confirms the premise behind the book The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated by James Emery White. I posted one of my best take aways from the book earlier. It also makes the book that much more important for the church leader that’s serious about reaching the unreached in our day. Here’s a few quotes from the book that have stuck with me:
- The nones now make up the nation’s fastest growing and second largest religious category.
- this trend is only an American phenomenon, not a global one.
- The nones are NOT made up of seekers who are looking for a spiritual home but simply haven’t found it yet
- Until we think about conversion growth as the way to grow our churches, we won’t make a dent in the fastest growing religious demographic of our day.
- Most churches have as their primary focus reaching and then serving the already convinced. So the mission isn’t making disciples but rather caring for them.
- When it comes to evangelism, the efforts of the church need to be like an incubator. Every approach, every program, every service furnishes a particular environment that will either serve the evangelistic process or hinder it.
- Church is often like “a fishing expedition in which people put bait on a hook, place it in the middle of the boat’s deck, and then join hands to pray for the fish to jump in and grab the hook.”
- If you are going to reach the nones, they are going to come to you as a none. That means they will come as couples living together, as gay couples, pregnant outside of marriage, addicted, skeptical.
- If nones ever come to your church uninvited, it will probably be for the sake of their kids.
- This is no time for cross-town church competitions for transfer growth and then patting ourselves on the back for reaching the already convinced as if we somehow made a dent in hell.
- This is no time to cave to spiritual narcissism, in which the primary concern is whether people are fed, are ministered to, or “get anything out of the worship experience,” as though the mission is caring for believers as consumers instead of dying to ourselves to reach a lost world.
Many churches are experiencing dwindling numbers, changing communities, & the need for drastic change. Sometimes the picture gets so dim that the remaining faithful are forced to make hard decisions about the future of their church. Here’s a spectrum of scenarios that can bear fruit for the kingdom when a church can’t go on as it is.
1. Closing the Doors, for Now
All living things have life cycles & we should not see churches as an exception. Closing the doors of the church often is seen as a failure, but it shouldn’t be. In reality, it’s having the courage to recognize that the life cycle of the current ministry has run its course & it’s time for God to use His kingdom resources in a different way. And remember, God sees death differently than we do (Psalm 116:15; John 12:24). With God, death is never final. And when a church decides to close the doors, the resources will be utilized to birth something new and the legacy of the former members who made that hard decision will be alive forever. This may be the best scenario for a church if the area has experienced considerable population decline & the location may no longer be viable for a church.
2. Replanting the Church
Planting a new church is an exciting venture that begins with a church planter & a core group or launch team seeking God’s will & dreaming of reaching new people for Christ & then designing ministry with the community in mind. So replanting would mean taking a step back to core group or launch team phase & re-dreaming & redesigning with a fresh look at how to reach the community. Most likely, one of the reasons for the decline of the church is the lack of fresh vision & ideas for reaching the lost. As church plants often begin with a sending or sponsoring church & infused resources from the denomination & association, there may be opportunity for a replant to develop these partnerships as well. This may be the best scenario for a church that still has some financial means & people who are willing & able to restore the systems of the church with the help of partners.
3. Merging with a Healthy Congregation
The scenario that is gaining the quickest turnarounds in Louisiana is the merger of a declining church with a healthy, growing congregation. In this scenario, the church in decline essentially gifts its building(s), assets, & autonomy to the growing congregation, who then multiplies their healthy DNA & church systems onto the property. We’ve seen churches with a dozen attenders reaching hundreds within one year as a result of a congregational merger. And, in many cases, remaining members of the declining congregation stay on, faithfully serve, & enjoy seeing the fruits of their giving & sacrifices over the years, increased in fruitful ministry to new generations. Without a doubt, the decision to move your church toward drastic changes like these will not be easy. Don’t think of it as the end, but as the decision to extend the influence & legacy of your church for future generations. How do we begin the process:
- Pray & ask God for wisdom & direction as you seek what’s best for the future of your church & the community.
- Contact your local Director of Missions for help with next steps, legal issues, & potential partners.
Check out some of my other posts that may help on your revitalization journey:
- Do We Need A Church Revitalization Plan?
