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?
An assumption of many pastors about church planting in North America is that new churches just draw people from other churches. Underlying that assumption is the fear that the new church in town is going to do harm to my success and take “MY people.” So, as a strategist I seem to spend a lot of my time talking to Pastors about the potential negative impact of church planting on their church and the SCARY notion that the transfer growth boogie monster will jump out of the closet and get us all if we plant new churches.
And, unfortunately, some church plants have earned this reputation, proving this assumption true, and done harm to church multiplication efforts in several ways. To that I say: SHAME ON THEM!!!
Church planting is about evangelism that leads to a new church, NOT let’s create a better experience than all the other churches and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when their members pile up in our chairs and put their money in our plate. I heard of one church recently that had “lost” 800 people to a new church with a livelier experience on Sunday morning creating a financial hardship for the church. I heard of another church that intentionally targeted people from other churches because they were people of influence in the community and “God wants our church to be filled with influencers.”
JD Payne has written a great piece called Ethical Guidelines for Church Planters and challenges church planters to “not prioritize transfer growth by designing ministries that will primarily attract believers” and to “have a systematic plan to respond to the transfers who want to become part of the new church.” Here’s some of Payne’s comments:
On planting as Kingdom expansion not just church growth:
Church planting is not about attracting a crowd or launching a worship service, but rather it is about the advancement of the Kingdom as unbelievers become followers of the living God through local expressions of the Body of Christ. Though crowd attraction and starting a new worship service are not necessarily bad things, their manifestations, however, do not necessarily mean the Kingdom has advanced. In many cases, such events actually attract large numbers of Kingdom Citizens. For church planters to settle for large numbers of transfer growth is not the way of the Apostolic Church.
On the dangers of transfer growth to the church planting initiative:
Even for the church planters who are doing everything possible to discourage transfer growth, they will encounter it. Particularly in the North American context, members of other churches will be interested in the new work. Some of these brothers and sisters will have a genuine desire to serve in a new work. Others, however, will be of the massive consumerist crowd looking for the most novel thing in town. These “new-experience Christians” will remain as long as their desires are met. Like parasites on a living organism, they participate to take, until they get their fill or until something else comes along to satisfy their desires. Rather, than understanding who they are in Christ, and their place in the work of the ministry (Eph 4:12), they believe that following Christ is an individualistic, self-gratifying, desire-meeting experience void of biblical koinonia.
On the ethics of transfer growth:
Regardless of the motivation behind any local church members wanting to be a part of the new work, it is unethical for a church planting team (and the new churches) to receive them as members without regard for their local church family in which they are presently involved in a covenant relationship.
What process should be in place? Payne says the church planter should find out what evangelical church the person is a member of and why they desire to leave that fellowship. Second, contact that pastor to inquire why they would want to leave. Third, only allow them to join after discouraging them from leaving their church and asking them to get the pastors blessing that this move is a prompting from God. I’ve added a third question to my on process: “Have you made pledges to that church?” When churches are in capital campaigns, etc. they ask people to make pledges and this is seen as a spiritual commitment. So we challenge people to fulfill their pledge or be released from it. See Ecclesiastes 5:5.
Dr. Payne’s concerns for a code of ethics for church planters are worth noting:
In the face of great spiritual opposition and ministerial challenges, church planters are many times faced with the temptation to accomplish something good for the Kingdom at the sacrifice of something great for the Kingdom. Faced with funding resources that diminish over time, lack of receptivity of people to the Gospel, the pressures to start a worship service and produce certain numbers at a worship gathering, many times leads missionaries down a path that deviates from biblically based and missiological guided church multiplication strategies.
…such as settling for and designing ministries to attract Christians and not penetrate the majority of unreached people in North America and beyond.
In Part two, I’ll ask a few question of pastors and ministry leaders on the other side of this, who are poopooing on the whole notion of church planting and multiplication in fear of the great Transfer Growth Boogie Monster.
Also check out the post entitled Commitment, Honor, & Transfer Growth that spells out a few ethical guidelines for ministry leaders to consider.