- Tools for Revitalization: Church Systems Analysis
- Scenarios for Church Revitalization: Diagnosis
- Scenarios for Church Revitalization: Restructure or Restart
- Scenarios for Church Revitalization: Refocus and Re-Energize
- The Solution for Church Health and Revitalization
- 5 Attributes of a Church in Decline
- Revitalization Story: The Grove
- Church Revitalization: Merging & Multisite
Recently read a great book called The Rise of the Nones by James Emery White. It’s about the fastest growing religious affiliation in the U.S., which is the NON-affiliated. In St. Tammany Parish, where I live, best research shows that we have 116,000+ in that number (http://ow.ly/Ll3D0) or about 50% of our population. And in Louisiana, best research indicates that at least 1.8 million people are in that number.
As Christians, this is an UBER important thing for us to consider, since our mission from Jesus is “to seek & save the lost.”
White talks about how most churches that grow, grow by BIOLOGICAL (natural family growth) or by TRANSFER (Christians swapping churches) or by PRODIGAL growth (Church goers returning to church after years away) & NOT by CONVERSION (reaching nonbelievers with the Gospel). And he says there are 6 kinds of churches in regard to the Nones:
- Hostile – openly antagonistic toward the nones who venture in.
- Indifferent – not hostile, but apathetic and unwilling to answer the nones’ questions.
- Hopeful – want to see the nones reached for Christ, but unwilling to change their environment to do so.
- Sensitive – want to reach the nones for Christ, willing to change their environment, but still primarily catering to the already convinced.
- Targeted – high priority placed on the needs of the nones and make every effort to remove all barriers that made impede their exploring life in Christ.
No Man’s Land – not being targeted enough to reach the unchurched, but being too targeted to the unchurched for the churched.
A few questions:
- Where would you say your church is on this list?
- How many none’s do you know?
- What do you think it would take for a church to reach them?
Got to hear Church Growth & Revitalization guru Gary McIntosh share some wisdom at last week’s Louisiana Baptist Convention Evangelism Conference in Shreveport. Gary likened church to Newton’s first law of motion: A body at rest tends to stay at rest, unless… A body at motion, tends to stay in motion, unless… It’s a good challenge for churches to be intentional & here’s some things that Dr. McIntosh believes that growing churches intentionally do to get or stay moving toward growth:
7 Best Practices of Churches in Motion:
- Put a greater emphasis on prayer.
- Teach & preach the Bible with authority. Preach it & live it!
- Define reality for the church & community.
- Take responsibility for making disciples.
- Make hard decisions. (i.e. Closing ineffective ministries, let staff go, realign finances, dealing w/sine, etc.)
- Refocus ministry on the unchurched in the community.
- Start new ministries.
Simple list of things that can be acted upon this week.
Check out some of Dr. McIntosh’s helpful books on Church Growth & Health & Revitalization here.
Transfer Growth is the term church leaders use when members swap churches. It’s not the preferred method of church growth, but accepted as part of ministry in our “church of your choice” culture. This topic makes for a lot of hallway conversation at Pastor’s conferences & is brought up as issues of concern for pastors in regard to church planting & revitalization efforts. I’ve written about the Transfer Growth Boogie Monster & its implications for church multiplication. There ARE good reasons for Christians to transfer, i.e. moving to a new community, being led by the Spirit to connect with another church’s mission, or being sent out by a church to start something new. And bad reasons: “I’m not getting fed”, difficulty in relationships, “they’re too judgemental” – i.e. the church confronted my sin, wanting to disconnect from responsibility to serve. Here are some of the issues that transfer growth creates and has created for the church:
- Designing ministries for Christians. As church leaders, it’s easy to strategize & plan either out of fear that people might leave for another church, or in hopes that Christians will notice our church & jump on. So, instead of equipping/releasing people for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12) & focusing on the needs of the unchurched culture, we slowly begin trying to hold onto or attract people by giving them what we think they want.
- Low Commitment, Disposable Relationships. Our low commitment culture has crept into the church & produced shallow relationships that are disposable after one difficult conversation or awkward moment. We grow spiritually & relationally through such conversations & moments. Without them, shallow, superficial, non-confessional faith could result. Seen this in church lately? How can we teach that commitment to Christ & a community of followers, not a cooler church with more going on is the pathway to spiritual growth?
- Greener grass thinking. Today, we have people that have transfered two to three times and found the same issues at every place and have given up completely on church. What if leaders could have used it as an opportunity to teach about commitment, that relationships are tough & messy everywhere & that God wants to use these issues to shape & form us? Grass gets green because you water & fertilize it. In church that means commit to Christ, obey his word, & do it with others – consistently.
- The appearance of success. Churches growing by transfer growth appear successful & can be the envy of ministry circles, but the real measure is the influence on the community. Only allowing the gospel to infuse the cultural context & change indigenous unreached people will result in a transformed city. What difference does it make if our church grows, but the community around us remains the same?
How can we fulfill the Great Commission, teach people to honor commitments, be a unified church in our cities, and make room for those swapping churches? A few ideas from a sojourner:
- Develop a vision for expanding the kingdom, not growing one church. When your church grows by transfer growth it may be at the expense of another church. If that church is small, big holes may be left to fill. How does that help the kingdom? Can I help that Pastor? Should I hold these people accountable to fill the commitment they made at the church? I heard Bob Roberts say years ago, “What’s good for my church numerically is not always best for the kingdom, but what’s best for the kingdom is always best for my church.” I think that applies well to transfer growth.
- Get to know other pastors in the area. When people know that you’re not in competition with Pastor ____ & that you actually like him, want to see him succeed, & intend to honor him at every turn (Romans 12:10), you will help them get a vision for the kingdom & release any ill will they may have. Especially those who are coming with an axe to grind. I learned pretty quick in ministry that when someone comes to my church with an axe in the back of a pastor down the street, it won’t take long for that axe to be in my back. If you ARE in competition with Pastor ____, REPENT, & get a kingdom mindset, then invite an area pastor or two to lunch or join or start a network of ministry leaders working for the good of the region.
- Assuming you have intentional process for developing members – When people are transferring ask, “Have you talked with your current pastor about this?” If we believe that church membership is a spiritual decision, then God will confirm it. Encourage them to talk with their current pastor about how God is leading them. This is a another way to honor our brothers in arms pastoring other congregations in our area. It also communicates that this is a serious decision & that you’re more interested in spiritual growth than gaining another satisfied consumer of your particular religious goods & services.
- Assuming you have intentional process for developing members – When people are transferring ask, “Have you made any pledges or commitments that you need to honor or be released from at your current church?” If we believe that church membership is a spiritual decision, and if we believe what scripture says about commitment (Proverbs 20:25; Ecclesiastes 5:4-6), this is a great question to ask of transfers. Especially if churches in your area are in the middle of building or capital campaigns. Pastors, we have little right to complain about lack of commitment in our congregants, if we welcomed them in at the expense of their commitments to another congregation.
- “…do the work of the evangelist…” 2 Timothy 4:5. The evangelist is concerned about growing the flock from those outside of it. And that’s what we must do to turn the tide of decline in Western Christianity. In their book On the Verge, Dave Ferguson & Alan Hirsch, outline the strategic problem facing the church in North America. “The majority of churches in the US are using a model of church designed to reach 40% of the population. This leaves around 60% outside the reach of the church.” Simply put, we’re all fishing in the same pond. We need churches that design ministries for the 60%. Churches that will step out of the church of your choice circle of influence & send people to the hard places, to have hard conversations with people who have little inclination to be impressed by our music, programs, building design, or clever sermon outlines. Churches that won’t be as concerned about size as they are about reach into the unchurched community. Churches that see the opportunity to take mission trips into their communities just as they do into foreign countries. Churches that will ask “Where is the church not?” & go there until the gospel message has been heard by all.
Not all transfer growth is bad or bad for the kingdom. But my desire is for commitment, honor, evangelism, kingdom growth, community transformation to take precedence over a bigger crowd at my church next Sunday.
What are other issues created by Transfer Growth? What do you do as a ministry leader to disciple transfers? Does this matter at all?